The movie opens on Carl, a young boy in the 1930s, captivated by newsreels of famous explorer Charles Muntz. While on the way home from the movie theater on afternoon, he meets Ellie, a young girl who also dreams of discovering lost worlds like Muntz. They immediately become friends. We are then treated to a montage of the couple’s life through the decades as friendship grows to love and marriage. Their decades together are bittersweet. They buy a dilapidated home which they lovingly restore to their dream house. Although they try to save for a trip to the jungles of Venezuela, to where Muntz disappeared years earlier, the expenses of real life intrude all too often. We learn that they can’t have children, but their relationship never wavers. Although they have a great life together, they never get around to having that great adventure they always dreamed of. And then finally, Ellie passes away, leaving Carl alone in a house full of memories and their one unfulfilled lifelong dream.
After spending an indeterminate amount of time rattling around his home with only his memories and regrest to keep him company, Carl finally decides to head out and have that great adventure he always longed for. A former balloon salesman at the local zoo, he fortunately has all the material on hand to secure thousands of helium balloons to his house to make the trip. Joining him on the journey to South America is Russell, an overeager Explorer Scout and inadvertant stowaway. A storm forces the house down in the jungle where the unlikely pair discover that explorer Muntz is alive and still in pursuit of a rare bird to prove to the world that his previous discovery was not a hoax.
With today’s satellite mapping and GPS technology, it is hard to do a realistic “Lost World” story. But Up seems to effortlessly strike the right tone from the beginning, invoking 1930s pulpish adventure in the opening, expository newsreel. There are chases through the jungle, the discovery of a rare and exotic animal, zeppelins and a (quite literally) aerial dogfight. The action is exciting and the comic moments are perfect punctuation.
But the story is much more than a fun and exciting adventure yarn. Karl had the lifelong dream of adventure, but never had a chance to live it. Muntz lived that dream, but his life was consumed by it. Long thought lost by the civilized world, he has been driven more than just a little mad and obsessive over his decades in the jungle. The final confrontation between the two becomes not so much about capturing or protecting a rare bird as it is about two old men trying to determine if their life was worthwhile and held any meaning. It is a subtext that Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull only wished to touch upon.
With each new Pixar film, we can see the studio build on the foundation of what it has done before. Technical achievements such as more detailed cloth texturing and the like aside, Up uses two storytelling devices previously seen in other Pixar films, but honed to a sharper edge here.
Like the opening of The Incredibles, Up‘s opening newsreel introduces us to Muntz and sets up his backstory. Additionally, it helps us understand the roots of Carl’s dream of mapping the unmapped areas of the world. It also sets the feel of the adventure to come. The montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together feels like an expansion of portions of last summer’s Wall-E where long sections of story played out wordlessly. Here, the defining moments of the couple’s life together, both joyous and heart-rending, play out wordlessly, decades of happiness and sadness distilled down to a few short minutes of screen time. It is craftsmanship like this that makes Pixar’s films, and Up in particular, true films for the whole family and not like many other animated films, just something Mom and Dad sit and wince their way through with the kids.