There are elements of story, structure and general film making concepts that are universally heralded or criticized. Conflict is good, artificial dialogue is bad. Character development is good, cliche is bad. And so it goes. But there are also enumerable aspects of a film which can’t truly be judged in the same way. Special effects come to mind as something that can at once be either terribly off-putting or the outstanding piece of the puzzle. Similarly, an adaptation can fill seats or turn viewers off based solely on it’s faithfulness to the original material. With Up, this dilemma presents itself in the form of sentimentality. There’s no lack of emotional resonance here, no shortage of moments that bring a visceral response…that is, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Up starts with a love story in it’s entirety. We witness as the hopelessly young Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) meets Ellie, the girl who will become the love of his life. Their first moments together spell out their odd couple perfection and then quickly we jump into a montage of life. They get married, they start a home, they share the grief of infertility and then he rescues her with dreams of adventure. As the dream is sidetracked over and over, we see them age comfortably and share their lives together, and then, just minutes from the opening title, Carl loses his love. This is a transcendent moment and speaks precisely to what might divide audiences. It requires a wholehearted investment in these characters whose names you just learned. It requires empathy and most importantly it requires of the viewer an abundance of sentimentality. Though that requisite of empathy peaks here, it doesn’t end. As Carl makes a promise to Ellie that he will take their home to Paradise Falls, the destination they longed to reach together, and turns that house into a kaleidoscopic flying machine, taking with him along the way the young Russell, Dug the talking Dog, and Kevin the chocolate-loving bird, his adventure becomes entirely wrapped up in sentimentality. Though there are plenty of real world snags, the chief conflict for Carl is whether he will get past this emotional disaster or succumb to it. Can a man who’s lived nearly his whole life with the love of his soul mate find his place now that she’s gone?
Up is mostly a great Disney/Pixar film, blending adventure and colorful action with friendship and loyalty and all the other morality they so cleverly instill in their films. More than that though, it’s a story about getting old. What’s lost when you lose everything? What’s gained? Can people change? If it’s the love of another that sustains us, what then can we do when she is lost? These are heavy, hearty questions and more than likely they fly right over the heads of the kids in the audience. But the notion that a “kid’s movie” can contain these kind of human inquiries, without weighing down the whole experience is truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, Up banks on the viewer feeling something, and it’s not inconceivable that that could be asking too much. It’s impossible to predict what any given viewer wants from their experience and so Up may simply not be for everyone. For my part, the empathic and emotional and melodrama-loving audience member that I am, Up feels close to perfection. Its subtlety is masterful, its imagery is gorgeous, and its themes are universal. It’s a story that reminds us of the importance of love, but reminds us also that love is not the only thing worth fighting for.