Monday, June 15, 2009

The Spirit of Pixar’s UP

With love's light wings did I o'er-perch these walls;
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do that dares love attempt;
- Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

This is very hard for me. I am writing a review of UP, the new PIxar movie. It’s hard because I simultaneously loved and was disappointed by this movie. The other thing that makes it hard is that UP has some very strong personal connections for me.

[I suggest watching the movie before reading this review. Not because I give away the story line (I don’t get much into the details of the story), but because my discussion of the symbolism won’t make much sense without the context of the movie. And even though I dwell on the more somber aspects of the movie, I want to let you know that this is the funniest movie I have seen in a long time.]

UP and me

From the very opening scenes of UP I felt a very strong connection. It opens with an old newsreel of explorer Charles Muntz traveling to Paradise Falls where he discovers the skeleton of a dinosaur like creature. Of course there is no Charles Muntz in real life, but Paradise Falls can be none other than the real life Angel Falls. And that is my first connection. You see, as I whispered to everyone seated around me, “I’ve been there”. I’ve been to the real life Angel Falls. And just as it symbolized paradise to the main characters in UP, it also symbolized paradise for me.

The next connection for me came as our young protagonists Carl and Ellie grow older - and finally Ellie dies. And Carl is left alone. For me the similarity is in my divorce and my growing older. I’ve felt Carl’s loneliness and is desire to shut himself away from the world.

Then the young Wilderness Scout, Russell, appears one day at Carls doorstep. And immediately I made another connection, because this young child (played by Jordan Nagai) has an uncanny resemblance to a nephew of mine. They are both asian and they both have this infectious enthusiasm and boundless youthful energy. But the most striking similarity of all is the voice. The slight asian accent and the rise and fall of the pitch of their voices is identical. The similarity is so strong that the whole time through the movie I couldn’t get over the feeling that this was the voice of my nephew speaking through this animated character.

Despite all of that, I did not leave the theatre with the feeling that I really loved this film. In fact I felt slightly disappointed. And it took me a while to figure out exactly why. The obvious reason is that I was comparing it with WALL-E and for me it had not measured up - mostly because I felt it lacked depth of meaning. But after a day of pondering on the film and reading many online reviews, I have begun to change my opinion.

Dazzle me please

One complaint I had was that the animation did not compare with what I had seen in previous Pixar films. And I was not blown away by the 3D effect as I had expected to be. In fact the animation seemed flatter and less 3-dimensional than in previous Pixar films. I was disappointed that Pixar had not chosen to push the limits of computer animation as they had in their previous films. In fact that is what made the Pixar studios famous. Their first film, Toy Story, was the first full length animation film produced solely on computer. And with each film they have pushed the technology. But in UP there is almost like a step backward technologically if you ignore the 3D effect.

And 3D comes with a price, because it substantially reduces the brightness of the image. For me this negated the positive effect of 3D. It almost makes me think that the film would have been more visually stunning and beautiful in 2D. After reading many comments from the creators of the film it becomes clear that they made use of color to help tell the story, and unfortunately the color is muted by the 3D glasses. And after a while the 3D effect wears off psychologically speaking, while color I think has a more lasting psychological impact. That’s interesting, because one of the main reasons I was so excited about seeing this film is the 3D technology.

I wish Disney and Pixar would release their films in IMAX format. The most impressive animated film I ever saw from a purely visual experience was Happy Feet because I saw it on a IMAX screen. The amount of visual detail and color jumping off the screen was just astounding. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Pixar has any immediate plans of doing an IMAX film, but Disney does seem to have struck some sort of deal with them so who knows what the future will bring.

Slow down

So that brings us to what was missing in the story that caused me to feel that it lacked depth. Of course comparing any movie - animated or not - with WALL-E is going to be tough, because to me WALL-E is one of the best films ever. And after pondering on the subject for a long while, I think I finally figured out why UP doesn’t quite have the same impact that WALL-E had. For me the difference is that WALL-E had a slower, more majestic pace. There were many golden moments when the viewer was allowed to just drink in the awesome magnificence of the world which WALL-E inhabited. Even when some of those scenes were of piles of trash, still the trash was of such a monumental scale that it had a magnificence all its own.

And with these slow lingering shots, the viewer was able to catch up with his thoughts and reflect on the meaning of the events he was witnessing. For me this conscious thought stream is critical for being able to make a strong and deep connection with the essence of the movie. I would compare it with the use of the “rest” in music. Music doesn’t just consist of notes, it also consists of moments of silence called a “rest”. As a young boy when I was learning to play the violin, I just could not grasp the concept of a rest. And I think even adult musicians at times fail to grasp the importance of those brief moments of silence. They not only can add to a musical composition’s sense of rhythm, but they can also allow the music to breathe and therefore come to life. You wouldn’t want to listen to someone speak who never took a breath. We need those breaks in speech to be able to process what is being said to us.

And that is what I think was lacking from UP. Through most of the movie, the pace was too frenetic. The dialogue jumped from one funny line to the next. And though I found myself laughing and enjoying the moment, I never had the time to really savor it. It’s like gulping down a gourmet meal. Afterwards, you wouldn’t feel like you really enjoyed the experience as much as you would have liked to.

But in the case of a movie the pace is force fed on the viewer. And in the case of UP the force feeding was too fast for my taste. Perhaps for a younger audience this pace is quite satisfactory, I wouldn’t know. But I suspect that even the small children in the audience would have benefitted from a slower overall pace, and especially occasional pauses in the flow of the movie to let them catch their breath and truly appreciate what they were witnessing.

The Spirit of UP

So now that I’m done with my criticisms of the movie, I want to tell you about all the things that I found intriguing about this movie - both from reading about the movie online and by just thinking deeply about the movie.

How fares my Juliet? that I ask again;
For nothing can be ill, if she be well.
Then she is well, and nothing can be ill:
Her body sleeps in Capel's monument,
And her immortal part with angels lives.
I saw her laid low in her kindred's vault,
And presently took post to tell it you:
O, pardon me for bringing these ill news,
Since you did leave it for my office, sir.
Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!
- Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Ellie’s spirit

I slowly realized that UP is really a deeply spiritual love story and is powered by Ellie’s spirit. Even though Ellie passes away early in the movie, it is her dream that inspires Carl to make the journey to Paradise Falls. That part is obvious and takes little analysis. But when I pondered on this some more it occurred to me that for Carl, Ellie was still alive in the house and that the house came to represent Ellie for him. It was after all in the same house that he had first met Ellie. At the time it was abandoned and she was using it as a clubhouse for her Adventurer’s club. So you could say that the two of them adopted the house, and it came to be almost like an offspring for the childless couple.

Then there are the balloons. Again there is a spiritual representation. Balloons when filled with helium can float in the air - like angels. For a young child, a balloon has almost a magical quality. In the very first scene we see Carl with a balloon. And it plays a part in his chance friendship with Ellie. His first adventure occurs when Ellie encourages him to recover his balloon. This ends in him falling from a plank and causes him to end up in the hospital. This perhaps represents a courtship ritual. By doing this Carl convinces Ellie that he will take any risk at her request. And he never complains to her that it was her fault.

In this way we see Carl transformed into Ellie’s Romeo and her knight in shining armor. The two of them realize that they have found their soulmates. And they really do live happily ever after. And then Ellie passes away. This of course is the saddest moment in the movie. It is done so tenderly in UP. Carl must have all those thoughts about where the soul goes after death, but this is not an overtly religious movie. But then again as I have said, it is a deeply spiritual movie.

Carl’s spirit

Carl is left alone and left with the question, “what do I do now that the love of my life has passed away and I am left old and all alone?” And this is where the story really begins. Not exactly a promising start for what’s supposed to be a kid’s film - with the twin themes of death and old age.

If left to his own devices, Carl would have just shut himself up in his house that he shared for so many years with Ellie and spent his last years in lonely solitude. But the world encroaches and Carl is at the point of being forced to move into a retirement home, which makes him come up with the outrageous solution which gives this movie its title. He decides to go UP! And the next thing we know the house is flying out of sight (and out of site).

And here we have the reappearance of the balloons. This time I feel like the balloons somehow represent Ellie’s spirit - lifting Carl up from his depression and carrying him up into the heavens. And Ellie’s spirit is very strong - strong enough to lift the house in the air and guide it to their dream Paradise. It is like an Adam and Eve story in reverse - instead of leaving the Garden of Eden, Carl and Ellie are coming to the their earthly Paradise.

The Spirit of Adventure

As a child Ellie played in the house and in her imagination the house became a flying airship with her at the helm. Now Carl using Ellie’s dream as an inspiration and through his own ingenuity has magically transformed the house. Ellie’s spirit had created the dream, and Carl’s spirit had given that dream life. And at the source of it all was the “spirit of adventure”.

Sometimes we don’t think about the words and phrases that we use daily. Why “spirit” of adventure? What do we mean in this context by the word spirit? Is it a ghost? No, but like a ghost it is invisible. Perhaps the director, Pete Docter, who describes himself as a Christian was thinking of the Holy Spirit.

I had my first inkling that this was a Christian film when Ellie asked Carl to “cross your heart”. It was not lost upon me that the cross symbolizes Christ. While the film is not deeply infused with Christian symbols, it seems that the movie is like a series of intertwined parables. Docter seems to be following in the footsteps of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” in creating a myth that speaks indirectly of Christianity. I’m convinced that everything in this film has a symbolic meaning with biblical roots.

The adventure begins... and my review ends

As the house rises UP into the heavens, Carl becomes transformed into a sort of modern day Don Quixote. Director Pete Docter describes UP in an interview as a sort of “coming-of-old-age story”. Carl’s story is not over in his old age, in some ways it is just beginning. And what is Don Quixote without Sancho Panza? So of course a short and round companion appears in the form of Russell who has accidentally stowed away on the house now transformed into an airship. And it is no mystery that Carl’s Dulcinea is in fact Ellie. Instead of a sword, Carl carries a cane.

Here again the story seems to be running in reverse, because Carl has already found his Dulcinea. And while Don Quixote battled enemies that his imagination created, Carl gets to battle real enemies. Carl embodies all the finest traits of the medieval knights that inspired Don Quixote. He displays all the characteristics of a “caballero”, which is the Spanish word for gentleman. And just as Don Quixote battled sorcerers, Carl faces the seemingly magical powers of his former hero Charles Muntz.

Carl’s quest is a simple one - to deliver his house to the plateau next to Paradise Falls. If he can only do this, he feels he will have kept the promise he made to Ellie - the love of his life. Remember that he “crossed his heart” and just as the Crusaders went on their quest with the symbol of the cross, so too did Carl.

Like Shakespeare’s Romeo, Carl tries to win the heart of his one true love. But again the story is running in reverse, because his Juliet - Ellie - has already passed away. Instead he defies fate and takes to the air to bring his Juliet - represented by their house - to her final resting place.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Carl awakes and finds himself in the land of his dreams - over the rainbow and above the clouds. And like Dorothy he must traverse the magical kingdom in order to reach his goal. Carl travels to this magical world in a house just like Dorothy, but rather than crashing down his house is suspended above him. And like Dorothy, he has three companions that he finds along the way - Russell the boy, Kevin the bird, and Dug the Dog.

But all the analogies fail, because this is a new story. Perhaps it will become a classic in time. In the end Carl learns that Ellie’s spirit resides not in the house which he has converted into a temple of worship to the spirit of his dead wife, but in his own heart. Like the toy balloon he had as a child, he his holding on to the string of the past. Finally by letting go, he is able to appreciate the beauty of his own simple life with Ellie. And by letting go of the past, he is also freed to start a new life and to form new relationships with Russell, Dug and Kevin.

I don’t have much more insight into this modern day fairy tale. Go watch it - laugh, cry. And after the credits roll, take some time to ponder what you have just seen. Perhaps there is more to this whimsical story than meets the eye.



Anonymous said...

Dude ... Wall-E sucked. It was by far the worst Pixar film ever.

Thank goodness you're toiling in obscurity on this blog that no one reads, because you clearly don't know squat about movies.

Up was a beautiful, touching, heartwarming, exciting, funny, engaging, inventive, clever film ... one of the best movies I've ever seen.

Wall-E was like sitting through a 90 minute Greenpeace lecture. Dull as paint.

Get a clue.

Frank Hope said...


On the bright side, at least you read the review and were motivated to write a comment. And I'm glad you liked UP. I know this is the internet and your posting anonymously, but you could use some work on your personal skills.

As for WALL-E being dull, I certainly could see how you could come to that conclusion. Everyone has different tastes. But the fact that WALL-E received the Oscar for Best Animated Film suggests that not everyone agrees with your personal opinion.

If you would like to read my review of WALL-E, it's available at:
WALL•E: A post-Fascist Utopia

Cheers. And dude, lighten up.

Mary DS said...

I just watched this movie at the constant request of my daughter, 16. After seeing the movie, I thanked her for continuing to remind me to watch it. I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that I went online to read about what others have found in it.
Well, I thank you for your very striking words about this movie and your heartfelt and honest thoughts. What a nice piece to read after being touched so much by this movie.

Frank Hope said...


What a wonderful blessing to wake up and read your generous comment.

Recently I have found myself with another odd connection to UP as construction of new houses has been taking place behind my own home. The old trees which I used to gaze on from my backyard - which must have been 50 or more years old - were all torn down and "chipped up" in a matter of a few days. It's so much easier and quicker to destroy and demolish the things we love than it is to nurture and build them up. I felt especially sorry for the birds who - returning from their winter migration - would feel a sense of loss and confusion.

I hope that through this shared experience with your 16 year old daughter that you were able to create a new bond of trust and love. She knows you better than perhaps you realize.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to be one of those old people who move into a 55 and over community and turn inward, focusing all their energy on themselves and their ever shrinking world, until they shrivel away, bitter and disillusioned. UP is an amazing, inspiring movie. Your blog helped me realize what I liked so much about it. Thinking of having a group of friends over to watch it and looking for some talking points about the obvious spiritual content when I stumbled onto your post. (Not so obscure :-)

Frank Hope said...

@anonymous - Thanks for that very positive comment. I hope you'll come back and leave another comment after you and your friends have a chance to discuss more about the spiritual aspects of the movie. I've tried to come up with a coherent way of understanding the latter part of the movie where Carl and Muntz face off. Muntz is definitely a diabolical character who in the end is thrown out from "Heaven" and goes crashing to earth. Does that make Carl a God figure? Or perhaps a Moses figure?

Kevin is I think the only thing left from this "garden of Eden" which is why Muntz is out to destroy it/her. Does she also represent the Holy Spirit? Does that make Russell a "Son" figure completing the trinity?

Do the dogs represent the race of man which are created in the image of God but unable to communicate directly with God? Dug is the first one to be "converted" so does he represent Simon Peter, the first Pope.

Am I overanalyzing and reaching for something that isn't there? Definitely. I just can't get the last part of the story to fit in with any Biblical stories that I know, but somehow I feel it's there. I have a feeling that there must be some parable from Jesus that would fit nicely here, but I can't seem to find it.

Which is why I stuck to analyzing mostly the first part of the story of UP in my review. The very title of UP seems to be pointing towards the Heavens and a spiritual connection, but it's done in a subtle manner. I suppose it would be nice if the presence of God and Jesus were made a little more explicit. Docter certainly does not hide his Christianity in his interviews. I wish he could do the same thing in his movies