Thoughts On: Up - The Spirit Of Adventure


Up - The Spirit Of Adventure

Thoughts On: Up (2009)

Having lost almost all that is dear to him in life, an elderly man decides to go on an adventure.

Up, as anyone could tell you, is one of Pixar's most touching films, but, it is also one of their most atypical. Firstly, Pixar rarely deals directly with adults and has only ever centred a narrative on someone above, and this is guessing, 40-years-old once. In such, there have been parental figures such as Marlin from Finding Nemo and Mike from Monsters Inc. - there is also WALL-E who is around 700-years-old (though, his naivety and the fact that he is a robot negates this quite a bit) - but, older figures have never truly taken centre stage. Whilst I don't think this is something that should be high on Pixar's priority list as they are making films, primarily, for children, it is interesting to see them utilise this approach in Up. Second to the character choices is, however, the use of violence in this film. We have seen death and destruction in many of Pixar's films. But, the sense of danger and malevolence captured by Up had been not matched by any other of Pixar's films to this date (The Good Dinosaur comes close). These two elements then leave Up as one of Pixar's most mature films - but, considering the emotional intensity of many scenes, this won't sound like an outlandish claim at all.

One of the most unique elements of Up that will go under many peoples' radars is the impressionistic projection of characters. When Pixar delve into fantasy with films such as A Bug's Life, Ratatouille and Monsters Inc, there has always remained a strong sense of realism. This means that, whilst Nemo doesn't look much like an actual clown fish, he very closely resembles one - and the same can be said for Remy in Ratatouille. Moreover, whilst the monsters and cars in Monsters Inc. and Cars are most abstract from reality, the realist elements of their worlds are pretty strong; look to the realism in Boo, or of the dimensions of the cars themselves. When we look to the character design in Up, however...

... realism clearly isn't the driving force. We see this exemplified best with Carl, his ears and his the shape of his face...

Straight lines and cubic inflections are used to reduce him, partially, to a caricature of a man - later an old man. This is clearly an attempt to bring his personality to life; not only is he a man, which is often defined by straighter lines in animation, but he comes from a conservative family. And this is of course in contrast to Ellie, who is a woman, but also comes from a slightly wilder background. These traits are put to screen perfectly with their marriage scene:

And this idea of impressionistic characterisation is solidified with the use of the chairs, which later become poignant symbols. Ellie's chair is, of course, define by curves whilst Carl's is cubic - just like their body/personality types.

This use of impressionism is so precious and significant in Up for many reasons. However, this is never really seen in other Pixar films, nor are aesthetics really approached like they are in Up and many of the best Disney films, which often have their own individual style. This has been an increasingly characteristic element of Pixar's films, and it is a little disheartening to see photorealism, as in shorts like Piper and the feature-length The Good Dinosaur, become an overt focus of the company. However, this subject of realism vs. fantasy is one we may return to at another time.

What I want to talk about with this film concerns one of the reasons why this is such a poignant and affecting movie. Much of this has to do with the brilliant score and the mentioned aesthetic choices, but, underlying this is the subtext of this narrative. Up, as simply as it can be put, is about loss and adventure as forces in life that provide meaning and its antithesis. I know the montage scene of Carl and Ellie's marriage has been talked about to no end - even used as an internet challenge of sorts to test if grown people can be made to cry - so, I won't focus on it too much. However, it's this masterful scene that establishes our mentioned ideas.

Ellie and Carl meet as little kids, and they have this joint dream of combining adventure with home. There is then conflict within the image of a house on Paradise Falls; the location represents remote isolation and a land that cannot be conquered, but the house is comfort, simplicity and, antithetical to an adventurer's challenge, homeliness. This conflict gives this image an intricate touch of innocence and naivety, and so encapsulates, in my opinion, the idea of a dream - Carl and Ellie's dream being the joining of these two contradicting ideas.

Dreams are, speaking frankly, silly and impractical things. After all, if we all wanted to be plumbers, builders, nurses, postal workers and parents (among other unspectacular things), the world would work pretty well. But, life as we like to think of it wouldn't exist if all of our dreams were so mundane. And this is obviously because people aren't entirely practical, or sensible, beings - and we certainly don't want to be; we need art, creativity, adventure, exploration, risk and dreams.

Childhood, which seeds this humanity, often leaves people with an idea of possibility; it is possible to walk on the moon, to break Michael Jordan's records, to become more famous and a better actor than Leonardo DeCaprio or Jennifer Lawrence, to be a writer, an artist, a filmmaker, an inventor... someone who changes the world. Believing in this vast possibility is not very practical, but it provides people with meaning. After all, meaning can be defined to be tantamount to significance and as the establishment of a place in this world that, if you were not there to fill it, the world--maybe just a handful of individuals--would be at a loss. This seems to be why there are dreams given to us, often by childhood: people want to be as significant as they can be by the time they leave this earth - to have a genuine funeral that as many people as possible earnestly attend.

Dreams, however, tend to be smashed and forgotten, and funerals can be lonely affairs. This is the crushing reality of the world, but let us not overlook the fact that things can be a lot more crushing. What if you never had a dream? Never had even one person earnestly attend your funeral?

With that said, the melancholic, dare I say, poeticism, of this film's opening act has been roughly outlined. So, having reached an impasse on a long and winding road, one that has not reached its end, Carl seems to be facing many existential questions.

Not only is he questioning what is to become of his lost joint-dream that he shared with his wife, but there seems to be an overwhelming insignificance hanging over Carl's head...

... and one of the main reasons for this is the fact that he couldn't have had any children.

As has been implied, the vast majority of people have dreams, but live average lives centred on family and work (which can both be precious and highly meaningful entities if managed well). Carl has had the work, but never the opportunity for family, thus, with Ellie gone, what more is there but a far-fetched dream?

That is a question that could be interpreted pessimistically or optimistically. Luckily, Carl doesn't assume that there is no reason to strive after dreams and so it is now his job to wait for death in a care home, instead, he sees that he has nothing to do other than strive for significance once again - just as he did with his well-managed marriage.

Carl's intended journey here is then a means to reconcile with himself and the loss of his wife; his symbolic gesture is both an apology and a farewell (possibly a greeting) to his wife. But, just as there was naivety in this image...

... as precious and as important as this innocence is, it had its faults and they still remain. What would Carl and Ellie do at this remote location? Would it be so homely? Would there be meaning, or would the dream reveal itself to be a silly one? There is certainly a possibility that it wouldn't have, however, what is Carl going to do here alone? There is no real mention of food, long-term supplies or even a return. It then seems that, instead of dying at the care home, Carl decides to die in a dream - which is a more poetic and meaningful form of passing away in your sleep. And this is quite obvious as he makes this journey whilst talking to Ellie as if she lives in the house; Carl seems to want to join her in death once he has brought her to Paradise Falls. There is one question Carl doesn't seem to ask himself, however: how happy would Ellie be to see him die this way?

There is an idea of the "Spirit of Adventure" in this film, and it is shown to be the concept of childhood and possibility that we have already discussed.

The "Spirit of Adventure", as we have discussed it, isn't predicated on rationality - and it is so in two distinct ways. Not only do dreams and ideas of adventure not take into account 'possibility' very well, but they also have no sense of the finite. As a result, dreams usually have no end, or rather, they are not a means to an end - which is why people often attribute their highest dreams to ideas of heaven and an eternal after life. Because dreams, much like adventures, are never really considered a means to an end (often because they are perceived as never-fully-attainable, or as goals that have to be perpetually preserved - like being the greatest anything; you have to defend your title), Carl seems to have lost an idea of the "Spirit of Adventure". The Spirit of Adventure is an immortal one, and Carl wants to see it whither into ashes by going to Paradise Falls only to die, not to establish a home.

As a result of this, Carl seems to be in need of revival; to be reminded of the Spirit of Adventure and of what his dreams actually were: he didn't want to be atop that waterfall alone, but with somebody. This revival comes in the form of...

... Russell. Russell, much like Carl, is a very interesting figure in respect to the idea of life having meaning. As far as I can gather, one assimilates meaning and significance through two avenues of action: responsibility and pleasure. Life is difficult, however, we would not want it to be a breeze (and so rife with endless pleasures), otherwise it becomes meaningless - consider the archetypal rich kid who has everything he could want, but nothing he really needs in life. What that archetype often finds out is that he/she needs responsibility as well as pleasure. These are the yin and yang that measure and keep in balance peoples' senses of meaning.

There still remains the question, however: how do we manifest both pleasure and responsibility into our lives. There seems to be three distinct ways: family, work and dreams. Work is often most-part responsibility, small-part pleasure (and this depends on how much you like your job). Family seems to be equal-parts pleasure and responsibility as, though most meaning can be found in relationships, they must be managed diligently. Thirdly, dreams seem to be most-part pleasure, small-part responsibility. Here we then have a spectrum and three planes on which people often organise their lives as to find meaning through their existence.

Returning to Carl and Russell, what we have here are two figures who have unstable dreams, and also come into conflict with both work and family. Russell's dreams seem to be attached, very much so, to a yearning for work and family. We see this through him being a scout; not only does he find meaning in this structure of adventure and responsibility, but it seems to be a way for him to cope with the absence of his father. This is why the final button is so important to Russell; it will not only be a stamp of many jobs well-done, but it is a chance for him to impress his father. However, much like Carl, Russell's dream has a fault as it lacks much of a future. After all, he wants his father to be there for him once, but will likely only be abandoned by him time and time again. And so it seems that Russell wants to 'die in a dream' (to have his dream be a means to an abrupt end), much like Carl - who also has no job (tangible responsibilities) anymore and, of course, no family to speak of.

These two characters then have holes, but will eventually discover that they can support one another:

However, before we get to this point, there is a lot of conflict in the form of Charles Muntz:

Charles is the final incredibly interesting character in this film - and is a caveat to all we have talked about concerning dreams, meaning, family and responsibility. Whilst most people have their dreams shattered and maybe forget them, and so instead find much of the meaning and responsibility that they seek in life through work and family, some people successfully manage to strive after their dreams. Charles is one of these people - or at least was for a while. He has no family, no real work; he is an adventurer with a dream. However, Charles is corrupt. His dream that he strives after is attached to a concept of significance that is material and, ultimately, insubstantial. He, much like Russell, then strives for a button:

Charles' dream is not only based on an abstract idea of a button and fans - which can possibly (though, how likely is hard to say) be meaningful - but it is devoid of family and a positive idea of responsibility. Thus, Charles, as to save his reputation, wants to capture the Snipe - and he does this with a fleet of dogs. What he is doing here is exploiting his 'family' irresponsibility...

... all whilst he attempts to destroy another family for his own gain:

The corruption that Charles thus represents in regards to the "Spirit of Adventure" is then quite clear; he strives for significance (popularity) without much meaning bolstering the position and whilst decimating the other pleasures and responsibilities of life for himself and others.

By coming into conflict with Charles, by saving Dug the dog, Russell and the Snipe called Kevin (interestingly named so by Russell who, raised by a single mother, probably amalgamates a male and female into one parental figure) Carl is not only finding a path towards meaningful adventure and virtue, but he is also confronting much of what he and his wife struggled to persevere in the face of throughout their whole life; a lack of family.

Once Charles is defeated, or is allowed to become his own downfall...

... Carl then fulfils, but simultaneously abandons, his dream. However, to understand this, we must firstly emphasise what causes Charles' downfall:

We have briefly discussed the symbol of the balloon before with the film The Red Balloon (which serves as a nice companion to Up, so I would certainly recommend you see this film). Balloons signify intermittent joy for children - and, much like dreams, they have a tendency to pop or float away. However, much like childhood plants the seeds of dreams into people that carry on through thick and thin, the spirit of intermittency, which can be a balloon, lasts a life-time. The dream, the adventure and the balloon are then very much the same as they are silly, fragile things that can have a profound impact on people, and can seemingly carry them through life:

Charles forgets this idea, which contributes to wider concepts of meaning in life, and so he is caught up...

... as he tries to destroy others. What little sense of adventure and childish dreams he has left...

... are then no longer enough to carry him through life, nor are they substantial enough save him. This all means that corrupt dreams eventually put an end to corrupt adventurers and their ventures whilst pure dreams prevail, making the virtuous adventure of the righteous dreamer an immortal one.

Knowing how and why Charles dooms himself by trying to destroy those he comes into contact with explains why Carl has to embrace and take responsibility for those that have attached themselves to him...

He has to continue with his adventure in life, an adventure that involves family, work and dreams. And what signifies and embodies this idea, what rewards and calls into the spotlight this achievement, is, for Carl, the Spirit of Adventure that he may pass on to Russell: The Ellie Button.

What Carl then learns here is that dreams and adventures aren't a means to an end, they aren't avenues to winning buttons, medals and patches; they are rather avenues towards being able to one day pin that button (an achievement and some symbol of meaning) onto someone else. This is what keeps dreams and adventures alive throughout the generations, and this is why Carl had to let go of one dream and one adventure...

... in place of another...

This subtextual drive of Up is what makes it such a special film - also one of Pixar's most mature. However, with all of this said I'll end by turning to you. What are your thoughts on Up and all we've covered today?

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