Monday, January 16, 2012

Up: Why Adventure Can Remain Elusive

       Up remains one of Pixar's most unique movies. After demonstrating human depths in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the company decided to take a break from serious stories and decided to have fun. They took a challenge in using a grumpy old man as their protagonist, but the gamble paid off.

        Unlike the last post, which covered Theme and Concept, we're going to look at Up's main theme: adventure. Pixar keeps the theme as overt as possible, using the word adventure as a recurring motif. Charles Muntz, the mysterious explorer introduced as Carl's inspiration, even names his ship The Spirit of Adventure, and we get to see why when Carl and Wilderness Scout Russel meet him. 

        As mentioned in my previous blog post, Pixar makes sure that their themes have balance. In the case of Up, the movie emphasizes that adventure can be crazy and exciting, but you can't let it get to your head. I will explore the theme's light and dark sides.

Defining Adventure

      Adventure becomes Carl's liberation when the explorer has something to lose. The movie starts with explaining how Carl and Elliot are a determined, happy couple. We see him and Elliot struggle with a smile to make ends meet so they can visit Paradise Falls and sympathize with their constant failure; the tears come when Elliot dies before she can make the trip, and Carl feels guilty for not keeping his promise to her. As a last straw, when Carl is forced to move to a nursing home after Elliot dies, he doesn't take the news lying down.  The audience thus cheers when he opens up the millions of balloons that lift his house off the ground and away from the nursing home doctors. Carl's decision liberates him from a mundane, unfair life and gives him a chance of redeeming his promise to Elliot.

        Carl relearns from Russel, an Asian boy who ends up on the flying house by accident, that you only need people you care about to have an adventure. Pixar wants us to view Russel as an annoying, determined, and naive Wilderness Scout who has never been outdoors; they hint at hidden depths, however, when he steers Carl's house through a storm and mentions that his dad lives with another woman. The real sadness hits when he says he used to eat ice-cream with his dad and count cars: "I know it sounds boring, but I remember the boring parts the most." The viewer flashes back to Elliot and Carl's cozy happiness at their more mundane moments and realizes what Carl has been missing.

       Carl's living contrast and representation of adventure's darker side is Charles Muntz, now aged and obsessed with capturing an exotic bird named Kevin. Guilt motivates Carl; pride motivates the former explorer. Also, instead of attempting to live in normal society, Muntz isolates himself in the jungle until he brings back Kevin; he has lost any semblance of compassion or morality. The film hints at this when Muntz displays helmets from people he has killed, increases the tension when Muntz captures Kevin and leaves her babies to starve, and has him cross the line by attempting to kill Russel. By the time Russel's life is threatened, the viewer feels no sympathy for Muntz and see how his obsession has corrupted him. While the dogs participate in mundane actions like playing fetch and asking for treats, their abilities to communicate, cook, and coordinate as a military group (some even fly planes) undermine any "boring" or memorable moments that Muntz might have had with a person.

      Despite seeing how adventure has corrupted Muntz's sanity and morality, as well as Russel's unintended influence, Carl only realizes that he needs people when he sees Elliot's scrapbook. The movie has Muntz threaten Carl's house to distract him from rescuing a wounded Kevin; Carl shows an understandable lack of compassion about losing Kevin, although we see his similarity to Muntz. He regains his sullen composure, shunting aside his guilt and focusing on getting the house to Paradise Falls. With that in mind, we would have had a very different movie if Carl had opened the scrapbook earlier as well as a very different adventure, because she shows that Carl was her greatest adventure. Her words and pictures remove Carl's guilt and allow him to move forward; he rescues Russel and Kevin from Muntz and befriends Dug, a golden retriever ostracized by Muntz's pack. By building a new family with Russel and Dug, as well as the other dogs once Muntz gets defeated, Carl proves himself as the better of the two men and the more deserving of a second chance.

Visual Motifs

       The movie's light tone supports its positive view of adventure; unlike Wall-E's dark palette, or Ratatouille's alternating layers of moody color, Up uses vibrant colors even during the film's most serious moments. The sad beginning has soft pastels that give way to emotional piano music, while Carl's initial takeoff emerges in a triumph of shiny red and blue balloons. Pixar wants it viewers to go on a crazy trip, but not to lose sight of the people they care about; they emphasize that with South America's gorgeous, dangerous landscape and the clean atmosphere of America's suburbs.

      The Spirit of Adventure airship represents the theme's ambiguity during the film. Much like how Carl's house is just a house, the airship is just an airship; it serves to transport the owner and house him safely. Muntz and Carl make the ship symbolic; Muntz uses the ship for both benevolent and nightmarish purposes. It can feed a crew of dogs or cage an exotic bird. The ship also tosses and turns during Carl's climactic confrontation with Muntz, emphasizing how it could be used for good and evil. We finally see this when Muntz gets tangled with drifting balloons and the house floats down (on Paradise Falls, no less): Carl now uses the airship as his home, and the dogs become his pets. He remembers his lessons learned with Russel and Elliot's scrapbook, however; he uses the ship only to spend time with the dogs and Russel so they remember the good times. Carl can find adventure anywhere, and he does so thoroughly.

Closing Thoughts

     Although the viewer senses that Up is a complex movie, we enjoy its fun and empathetic nature far more. Toy Story 3 dealt with toy "retirement", Wall-E was a depressing look at our future, while Ratatouille asked if genius could flourish from the lowest levels; Up offers a thrilling and exciting adventure and second chances. Beneath the colorful exterior, however, lies the Pixar layers that we have come to love mingled with familiar humor. We get hope for our personal futures, and the promise that we can have adventures of our own with a peaceful conscience. No second of life is wasted, Pixar tells us, as long as we share it with someone.

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