As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
Another entry from Pixar that was intended primarily for adults and kids secondarily, like The Incredibles, Up is a roller coaster emotion that makes way more sense if you’ve been in romantic love (and even more still if you’ve loved and lost). While hijinks that kids will enjoy ensue due to a young Wilderness Explorer, a talking dog, and a momma bird named Kevin, the story is rooted in Carl Fredricksen’s undying love for his wife, Ellie.
It’s not that kids aren’t able to follow the brutal first 15 minutes of the movie, which is a fully realized saga in itself, but the feelings that animate Carl’s stubbornness and refusal to give up their house is the stuff of romantic relationships. It’s really the process of moving on, how we do it and how we don’t, that the film’s concerned with, and kids can have plenty in their lives from which they need to move on. The particular flavor of this story is rooted in love and relationships and partnership and loneliness and resignation and devotion and promises, kept and unkept.
In short, Carl is my hero. My current 33-year-old self’s hero, not some distant memory of fondness for this movie.
I love his stubbornness, mainly because it speaks to where I am in life. Not quite a third through the burning trash heap of a year that has been 2020, I went through a painful breakup. About a million different things have happened since then, not the least of which included moving back in with my parents, taking a job in Wyoming, moving to Wyoming, and now having worked here for 6 months. A lot of change, much of it good for me. But one thing hasn’t changed: the space she occupied in my heart and mind.
I recently wrote about the 25th year of This American Life by highlighting nine episodes I’d missed and one with which I was intimately familiar. That one was produced by a woman, Starlee Kine, who was going through a breakup, one that was fresh and raw in her memory, and she sought to write a song about what she was feeling. In a surreal series of events, she ends up speaking with none other than Phil Collins about writing songs of heartbreak (more than once, actually). She asks him if he thought she’d ever stop feeling bad, “the way I do now”?
Phil Collins: Well, you kind of like feeling bad, don’t you?
Starlee Kine: Well, yeah —
PC: I don’t t think you really want to get over it. I think you’re kind of enjoying it, so that’s sort of a dilemma you have to sort out. [This sounds way better when you actually hear it, all British and Phil Collins-y. Go listen for yourself.]
SK: You really have me pegged. It feels important or big or something. Like I felt so much for him when I was with him, and the only way to feel that strongly about something is to not let it go.
Her story is much nearer my own story than Carl and Elllie’s in the movie, but I feel they come from the same place. Carl found the love of his life as a young kid, and life was all the sweeter with her in it. When she passed away, the thought of moving on was too painful for him to contemplate. Particularly, he got obsessed with an unfulfilled promise he’d made to her years before: that they would live on top of Paradise Falls in South America. He used his knowledge of balloons to float their house up, up, and away right before he was due to check into a retirement home.
He soon discovers Russell, the Wilderness Explorer desperate to earn a merit badge for assisting the elderly, and eventually they take the house down very near Carl’s final destination. Before they are on the ground, they must survive a pretty gnarly storm that thrashes the balloon-hoisted house to and fro. In that moment, there’s a heartbreaking scene where he runs around the living room, catching artifacts of his married life with Ellie from falling off the mantle, concluding with a framed picture of Ellie herself. He catches it in just the nick of time.
That scene is the entire film in microcosm. Carl won’t sell his house to developers because giving it up would mean giving up a tangible tie to his past (and an important one, at that). The articles in the house are no different. To lose them would mean to lose yet another part of her, and the moment is pregnant with the reality that if they were to disappear, there is no way to create new ones.
I can sympathize with Carl in this sense: It’s not that a new life is impossible; it just doesn’t hold the same appeal as the old one did. Even if that means wallowing longer than we should (as I certainly have friends who would disagree with approximately 99-100% of what I’m saying right now). The beauty in the film is that the Carls and Carys of the world are proven, essentially, wrong.
Carl’s re-education takes a while; he remains stubborn for a long time, and as a testament to his love, I admire the hell out of him for that. He learns his ultimate lesson despite himself. He set out on the adventure he and Ellie never got to take, but he did so as much out of fear as love. He didn’t want to spend his life in a retirement home. So he ran. But in the process, he met the son he never had, a talking dog, an super exotic bird that his childhood’s explorer/hero had been chasing for decades. Then he met the childhood hero, too. And that hero is one of the ways Carl learned to leave the past in the past, because he wasn’t actually heroic at all. He was actually a murderous madman. It was the madman who tried to destroy his home that he’d floated all the way to South America with balloons in honor of a promise made to his wife, a woman who idolized the madman as much as he had and then some.
In the end, Carl ended up having to sacrifice the house, and all the memories contained therein, to save this little boy who needed a better father figure. It was a move that Ellie would have insisted upon (and did, in her own way).
Carl had never looked through the final pages of Ellie’s Adventure Book, but when he finally did, he found out that she’d never considered their life incomplete or a waste. She was not bitter because their planned adventure never panned out. She simply loved the adventure that had been. “Thanks for the adventure,” she’d written. “Now go have another.”
That would be decent life advice for me (and the heartbroken podcaster) to take. I was lucky enough to love and find so much through such a relationship. That it ended is painful, yes. But it’s not the end of the world, even if it feels like it for a while.
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