Disney has a grand tradition of death, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it, but what makes Up more special than Bambi, or even The Lion King, is how carefully it follows the grieving process. Everyone focuses on the silent montage at the start, which compresses a couple’s entire life together into four wordless minutes. It’s as fine a piece of cinema as you’ll ever see, and it’s reputation is well earned. But as in life, it’s not the death itself that’s really important – it’s what comes after.
And after, Up picks up with Carl, an old man, living alone. The brilliance of that montage is in the way it echoes throughout, and as Carl navigates his house, you begin to notice the hooks that have been set in your heart – the mailbox, the bottle-lid badge, the chairs – and that will be tugged mercilessly throughout. In my experience that’s more or less how it happens in life, just a little messier. You encounter innocuous little cues with rough edges that catch in your chest.
I admire the ruthless efficiency with which Up can bring me to my knees: a single shot of an inanimate object, a couple of notes of Giacchino’s score. But from what I’ve said so far, it doesn’t sound very fun, does it? What makes me love Up is the contrast.
After all, there aren’t many in-depth examinations of the grieving process that can also shift thousands of stuffed toys, are there? The film only wallows in this loneliness for a short time, before Carl escapes, into the sky, and towards Paradise Falls. Introducing the rest of Carl’s party – Russell the persistent ‘Wilderness Explorer’ boy scout, Kevin the giant bird, Dug the talking dog – Up turns into something as simple and likeable as any Pixar film.
But it doesn’t abandon that emotional core. All the conflicts are caught up in one another – Carl’s craving for adventure, as a younger man, resurfaces after he can’t have children; Russell’s largely absent father isn’t there to do his Wilderness Explorer activities with him; Kevin, the only character to have a full family, is separated from them. (Incidentally, I think you could make an argument for the characters representing Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, particularly the midlife crisis of generativity vs stagnation.) And, like all the best baddies, Charles Muntz is presents Carl from a different perspective – his airship is a much more literal museum, full of the bones of mythical creatures he hunted, as Carl’s floating house, but both are just as preoccupied with the past and with death. And of course, the film never shies away from lingering, for just one moment, on one of those mementoes.
Ultimately, though, life goes on, and all the grief sits just underneath the surface, the engine which drives all the thrilling adventure stuff. The world doesn’t suddenly turn black, beauty and humour still exist, and that allows Dug to exist – thank God – and Dug, in turn, allows Up to work. There aren’t many visual metaphors stronger than that house rising into Sega-blue skies, tugged upwards by a multi-coloured cloud of balloons. There are few more crushing than the half-burned house, heavier than the remains of balloons can carry, scraping along the rough earth as Carl drags it, alone, before grinding to a halt.
Up follows the same emotional waveform as most Pixar films, with the hero starting low, rising steadily to a high, then being brought down by the consequences of that rise, only to get over what brought them low in the first place and rise triumphantly.
Of course, that also describes most human experience, including grieving for a loved one.
I’ve made a big deal in the past about how the shape of Up could be emotionally educational, the implication being, for children. I’m going to come up front and say what I really mean is, for me. A while back, I lost my Nan; she was a wonderful and vital woman, and… frankly I lack the vocabulary to talk about this kind of stuff; I haven’t had to deal with death, really, since I was young. I suspect I’m not good at it.
Catharsis is one of art’s greatest virtues; Up provides a safe way to experience, and re-experience, difficult emotions in a controlled environment. It gave me a framework for understanding, and a context to place it in. Essentially, Up takes everything that’s bundled up in grief, and turns it into a story. I’m used to stories.