I think I would make you laugh if I said "Disney" and "artistic integrity" in the same sentence. But for once, at least, there might be a good reason. Disney must have known that a film featuring a lonely old man would not send toy companies scrambling for the licensing that makes successful children's movies so profitable. But they went ahead with Up all the same, and the result is a film more exciting to cinema buffs (it was the first animated feature ever to open the Cannes Film Festival) than to profit machines (Thinkway Toys passed on Up despite their long-standing relationship with Pixar).
Yet, if not quite a franchise, Up looks to be the biggest hit Pixar has produced in years; the weekend grosses for the first three weekends are much closer to Finding Nemo (Pixar's highest-grossing film) than Wall-E or Ratatouille. Why? How did Up shut up the Wall Street demographic analysts? Maybe behind his quality-first positioning, Disney CEO Rober Iger knew something Wall Street didn't. Maybe a positive, heroic vision of aging can ring true in spite of the standard narrative of the increasing uselessness of the elderly as a growing economic burden on the younger generations.
What exactly did T. S. Eliot have in mind when he wrote, "Old men ought to be explorers?" My guess is he wasn't picturing a squat codger towing a floating house and an overweight cub scout from one end of a vast Venezuelan tepui to the other. The plot of Pixar's latest movie might sound like an all too literal dramatization of that line from Eliot, but the beauty of it is that that's just the point of Up: the main theme of this movie is the moral danger of taking things too literally.
When you're a kid (at least, when you're a mid-to-late-20th-century American kid), certain occupations seem intrinsically admirable: scientist, inventor, fireman—but nothing beats being an explorer. Exploration is the pure extract of what's exciting about those other jobs: being on the frontier, in the moment of peril between the known and the unknown, the possibility and the deed, life and death. Kids know with a wholesome naivete that adventure is everything that matters. The unwholesome flipside of this love of adventure is that in time it makes everyday reality seem pale. Life becomes less important the less possibility for adventure it offers.
Kids have to learn that exploration doesn't always mean geographical travel to exotic, undiscovered locales; you can be "still and still moving" (to complete the quotation). Kids who figure this out become adults and enjoy their lives. People who insist on literal adventure stay childish and grow more and more bitter as their possibilities disappear. This loathing of infirmity colors the way people feel about the elderly: an old man is a sad case whose adventures are over and who's always in need of assistance.
Carl Fredricksen (voice of Ed Asner), the elderly hero of Up, is an argument against this view of old age. His physical appearance and manner invoke Walter Matthau, who ever since Grumpy Old Men has been an icon of the right of weathered old men to enjoy romances and capers (I mean antic episodes, not the pickled buds of the Capparis spinosa, which no sane person has any right to enjoy). But Carl's story takes a different direction than the typical Matthau vehicle. While Matthau's old men tend to imitate literally the adventures of youth, Carl follows the model of the Spirit of Adventure. Of course, "Spirit of Adventure" is only the name of a blimp flown by Carl's childhood idol, Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer), and Carl's own spirit won't move him even to leave his house.
But Up takes the concept of "never leaving your house" to a whole new level: Carl is compelled by a vow he made on the day he met his late wife to move their house to a very particular spot next to Paradise Falls in Venezuela, and he's determined to fulfill this vow to the letter, even if it means tying himself to his balloon-elevated house by the garden hose and walking it over miles of perilous jungle landscape. This is where Up outdoes other Pixar offerings in terms of wit and artistry: the floating house, a bright, magical image of escape and freedom proves to be a melancholy burden of bondage and anxiety. The image of the house slowly sinking as it drifts behind the lonely old man and his unshakable young comrade Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) combines intrepid flight with the shrinking reserve of a bitter old man. This is high irony and it's absolutely, stirringly beautiful.
Why have I said hardly a thing about the boy in Up? Kids are still the target audience of these movies, right? But Russell, the eight-year-old "wilderness explorer," is not the hero of Up; though he is much younger than Carl, he is actually far less capable. In fact, he was added late in the development of the story. Yet, he does play an important role. While Carl is single-minded in his quest to get his house from Point A to Point B, Russell is interested (as kids are) in Points C, D, E, and all other points visible from the path from A to B. Because chance has tied Carl to Russell, he gets pulled along into all of these diversions, and it turns out that his real adventure lies somewhere around point Z by way of point Q. He can only get there with the help of this boy who seems to be only an inconvenience.
So what does it mean that "Old men ought to be explorers?" Maybe it means that the old more than anyone else are the ones who can learn to be child-like, and that this ability is priceless. On the other hand, it also means that old men who fail to be explorers, that is, who fail to step anywhere off the path from A to B, are wretched and a curse. Up includes a vision of such unredeemed old age, the horror of which is only partly mitigated by the fact that it involves lots and lots of comical talking dogs.
Profit-minded analysts missed the appeal of Up because they read their own prejudices into the innocent eyes of children. In the fast-paced, bottom-line world of affairs, old people as a rule are at best harmless spectators and at worst burdens on society, who have had their turn and are now just taking up space. The best they can do in this world is to be consolidated in retirement homes. The elderly themselves sometimes interpret their old age in the same way, and consider it an affront to their dignity that they must draw out their lives on the margins of the rat race. But this is not the world in which children and the child-like live. Even if they understand the physical limitations of old men, they see no reason why they should not be explorers.
I recommend you do whatever it takes to see Up as soon as possible. Just please don't take that too literally.
Amos Hunt is editor of the Texas literary magazine The Grub Street Grackle and a graduate student at the University of Dallas.
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