On Pixar’s “Up”

“Up” is difficult to write about, because despite the fact that it is very much for adults, it is essentially a kid’s movie: it is a parable. Everything in “Up” is obvious, and there aren’t questions to tease out and address. Instead, it’s a powerful moral statement that plays on sentiment so as to educate the sentiments. It’s deeply tragic despite the comic ending: a man loses some of the greatest joys of his childhood and adulthood in numerous ways and is constantly forced to choose between the dead and the living. Being half-dead in his own mind, he’s got burdens that he can not communicate. I don’t think he ever tells the kid about his wife, not once. The only person he is completely open with – besides his wife – is the villain.

From Daniel Carlson’s review on Pajiba:

Docter introduces a token villain, the crazed former explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), whom Carl had admired as a boy, but Muntz’s attempts to interfere with Carl’s journey and abduct an exotic bird adopted by Russell start to feel rote after a while. It’s not that he’s a flimsy villain: If anything, he’s creepier and colder than any Pixar bad guy since Sid, the boy in Toy Story who got his rocks off by melting and exploding his action figures. Muntz travels with a pack of attack dogs that have been outfitted with collars allowing them to talk, and he’s definitely psychotic. But Muntz’s real purpose is to allow Carl to see what he might become if he continues to remain emotionally isolated from the world. It’s a smart move that really helps the story hit home. Russell is obviously going to be the driving force that pulls Carl pack into the world, giving him someone to care about, but it’s the darkness in Muntz that catalyzes Carl’s steady change from withdrawn hermit to functioning member of humanity.

The attempts didn’t feel as rote to me, maybe because I’m watching others and myself grow older, and I’ve been watching others deal with loss and isolation and wondering how I myself will deal with it. Part of me feels that 99% of the “drama” we see, for example, politically has less to do with the state of the economy and more to do with us simply not being happy in the land of plenty. That sounds idiotic, until you realize that we’re talking about people wanting to find newer and newer conspiracy theories, using the fact their vote counts merely as a way of expressing their dignity, and many times just flat-out ignoring the pain of others. I don’t want to go too far with this, because a theory of political behavior can’t be existential ultimately. But it is true that the way we relate to each other in a democracy is shaped by the very modes and orders we have. As Clifford Orwin notes:

Mme de Sévigné, he [Tocqueville] tells us, was a kind and loving woman, but in context this very allegation serves to distance us from her and aristocracy. The letters he quotes, written from the country to a grown daughter, contain much affectionate chitchat. In the same breath, however, they describe the miseries imposed upon the local peasants by a ruinous tax increase, and the atrocious punishments inflicted on resisters. And Mme de Sévigné not only states her satisfaction at the salutary example thus being set, but even worse, jests at the expense of the wretched victims. Tocqueville does not just note but compels us to feel the difference democracy makes. For it is almost unthinkable, he notes, that any of his readers, a century and a half further along the road to democracy, should respond so callously to human suffering, and simply unthinkable that any who did would so openly express it: “the spirit of the age would prevent him.”

Mme de Sévigné, Tocqueville insists, simply did not regard peasants as members of the same species as herself. She related to them as servants, as responsibilities, as threats, but not as human beings. Her compassion, like her loyalties, was immured within the walls of class. She lacked all humanity in the strict sense of that term: her fellow-feeling was not available to human beings as such.

With democracy, by contrast, the tight bonds of caste having fallen away, we respond to one another directly as human beings. Where all are more or less the same and equal, each readily identifies with the other, and so with his misfortunes. (Tocqueville was a profound student of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and there are few passages of his work where their influence is so evident.) Few things so impressed Tocqueville about Americans as their ready sympathy with each other’s troubles. Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business. The obverse of compassion is what Tocqueville calls individualism. As men become more equal and alike they also become more isolated, more preoccupied with their own affairs. Tocqueville presents enhanced compassion as merely the most attractive aspect of that loosening of bonds that is the fundamental social fact of democracy. It’s because we all know what it is to bowl alone that we commiserate readily with solitary bowlers. If in aristocracy conventional bonds of caste enjoyed a more than natural force, in democracy the natural one of common humanity proves fleeting and frail. Compassion is particularly to be cherished as the sole force tending naturally to unite human beings whom almost everything else in democracy conspires to dissociate.

If you say Muntz is an aristocratic villain, you’re missing the point – all of democracy is aristocratic in the sense that it’s about the “spirit of adventure.” You’re free to love here, free to discover what’s truly good and worth preserving for yourself. And yet we are presented with a villain that seems shockingly real in his willingness to kill for a stupid goal, and he seems real not because he’s been dishonored or isolated from others for years, but because he’s old. This is not to condemn the elderly, not one bit: we all have this in us, and we should be frightened of it. But what is “it?” What drives one man to isolate himself for years hunting for a bird, another to hang on to every piece of junk from the past as if it were his wife? These themes in “Up” are given younger counterparts that don’t share the stage: our scout’s Dad wants nothing to do with his own son; the younger, modern world can find no other use for the old than to provoke them and stick them in a home. It’s in the stories of the younger – which frame the story of our hero and villain – that we find the ability to love implies the ability to reject, that love entails loss. Hence, the fundamental issue is whether you recognize yourself as a moral actor, or completely independent. Only one of these is really compatible with the “spirit of adventure.” We note Mme de Sévigné was tied to the land that gave her leisure, and could never truly lose in her order.

I think I’ll leave this comment there. It sounds weaker somewhat because I’ve talked about politics, and these issues are so, so personal. But in a way, the move from the parable to who we are now is part of the case “Up” quietly makes about looking beyond oneself.


  1. I’ve just seen it, and there is no other way than to describe it as a parable, though I wouldn’t say parables are necessarily for kids. I watched Drag Me To Hell last night, which to all intents and purposes is also a parable. So is, arguably, Slumdog Millionaire.

    One of the main “lessons” to be learned from Up! is, however, simplistic: that it’s important to dream, but not take that dream to far (and turn it into dark obsession). The labyrinth the snipe hides in is heavily laden with symbolism in that regard. And obviously, the good guy (who never chased his dream until it seemed too late) and the bad guy (who only chased his dream without regard for the real) function as mirror images here.

    It was a good film, with some funny surrealistic touches. The more I think about it, the less I get Pixar. Their films are not children’s films (my daughter would have cried with boredom after 15 minutes). So what does that say about their moralism? Are they on a crusade? Should we take their politics seriously?

  2. @ Ario: By “essentially for kids” I had in mind something like “one won’t enter the kingdom of heaven unless one is like these children.” I agree entirely that “Up!” is not for actual children.

    I don’t think they’re on a crusade necessarily. They are aiming for an adult audience, and it’s an adult audience that’s difficult to deal with. Relating to other people nowadays occurs mainly through nostalgia; my dating experiences are pretty notable in that regard. And it’s not like all moralism is thoughtless: if you know what you’re doing with a moralistic set up, you can ask serious questions.

    I agree that this is not the be-all and end-all of political discussion, and heck, I have real problems with being really solid in terms of moral thought one minute and then being all over the place the next. The more you hold inconsistency in moral reasoning is a problem, I suspect, the more conservative and traditional one gets. Not that traditional solves all problems of consistency, but it does tend to show that morality is more than sentiment. It just so happened here that Pixar hit on a sentiment we desperately need more of.

  3. That is one of my all-time favorite movies. Brilliantly written! I have seen it at least 4 times, and the kids make fun of me because I have to leave the room in tears at the opening scene every time. Just breaks my heart.

    To me it says..it is ok to let go of a dream that can’t come true (living happily with his wife on the hill)..and sometimes the ability to live out a long forgotten dream (being a father figure) is right in front of you. However, you can’t see the dream you CAN complete until you let go of the one you CAN’T.

  4. Very interesting insights on the movie. I saw the movie a few months ago on dish tv portland. I am not sure I share the same criticisms, but I do see how the man could have used the opportunity to mentor. Movies are a great way to teach us about life.

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