Agonistes Finds Terra Nova in Pixar’s UP

Up325So the guys at Filmspotting said in a recent podcast that UP was better than Wall-E when comparing two of Pixar’s most significant recent releases. While I like movies like Finding Nemo and Cars as much as the next guy, Wall-E—at least for me—was Pixar’s announcement to the rest of the world that they had decided to play for real. In the last 20 years or so I don’t think there has been a more accurate and provocative commentary on our culture and the human condition than what Wall-E gave us. So when Matty and Adam at Filmspotting put UP in the same category I figured it was worth a trip to the movies.

UP is almost two movies. There is the story of Carl and Elle—their chance meeting and mutual affinities into early romance and marriage. It’s a montage that builds a foundation that drives the story in Act II. And … it works. If UP were an inferior story in the hands of inferior storytellers, it would have seemed rushed and lacking sufficient depth. But UP, like Wall-E, is a movie dealing profoundly with themes like growing old, marriage, adventure, death and loss, and the burdens we accept. I’m not accustomed to finding this sort of maturity in animation but I’m thinking that I’m going to have to get used to it.

Through a series of events, Carl, the principal character, is left alone to deal with the unfulfilled dreams of Elle. By now he is in his 60s. He’s angry, reclusive. On the brink of committing to a retirement community, he is faced with a decision either to act, or to passively accept the hand life has dealt him: he can go to Shady Acres (or whatever it was) retirement community or he can take another course of action—something that violates the mundane order of life to which so many of us have unwittingly agreed: birth, marriage, career, retirement, death. He chooses life. Yes it’s hard. An no he had no real inkling of the sort of adventure he was actually signing up for. His decision reminds me of the “sacred few” Percy Shelley celebrates in “The Triumph of Life.” Carl had always sensed that there was more to life, but was unsure as to go about finding it. In this regard, UP is about Carl choosing to be more than what he is; more than what he has become.

And isn’t this so much of what we face every day. I recently heard a quote from John Lennon, “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” UP captures this idea about as accurately as it can be captures. In taking action Carl thought he was redeeming the lost dreams of a life, his wife, that the world would never see. But Carl’s mistake was putting the full weight of his love, Elle’s life, his youthful ambitions, and everything he is … into superficiality. With so much plastic around us, it’s a common default for most of us. But in taking action—even an action that’s miscalculated and less than thought out—Carl takes those first few necessary steps to living as one of Shelley’ssacred few.” God’s redemptive hand is perhaps most evident in those willing to take these same first steps.

I won’t go into detail about the role of the lost explorer Charles Muntz, the fatherless Russell with real-life abandonment issues that hit pretty close to home, and the whole Paradise Falls parts of the storyline. I was particularly captivated by the dog “Doug” who was ostracized and shamed for showing his heart as well as having the simpleminded audacity to believe in something bigger than himself. (Yes, a dog named “Doug.” There was also a bird named “Kevin.”) UP is not as important as Wall-E because, I think, Wall-E’s narrative and beauty cuts so much deeper into the human condition. But I’ll definitely be seeing UP again on video.

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