When I first heard the premise of "Ratatouille", Pixar's 2007 tale of a rat trying to become a chef in Paris, I thought I heard the most unlikely high concept imaginable. Think of what the pitch must have been like: "Let's take a garbage-eating rat and put him in with high cuisine." Neither cuddly nor appetizing.
But then came Up, and I heard an even more un-Hollywood premise for a family film: "Let's tell the story of an old man who loses his wife before he could ever fulfill their shared dreams." A typical studio exec would pick his jaw up off the floor and say, "Yeah, great, Oscar potential, but this is not going to sell plush dolls."
Yet for all the gravity of the subject, Up defies gravity, and maintains a life-affirming tone throughout. The silent montage that summarizes Carl and Ellie's life had me in tears, and yet even at the end of it my wife could say, "Oh, that's so sweet." Bittersweet, that is, and beautiful in an achy sort of way. I wonder if the kids in the audience can follow the full pathos. As Carl turns the page in the scrapbook past "Things I'm Going to Do" and finds blank pages, did the theater echo with: "Daddy, why are you crying?"
It was the profound realness of Carl's life, and Ellie's death, that provides sufficient counterweight to all the credulity-stretching premises that follow: the floating house, the talking dogs, the old man finding an even older hero, a protagonist who starts the story needing a chair-lift and ends in a leaping, climbing, rope-sliding, cane-dueling rescue attempt. It is all so perfectly unbelievable, and it doesn't matter, because what is happening inside Carl is so perfectly true.
Whenever a house features prominently in a story, you should brace yourself for Jungean archtypes: "Coraline" and "Howl's Moving Castle" are recent examples. Up is no exception. A house is a classic symbol of the self, and Carl's house follows the same transformation he does. It starts as his childhood playground, with the promise of adventure. It later becomes the center of his adult life, loaded up with the full pleasures, painful disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams that humans are prone to. In old age it is his refuge, the last vessel of everything he holds dear. He struggles to preserve the old dream, flying his house away, even dragging his house behind him over mountains (he is literally "tied to his past"). But in the end, he lets go of the past, empties his house of its old furniture, and sets off on a new mission. When Carl transcends his old life, sacrificing it for worthy cause, only then does it finally drift down to its proper place above Paradise Falls. The dream is fulfilled only when Carl no longer needs it.
As far as Up goes, which I did see, I thought the first fifteen minutes were among the most brilliant I had ever seen in any film. Absolutely dazzling. And after that, I was bored to tears. Oh, well.
I do seem to be getting grumpier and harder to please in my old age. I didn't like "Avatar" or "Sherlock Holmes" either, which completes the roundup of probably all the new movies I saw in the past year. On the other hand, I do keep re-watching "Dr. Horrible" and thinking it's the most brilliant thing ever, so I know I can still be entertained!