Urban angst, Disney style
Say it’s a tradition. Explain to your children—or your nieces or nephews or grandkids—that half-term must, as a matter of faith or ancient custom, include a trip to the cinema. Say whatever you have to or, if that fails, then go alone. Just make sure you see Up.
It’s the latest animated feature from Pixar, the studio with a claim to being one of the more insightful chroniclers of our times. There’s plenty there for kids to enjoy—some nice gags and wonderful pictures—but that does it little justice. Yes, it’s sentimental, but it’s also elegiac, touching and oddly brave. It is a film that reveals the gaps in the rest of popular culture, exposing those areas where others fear to tread.
For Up has the unlikeliest of protagonists, a grumpy, lonely widower, Mr Fredricksen. It deals, matter-of-factly, with questions that rarely arise in any movie, let alone one aimed chiefly at children. So within the opening few scenes, we have not just the solitude of the elderly but the pressure on them to give up their independence and move into old-age homes. This is not ground covered in High School Musical.
Admirable though it is to raise issues normally confined to the pages of the Guardian‘s Society section, Up digs deeper. The film starts by showing Mr Fredricksen as a little boy, walking the 1930s streets of his neighbourhood, then staring wide-eyed at the black-and-white newsreels that brought word of Charles F Muntz, the Lindbergh-style heroic explorer who soared above the globe in an airship. This simple act of recollection sends a powerful message: it says that the elderly of today once had their own pop culture, their own celebrities, their own “new media”. They are not just old people, those we might brush aside. They were children once, too.
There are regular, often acerbic, observations of the way we live now. The small, charming wooden house the old man has lived in for most of his life is under threat from developers, men in Matrix-style suits and shades, who are surrounding it with looming steel-and-glass skyscrapers. When Mr Fredricksen decides he’s had enough, tying his home to a thousand balloons and heading for the skies, he is joined by a young boy scout whose father has given him all kinds of electronic gizmos—he has given him everything, in fact, except time.
Some will detect hypocrisy in a US entertainment giant such as Disney—which owns Pixar—making a target of both corporate greed and the marketing of consumer electronics to kids. But these are asides in what is a much larger story. Up deals with themes that are timeless and universal. In the most outstanding sequence, a wordless montage follows Mr Fredricksen and his childhood sweetheart from their infancy to adolescence, marriage and eventually her death. Silently, and movingly, we see the disappointment of childlessness and the deferral of dreams—in this case a long yearned for voyage to Venezuela—because reality always intrudes. Up shows us the truth of John Lennon’s pithy observation: life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
This is becoming typical of Pixar. Its last feature, Wall-E, asked whether waste and rampant consumption were choking our planet, so that eventually human beings would have to find somewhere else to live, while telling an eternal story about the need for companionship. The protagonists of their most recent films—a rat, a rusty robot, a curmudgeon—are not designed with one eye on the merchandising product line. Pixar is instead doing the work of great storytellers, holding up a mirror to the world even as it reminds us of those fundamental traits, and needs, that make us human. And Pixar manages to do all that while telling a funny, exciting yarn that appeals to the widest possible audience. How many of our literary giants can say the same? - guardian.co.uk