After Where the Wild Things Are, my two companions, faces streaked with tears, resorted immediately to mocking me in an attempt to restore their manhood. "Look at you, Todd. You weep through Up and then this movie leaves you totally composed."
Upon reviewing the latest Pixar masterpiece, released last week on DVD, I am forced to confront what it is about this movie that so completely ruins me. I saw the film in theaters with the same pair and, knowing full well their tendency to correlate an inverse relationship between masculinity and lachrymosity, I self-consciously held it in. At home, I allowed Up to affect me to its full potential and found myself snot-nosed and hacking, a catharsis of tears. If my friends thought I was weeping in the theater, they have seen nothing.
Objectively, Wild Things is the more devastating piece. In my review of the same, I discussed the similarities between the two: both are about the shattering of families and dreams. In Up, our heroes find salvation. In Wild Things, Max is left high and dry, newly cognizant of his mother's fallibility and utterly alone. Up conveniently thrusts together a son without a father and a father without a son. As a set up, it's kind of obvious. It works because the storytellers at Pixar are such experts.
Up begins with a ten-minute prologue in which Carl and Ellie meet as young children with imaginations of adventure. As they bond over a shared desire to jet off to South America in a blimp, a smash cut brings them immediately to their wedding ceremony, and they are off on a life lived together in the same run-down house where they first met.
They share two dreams. One is that they will someday take that trip to South America. The other is that they may someday be parents. The former is crushed through a series of accidents that eats up their travel fund, the latter through miscarriage in what has to be the most devastating half-minute of any Pixar film yet (and they've had a few).
Ellie and Carl grow old together and Ellie dies. Carl, faced with losing the house that is his last tie to his wife, inflates several thousand helium balloons and flies the whole damn thing to South America, discovering in midair that the nosy, talkative kid trying to get his 'Assisting the Elderly' merit badge is stowing away on his porch.
In the precisely executed adventure fantasy that ensues, what happens is this: Carl suddenly has a family. We will recall from the prologue Ellie's silent affirmation that she wants not just one baby but several. Twenty-something Carl was shocked but delighted. Now, in attempting to fulfill his dead wife's one dream he ends up with her other, as well. Carl must wrangle with the needs (mostly emotional) of the fatherless child, the unloved puppy and the hunted bird. The avian mother (who is, subtly, a transgressive symbol of progression, named 'Kevin' in spite of her gender and colorful plumage), sought for her rarity, wants only to get back to her children - another separated family restored through the heroism of our protagonists.
Other than the obvious heartstring-tugging of the prologue and the emotional nakedness of Dug the Dog ("I have just met you and now I love you!"), the film's greatest moment of heartache comes as Carl's third-act reversal. Having anticlimatically reached the final resting place for his house and wife (and life) at the precipice of the great waterfall, Carl has cast off his castaways and settled into his easy chair to drown himself in the hazy fog of memory. Until this moment, Carl has been living for the past, ignoring the opportunities for self-worth presented in the dog, bird and kid, interested only in achieving a dream that died with his wife. He picks up her adventure scrapbook, assembled in her childhood and left mostly blank, with pages and pages that she was supposed to fill in with mementoes of adventure and excitement. Carl discovers now, at Paradise Falls, that Ellie did fill in her book: it has become a photo album of their life together, ending with the note: "Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!"
In this moment, Carl willingly assumes his role as patriarch to the unconventional modern family. "I was hiding under your porch because I love you," says Dug, tail between his legs, previously seen moping away after being called a bad dog. Carl welcomes him into his house and life for the first time and they sail into the sky to save Russell and Kevin. They will, of course, and in classic Disney-movie fashion (the villain's fall-to-his-death the most obvious nod to the Movies Walt Used To Make). Kevin will be reunited with her kin and Carl will take Russell's absent father's place at the merit badge award ceremony.
Up reveals Pixar's Pete Docter to be a real watchmaker of a dramatist. The thing is, what moves me so in his films aren't the tragedies and broken connections but the redemptions, the reunion, the salvation. When Sulley, in the end of Monsters, Inc., is reunited with Boo and his face lights up ... man, that kills me. It's not the miscarriage that Up is about, devastating as that moment is. What makes this a masterpiece is the story of Carl making up for that loss and its disguise as an action-adventure. Where The Wild Things Are is a brilliant study of the breaking of a boy, but Up is about making up for your losses. The tears brought out by this are of joy; I am made wholly vunlerable by the beauty of this family portrait.