The film of summer 2009 I was most excited in seeing did not disappoint. The tenth Pixar film might be their funniest and it doesn't skimp on the sincere tear-jerking moments as well. It was a risk making a 78-year-old man the protagonist of your animated fantasy adventure, but this film is from Pixar and director Pete Docter, who helmed MONSTER INC. and was a storyman on TOY STORY, TOY STORY 2 and WALL•E. People keep asking if kids will be able to relate to a septuagenarian hero. Carl Fredricksen is relatable to anyone who has ever loved someone.
Carl (Ed Asner, TV's THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) was a kid when he met his wife Ellie (Elie Docter). They shared a love for adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, THE INSIDER), who set out to find a mysterious bird that scientists claimed was a hoax. He never came back. Carl and Ellie had always planned to go to the same spot in South America, but as things go, life disrupts our plans. After her passing, Carl confines himself in their house, but an incident forces him to be put in a nursing home. Instead of going, the former balloon salesman attaches thousands of balloons to his house, lifting it off its foundation, and heads for Paradise Falls. The only problem is that eight-year-old wilderness explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) was on his porch at the time he took flight.
Carl and Russell end up in South America where they can see Paradise Falls across the jungle. With the house tethered to their backs, they set out to place the house down in the exact spot Ellie always dreamed of. Along the way, Russell will pick up a few pets — Kevin, a quick and colorful bird, and Dug (co-director Bob Peterson), a dog with a collar that allows him to talk. He's a bit slow, but very loyal. Along the journey Carl and Russell get to know each other. They may be at the opposite ends of their lives, but they are in a similar emotional place. Their friendship is filled with great humanity. Carl has been cranky since Ellie passed, but still has a sharp wit. Russell is excitable, but he's a kid who has all the wilderness badges without ever having gone camping in his life.
The Pixar animators truly do what famed Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston said was so important about animation — make the audience understand what the characters are thinking. Carl's floating house isn't just a whimsical plot device, but the mementos of his life with his wife. Russell is desperate to get his final wilderness badge, but he has deeper reasons for this as well. Kevin isn't just a manic bird that likes to eat Russell's chocolate. The bird has a purpose too. Dug has a purpose as well. All he wants is to be loved by his master. What they all have in common is that their families have been disrupted and they're looking for adventure. But why are they looking for adventure? What hole are they trying to fill? These aren't pixels formed from sitcom script scraps, but characters with feelings.
These characters are woven into a colorful adventure. Their odd couple relationship creates a great deal of laughs. Talking dogs are funny too. They navigate thunderstorms, a real hazard in a house floating in the air on balloons. They encounter a pack of mean dogs, which like to humiliate. They have a run in with a lonely mad man in the jungle. They end up dangling from a zeppelin in a thrilling final sequence. And Carl accomplishes this with a cane and four trusty tennis balls attached to the crane's feet.
But it’s the adventure of the heart that makes this film special. Carl had known his wife nearly his entire life. So what is he supposed to do now that she's gone? I'm reminded of the line from a very different kind of film SHAWKSHANK REDEMPTION — Get busy living or get busy dying. On his fantastic journey, Carl learns what's most important about this adventure called life. Paradise might not be solely located in South America.