I’d have loved to see the faces on the executives when Pete Docter told them the protagonist for his film was Carl Frederickson, an old man escaping forced placement into a retirement home. I’m not sure if “WTF” has an official face yet, but if it does, I’m sure they made it. The questions they must have immediately rattled off probably made Docter’s head spin. And I was skeptical too, upon seeing the trailers. But I think we should all know better than to doubt Pixar, a company that, if we don’t even want to mention the money, has won 4 Best Animated Feature Oscars as of 2009, and it has only made 10 films (3 of which were made before the award even existed). And in true Pixar fashion, Docter – with help from voice talent Ed Asner – has managed to create a septuagenarian that kids of all ages relate to, sympathize with, and ultimately root for…and again they are able to do all of this in a way that plays to every emotion a human being can possibly experience. Pixar is the entertainment chapter of Mensa.
The movie starts with Carl Frederickson as a quiet, shy little boy with dreams of adventure. He then meets Ellie, a loud, not-shy-at-all little girl with those same adventurous dreams. The movie then takes ten minutes, just ten wordless minutes, to show their life together; a life of laughter and love, but also of house and car repairs, hospital bills and the setting aside of a life-long dream to see South America together. The ten minutes concludes with Carl sitting beside Ellie’s coffin. I’ve sat through entire movies without even a fraction of the emotional variety I felt in those ten minutes. From that point on, no matter what happens to Carl Frederickson, I’m in. Pixar…genius.
What does happen is the forced eviction from his house by evil, black suited developers. The house being his most beloved connection to his wife, he even calls the house “Ellie,” his plan to hold on to that connection and also fulfill the dream of seeing majestic Paradise Falls in Venezuela, is to fly the house to the Falls using 20,000 balloons that lift the house up, up and away through the city and down to South America.
The catch being the unintended stowaway Russell, a Wilderness Explorer attempting to earn an “Assisting the Elderly” badge, who happened to be on Carl’s front porch at liftoff. Russell is the talkative, upbeat Yin to Carl’s grumpy Yang, and I am not using that analogy because Russell is Asian. But Russell is not just along for a cutesy measure to the old man’s adventure. He adds another dimension to the plot, which brings up issues of children looking for father-figures in a world of absentee parents, including a monologue by Russell about camping with his dad that will equate camping with the game of catch we all wanted to have with our fathers after FIELD OF DREAMS. In these ways, Russell chisels away at Carl’s gruff exterior in the way we know he’s supposed to, but also slowly enough that the transition seems real…even in the midst of such incredible circumstances.
The eventual villain the team encounters is a good foil to Carl, but best left as a surprise, as well as his minions, but besides this cute and somewhat surreal yet still enjoyable third act, the main storyline of Carl and his love for his wife, translating to a love for his house, translating again to his care for Russell provides the bulk of the enjoyment of this film. It’s what makes us care about all four of them, and that’s what makes Pixar a team of geniuses. They make us care about a house the way they’ve made us care about toys, or fish, or cars, or bugs or a garbage collecting robot.