Film’s New Adventure

Pixar’s Defense of Animation

Devan Goldstein

During most of Pixar’s Up (available now on DVD and Blu-Ray), Ed Asner’s char-broiled vocal performance gives curmudgeon Carl Fredricksen a vitality most animated characters never achieve. At the film’s opening, though, Carl is a shy child (voiced by Jeremy Leary) with a boy-crush on famous explorer Charles Muntz.

One day, lost in make-believe, young Carl strolls past the run-down house that his future wife Ellie (Elie Doctor) has converted into a model of Muntz’s airship, the Spirit of Adventure. He’s drawn inside by her spirited rehearsal of the lines an explorer like Muntz might utter at the helm. Startled by her vigor, Carl releases the helium balloon—Pixar’s answer to Chekhov’s pistol—he has named for Muntz’s vessel. Ellie shows him that he has the courage to try to retrieve the balloon from the house’s decrepit attic.

Thus, from the start, Ellie makes of Carl more than he would be otherwise, and a much-discussed montage sequence walks us through their life from courtship to marriage, old age, and Ellie’s tear-jerking death. In Ellie’s absence, Carl succumbs to the tendencies of his lesser self, and hardens to the world.

At 78, Carl attempts to take his leave from human society, using helium balloons to drag his and Ellie’s house to their dream location overlooking exotic Paradise Falls, somewhere in South America. The film follows Carl and a badge-collecting wilderness scout, Russell (Jordan Nagai), who has inadvertently joined up for the adventure.

The emotional arc of the film doesn’t attach primarily to the duo’s successes or failures at their various objectives, though there are many. Instead, the adults in the audience follow Carl’s struggle to balance his sense of obligation to the dream he and Ellie had shared with the more pressing tasks presented to him by the growing cast of innocents that surrounds him.

The adventure story and Carl’s emotional journey intersect in the film’s climactic scene. Paging wistfully through Ellie’s adventure scrapbook, Carl finds a note from Ellie: “Thanks for the adventure,” she has written. “Now go out and get a new one!”

Ellie’s words give Carl permission to stop clinging to their shared past, to take care of those around him who cannot take care of themselves, much as he and Ellie did for each other throughout their marriage. After he grieves, Carl moves with a new sense of purpose, strapping his cane to his back and setting out with Russell to right all the wrongs they have encountered atop the remote cliffs around Paradise Falls. The narrative also begins to move with renewed vigor at this point, towards the happy ending viewers demand of films released in the summertime.

Examined closely, the scene also reads as a profound comment on animated film and its role in entertainment culture. As Carl reads Ellie’s handwritten note, he runs his fingers over the strokes on the page. Through an extreme close-up and the gritty sound of old fingers on old paper, we sense the importance to Carl of the physical, causal connections between Ellie’s body and her writing. For him, to touch the writing is, somehow, to touch her.

The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce used the term “index” to describe things like Ellie’s note, things that stand as physical remnants of the causes of their existence. A footprint is the index of a foot, just as a scrape on a fender might be the index of another car or of a guardrail. Ellie’s writing, a sign of her physical being, connects Carl to her through this sort of relationship.

In fact, the film characterizes Carl in part through a collection of indexical objects. His most prized remembrance of Ellie is an old photograph; many theorists and philosophers of film have claimed photography and motion pictures to be the pinnacle of indexicality, based on the relationship between the subject of a photograph and the resulting image. The scrapbook, full of photographs and other memorabilia, reads as a kind of collective index of Ellie’s life with Carl. It may also be worth noting here that Carl steers his house with a weathervane, which Peirce himself famously identifies as evidence of the blowing wind.

There’s a paradox in Carl’s attachment to the material traces of Ellie. He’s an animated character, after all, and as a mode of filmmaking, animation downplays the indexical connections between objects (like Ellie) and their indices (like her handwriting). Where photographic media again rely on photochemical or photoelectric processes to create representations of objects in the world, animation, by definition, requires a human touch, like painting or sculpture.

Indeed, the success of so many Pixar films lies within the animation teams’ abilities to represent certain aspects of the world ever more realistically. For example, Ratatouille’s (2007) money shot stunningly depicts a version of the eponymous dish created for the film (in the live-action world) by superstar chef Thomas Keller, who reportedly wept at the sight of his food on-screen. Likewise, Finding Nemo (2003) was hailed for its depictions of water; in the long term, no doubt, the same reception will attend Up’s mesmerizing treatment of the clouds through which Carl’s house drifts.

For all this artistic prowess, though, and for all the powerful, original storytelling that Pixar films have become known for, the company still hasn’t seen an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. When 2008’s Wall•E didn’t get a nod, despite overwhelming support from critics and fans, no less than Time magazine found the story newsworthy. Writer Rebecca Keegan Winters notes that the Best Animated Feature category, ostensibly created to provide a space in which to honor the achievements of companies like Pixar, has in fact ghettoized this new wave of animation within the award system. An animated film, the Academy seems to believe, just isn’t of a kind with live-action film, no matter how artful it may be.

In this context, Carl’s gentle gesture seems like Pixar’s acknowledgement of the sentiment that has kept their films off the Best Picture ballot. At the same time, though, in Ellie’s words, we find a rebuttal to this point of view. She encourages grumpy old Carl to go find a new adventure, to acknowledge the reality of his situation and to do what’s right.

Pixar’s latest film likewise insists that no matter how different digital animation in particular may be from what we’re used to, one can’t deny its tremendous power to delight audiences with moving stories and creative genius. In short, Up asks us to recognize that, in recent years, Pixar has pushed the medium to new heights. :::

Devan Goldstein has written for Bright Lights Film Journal, The Motley Fool and The Pittsburgh Pulp. He teaches writing and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh and works as an interactive marketing strategist. His website is devangoldstein.com.

posted by editor ::: November 11, 2009 ::: philms :::