Up: The Reckoning (Or How a Beloved Pixar Film Almost Tore Apart Nerds On Earth)
Labor Day is supposed to be a time of rest and relaxation. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the day holds the promise of relaxation, hot dogs, and time spent with loved ones. Now imagine that idyllic scene shattered by a debate—nay, a scurrilous row—caused by the most unexpected of culprits: that ode to octogenarian adventure, that tearjerker extraordinaire, the cherished Pixar film Up.
Allow me to paint you a picture with my mental paintbrush. We nerds are scattered across these great United States, and we use Slack for planning, scheduling, and general tomfoolery. As we chatted about the day’s festivities, I casually mentioned that Up was on TV, and that I was…well, I was having a hard time with it. Let’s go to the tape.
Kerry: Caught a mid morning showing of Up on TV and was emotionally just wrecked by it. That movie gets me every single time.
Clave: The open scenes of that movie open up the waterworks. It wrecked me when his sweet wife died. Sorry, spoiler warning.
Kerry: The thing is, I picked it up halfway through the movie – it was way past that part and I was still bawling silently while trying not to disturb a peaceful morning
Mike: A beautiful example of the old “show it, don’t say it” line for visual arts. Or show don’t tell. However it goes.
So far, so good, right? Hold on to your butts—it’s about to get hectic
Whit: Unpopular opinion: Up is terrible.
Whit: Everything up until Carl doesn’t give up Kevin is fine. But Muntz was his hero. For years. The constant in his life. The adventure. The way things were. Everything he wants to go back to. When Muntz asks, “Have you seen this bird?” Carl’d be like, “Oh yeah. He’s right over there. Take him back and get your glory back.” Forget this little kid. I don’t buy it.
Alright, a little backstory might help to understand the context of Whit’s extreme hot take on a universally acclaimed film. Up tells the story of an old man named Carl Fredricksen. After the death of his beloved wife, Ellie, Carl flies their house to Paradise Falls, deep in the jungles of South America, to fulfill his wife’s greatest wish.
Along the way, Carl gathers an unlikely band of sidekicks:
- Russell the Wilderness Scout,
- Dug the dog,
- and the giant flightless bird Kevin (“Kevin’s a girl?”).
Near the waterfall they end up meeting Charles F. Muntz, famed explorer and childhood hero to both Carl and Ellie—in fact, he’s why they’ve wanted to see Paradise Falls for decades, the whole reason Carl is even there.
Carl is puzzled to realize that Muntz has been in voluntary seclusion at Paradise Falls since the 1940s, searching for the mythical giant bird that will prove him wrong to all the doubters and naysayers of the world (spoiler alert, it’s Kevin). Carl’s surprise is quickly replaced with horror when he realizes what Muntz has been doing to make sure nobody finds the bird first. Ok, on with the show…
Kerry: But the kid [Russell] is proof that adventure takes many forms, and that old dreams can prevent new and better ones from taking place. It’s a deeply philosophical movie – it can be read as, “Our heroes are rarely who we want them to be.” Or, “Love is not the end or beginning of life – it’s part of the adventure.”
Whit: I get what they were trying to say, but they rushed the story. You’re having to undo years of his dream in the span of 5 minutes. It’s more unbelievable than a house being carried by balloons. Carl’s hero was exactly who he wanted him to be. But he changed, not his hero.
Kerry: That’s the hero’s journey: faced with a trial and weakened by the death of his wife, Carl chooses to embrace the future by using the lessons of his real mentor (his wife), not the false mentor/idol Muntz.
For those keeping score at home, we’ve got a general discussion of the overall message of the film—your basic nerdish argument. But Whit’s about to take this in a new direction.
Whit: I don’t buy that Muntz is the false hero. He’s a man that pushes further and says we don’t know everything about the world. He’s Elon Musk—he’s the genius ahead of his time pushing the world to advance and move forward. And when the world disgraces you, you set out to show them there is still adventure. Until some punk kid ruins everything. And the world forgets adventure and that there is always more out there.
Kerry: And like Elon Musk, he is a real person with real flaws. Unlike Musk, Muntz’s flaws can (and do) drive him to obsession and violence and murder. Muntz isn’t a hero. He’s an intensely driven individual who started out to explore and inspire kids like Carl and his wife, but somewhere along the way it became less about the discovering and more about the glory and fame of being “the best” adventurer.
Whit: But remember, in my version, he isn’t driven to murder and kill because he gets the bird. And he returns to the world.
Kerry: But he’s already done those things before Carl and the kid show up. He implies that he’s killed people who have come to steal his bird. And he keeps their helmets and clothing as trophies. The other explorers wanted to find the bird, too. Instead of sharing the adventure and exploration, he selfishly guards it, hoards it like Smaug and his gold.
We’ve arrived at the big issue: is the villain of Up a homicidal old crackpot, a man driven to violence by a desire to prove his doubters wrong?
Or is Muntz a misunderstood genius à la the founder of Tesla, PayPal, and SpaceX, a trailblazer held back by the small-mindedness of the world?
Whatever you think, I’ll leave you with our parting shots, which were made possible with an unwitting assist from our editor-in-chief.
Clave: Up worked here [points to heart]. It allowed me to connect with my kids, I felt feely things, and I laughed. I honestly have no idea which characters Musk and Munson were. So I’m good with it.
Whit: Musk is the CEO of Tesla. Munson is the villain that makes dogs talk through his genius.
Kerry: Munson is the older, more murdery dude.