Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up (2009) - The Carl and Ellie montage

(Image courtesy of Disney-Pixar via

Last night, I saw Up for the second time -- finally in 3D and with the short attached (loved it!). Have to say, the 3D was not nearly as essential as Coraline's, but Pixar's first foray into the third dimension was pleasantly (and not surprisingly) subtle. As Peter Docter has said in many interviews, the idea is to create a window (i.e., an image with greater depth), not a spectacle.

But I digress. What I really wanted to discuss was that absolutely brilliant/gorgeous/heartbreaking four-minute montage detailing Carl and Ellie's marriage at the beginning of the film. After WALL-E's wonderfully contemplative dialogue-free opening, Up really had its work cut out for it. I don't know if I'm ready to say one film is better than the other, but I will put the montage down as one of Pixar's greatest achievements and easily the best four minutes of cinema I've seen in the theaters all year.

When I interviewed Docter back in April, he talked about how some of the Pixar team had stumbled across a collection of old home videos of people they didn't know during the production of Up. Despite not knowing who these people were beforehand, through these minimal (and, if my memory serves me right, dialogue-free) interactions, the Pixar artists were able to instantly connect to these "characters". Not unlike the opening of Mean Streets - when we hardly know Charlie, the one character we've met in the film, Scorsese gives us clips of Super-8 home movies. By the time we do finally meet these people, we feel we know them (check out Uncle Giovanni's reponse to the camera the next time you watch it, the shot speaks volumes).

So, for Up, the challenge was distilling an entire marriage -- the dreams, dissapointments and in-betweens -- into one, silent-scored montage. We need to understand Carl and Ellie's relationship, and more importantly, how each character functioned within that relationship. There's a lot of clever production design at work, which gets continued throughout the film (notice the juxtaposition of Carl's chair with Ellie's chair, his square-framed pictures to her ovular ones, the rigid objects stacked on Carl's nighttable). I think, what really hits home though, is the relability of a couple whose wild fantasies eventually got grounded by simple realities of life. They never compromise happiness, but as time goes on, the dreams become more modest, or arguably, fade into the background of what is a fairly normal day-to-day existence.

That Pixar is able to cram so much emotion into these little computer generated figures (and in only four minutes!) says more about their power as storytellers than the evolution of computer animation. Hell, the first time I saw the montage I started to well up a little. The second time too. And while the talking, cooking, airplane flying dogs didn't hold up for me quite as well on viewing no. 2, I get the feeling no matter how many times I rewatch Up, that montage will still get to me on some level.

If WALL-E was about the audacity and naivite of dreaming for the stars, Up explores what happens when you find something worth trading in some of these dreams for. The montage, along with some of the other more melancholic scenes in the film, probably expresses this idea better than the film on a whole, much as WALL-E loses steam in its second half and never quite recaputres the visual expressiveness of its opening 35 minutes or so.

Seeing things like "the montage", though, suggests Pixar is still willing to challenge itself and its core youth demographic. For at least one studio, cinema, not the profit line, still comes first.


  1. I still need to see it! I had considered just waiting for it to come out on DVD, but I'm definitely going to drag Brandon to this while it's still in theaters.

  2. Read this story. It made me cry. The people at Pixar are really amazing.