What makes a story a good story, a story worth telling, a satisfying story to have been told? I’d suggest that a good story is one that touches our emotions; that tells us something we recognise about the world we live in, and at the same time offers us a better world that could be ours if we choose to accept the invitation.
On that score, UP ticks all the boxes, and is a good story despite a plot that is not very satisfying for most of the film (deliberately so, in contrast to the first ten and last five minutes).
Carl and Ellie’s story:
Carl and Ellie’s story is told in the first ten minutes, and it is told beautifully. Over the course of a lifetime together, Ellie comes to learn a priceless secret: that greater than the adventure of travelling many miles to fulfil a great dream together is the adventure of travelling many years of ordinary moments together – what Mother Theresa described as small acts done with great love. As circumstances – sometimes bitter circumstances, told with great pathos – conspire against Carl and Ellie achieving her childhood dream, the adult Ellie does not settle for a smaller world and a smaller dream, but decides to choose a deeper world and a deeper dream.
This story, of a lifelong marriage, of deep companionship and enduring love, is a story we are routinely told by the Media is no longer realistic today. “Marriage was traditionally an economic transaction, no longer necessary in an age of greater financial independence for women.” “Marriage is a social construct responding to an evolutionary urge, again made unnecessary by economics.” “And we are all living longer, which makes the idea of a lifelong commitment all the more impractical, all the more impossible.” Without moralising, Carl and Ellie’s story – Carl and Ellie, who both have a job; Carl and Ellie, who discover that they cannot have children – holds out to us something better: the adventure of small acts done with great love, overcoming great hardship, and sharing great joy.
Charles F Muntz’s story:
The acclaimed explorer Charles F Muntz was the inspiration of Carl and Ellie’s childhood imagination. But then tragedy strikes: Muntz is wrongly accused of faking his discoveries, and discredited. In his attempt to clear his name, to vindicate himself, he ends up losing himself. He is innocent of forgery, but loses his innocence, becoming an increasingly bitter old man, turning his genius to evil, and becoming the antithesis of the inspirational hero he was as a young man. He perfectly depicts for us Jesus’ observation that whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and what good does it do a man to inherit the earth but forfeit his soul?
Carl and Russell’s story:
Carl Fredricksen is now also an elderly man who has lost something of great significance to him – his life with his wife, Ellie – and who, in trying to hold on to the past, is becoming an increasingly unattractive and isolated individual.
Russell is a young boy who comes, uninvited, into Carl’s life. Russell’s parents have split up, and he misses his father. He hopes for his father’s presence in his life, but is tentatively resigning himself to disappointment on that front. He is obese, over-eager to please, and lacking confidence and self-worth – despite having earned all but his final badge as a junior Wilderness Explorer (akin to a Boy Scout). He is, frankly, annoying.
Together, Carl and Russell go on the dream adventure that Carl and Ellie never got round to. This adventure takes up most of the film, and brings a certain poetic closure to the house in which Carl and Ellie lived together, but overall is far less satisfying than the first ten and last five minutes – those deeper adventures, those small acts done with great love.
Carl is forced to give up his life, to make room for Russell – and in doing so becomes a perfect depiction of Jesus’ observation that whoever loses his life for the sake of the gospel will find it [it being both ‘their life,’ at a deeper level, and also ‘the gospel,’ the kingdom of God breaking in]. Clearly this is not a ‘Christian’ film [God spare us from those], and the gospel in question is not a 2-D presentation. It is a gospel of broken, hurting people being brought together and discovering that they need each other, that together they can experience life in greater fullness. It is a gospel of redeemed community, where the elderly and the young can come together across the generation divide and lay down their lives for each other.
But it is Ellie, through her treasured scrap-book, who opens Carl’s eyes to see the adventure that he has already been on, and who gives him the inspiration to have new ones. It is the trace memory of Ellie that holds out a better world, that Carl and Russell discover, and that the audience are invited to discover too. Hers is a secret worth discovering, and worth telling, too...