You know that moment in Toy Story when they’re suddenly in a bubble with three-eyed alien toys, or in Ratatouille where the rat starts being guided by the ghost of a chef he’s never met, and you say to yourself “Okay, this is getting WEIRD?” This entire movie is like that. It’s the loosest and most bizarre of all the Pixar movies to date, and that’s exactly what’s good about it—in addition to the creativity, beautiful animation and rich stories they are known for.
We open with our hero, Carl, as a boy, watching a newsreel of his explorer hero, Muntz, a Charles Lindbergh type who flies his luxury dirigible to exotic places. He is finally discredited when people think an exotic bird he found is a hoax, and Muntz returns to South America, vowing to return when he one day finds that bird. Carl is transfixed by Muntz’s adventures, and one day meets a girl who is also one of his crazed followers. She has a scrapbook of her adventures, and they vow to one day go to South America themselves. The movie then begins to track forward, accompanied only by music, as they grow, get married, fix up their home, have picnics and get jobs, grow old, and finally she dies. Carl’s home is now the last house left on a block with a huge development growing around it, and pamphlets for a retirement home arriving in his mailbox everyday. A complication forces Carl to accept the loss of his house and that he’s have to move into the retirement home, but instead of going, he unleashes a bunch of helium balloons that rip his house from its foundation and send it floating off like a hot air balloon. The matter-of-fact way in which this occurs is one’s first sense of how this movie has little interest in sticking to anything like reality. Precious details in here are the perfectly too-happy expressions of the couple on the cover of the retirement home pamphlet, and the grim, emotionless faces of the development bosses, cell phones always plastered to their ears.
Turns out Carl has a stowaway in the form of Russell, an Asian boy scout hanging around to receive his final patch in assisting the elderly. The story wastes no time in getting them to South America, where they land in sight of the waterfall where Carl planned to make his home, the place his dead wife envisioned through a childhood picture he retains, showing his house pasted on the precipice next to the falls. He and Russell tie the floating house around their torsos, and start walking around to where the falls are.
Now is when the story starts taking unforeseen turns, so if you want to see it and not know where it’s going, I would skip past where the spoilers end.
SPOILERS > > >
They haven’t walked far before Russell is adopted by an enormous colorful bird who follows them on their journey. Russell names the bird Kevin. They are also joined by a friendly dog, Dug, outfitted with a collar that allows him to talk. Also nearby are three tougher dogs, also with talking collars, who are searching for the bird. For the first few minutes, the nasty Doberman pincher speaks in an incongruous high-pitched helium squeak. By this point it’s all so bizarre and fanciful, one just gives in and allows the movie to go off in any direction it might choose.
Soon a complication brings them into a large cave, where they find Muntz and his huge airship. They realize that the mythical bird Muntz has been seeking all this time is Kevin, and try to get out quietly. But now Muntz has seen the bird and will do anything to get it, as it means he can then return to civilization.
To accomplish this he sets Carl’s house on fire, and the old man makes the decision to let the bird and dogs go for fear of losing the house, and with it the photographs and memories he has inside, most visually represented by objects like a set of chairs that symbolize his happy time with his wife. But the bird and the dog are gone, and Russell berates Carl for not helping, and takes off himself to return them. Here’s where the movie makes its big point, when Carl starts to dump out all of his precious furnishings and objects so he can float the house again and go save Russell. Yes, it’s not a subtle metaphor, Carl gives up holding on to the objects of his cherished past that are literally weighing him down, but the way it just happens without any verbalization of these themes help it be understood without seeming [too much] like being hit over the head with the Important Point.
There’s a big action sequence as the house combats the dirigible, and at a certain point the house is lost. Carl and Russell return the bird to its young, and take the airship back to America. The film ends with a nice image showing that the house landed exactly where it was pictured in the wife’s drawing, ultimately fulfilling her vision and creating a sort of monument. The credits play out next to a series of photographs of Carl and Russell doing a number of fun activities, showing that Carl has unofficially adopted the boy and become his surrogate parent.
< < < SPOILERS END
This film has gotten a little bit more criticism than other Pixar releases for having stock characters in cliché situations, running through familiar routines. While there’s some truth to this, these characters are no more stock, and the action and comedy tropes they go through no more derivative then in other Pixar releases, but perhaps by now the novelty has worn off a little bit, making those elements seem more apparent. But this story makes up for it through its maturity—it is one of their first to be about an older adult and the concerns of someone late in life. The question of what’s important in preserving memories, fulfilling lifelong dreams, how to fill out one’s final days and when to give up holding onto the past are deep in a different way than past Pixar releases, and trump the admittedly manic action that can make the whole thing seem more juvenile. Of course, one could argue that the movie HAS to up the juvenile action in order to balance out the fact that this is primarily about the worries of an older adult, and make those worries interesting for kids.
This movie could also be criticized for lacking focus, with the way it branches out in a number of goofy directions, but that is part of the point, as Carl is forced to give up the safety of his routine and ordered existence and respond on the fly to a variety of seemingly random situations. When you think about it, it’s rather remarkable for Pixar to find a way to interest kids in the mental state of a senior citizen. Can you name another non-Pixar children’s movie that is not centered around a child or talking animal or some other fanciful creature? This release is not necessarily much better than any of the other great Pixar releases, but it is very rich and rewarding in a different way.