All good adventure stories are alike. They awaken us to a new world where our best qualities are allowed to thrive, a world in which our latent courage, loyalty, and derring-do are given free reign. Where we can be the heroic person we know we are but that society just won’t let us be. Yet as awake and alive as we want the adventure genre to make us, these stories belong in the territory of fantasy, dream, wish-fulfillment, and when we delve deeper into this realm, we find that the wish to test our virtues masks deeper more troubling desires.
Pixar’s Up is no different. It has all the qualities of a good adventure. On the one hand, just like a coming-of-age youth discovering and testing the virtues endorsed by the adult world, our hero, retiree and widower Carl Fredricksen, discovers his own latent courage, selflessness, and loyalty. He stands in stark contrast to the greed, pride, and fraudulent spirit of his idol-cum-nemesis Charles Muntz. Because Carl and his young side-kick Russell have proven themselves worthy of all the virtues of adventure, they emerge, quite literally, the true inheritors of the “Spirit of Adventure” blimp while Muntz falls to his death inheriting just a handful of balloons – too few to float his corrupted spirit.
The same scene shows Carl and Ellie’s house also disappearing through the clouds. And though we know the house is falling, the ambiguous perspective allows us to interpret the house as rising into the clouds. As the house clearly represents Ellie, so we can assume her spirit, embodied in the house, rises to heaven. It also provides closure to Carl whose heroic development is hindered by his clinging obsession to the house. It’s only when he empties the house of its weight (i.e., baggage), and launches to save Russell, that he has finally inhabited the role of adventurer, leaving the weight of the house, Ellie, and his marriage behind. So, while most adventure tales may serve as coming-of-age tales, this one is just as much a coming-to-terms tale.
If we dwell on the house and the balloons as a symbolic team for a bit longer, we might observe an opposition. The balloons (adventurous spirit) float Carl away, but the house (memory of his wife) weighs him down. On one hand, both the house and the balloons are meant to represent the spirit of adventure. When Carl and Ellie first meet as children the house is marked “Spirit of Adventure” as well as little Carl’s balloon. On the other hand, we might observe then that each symbol has a different version of adventure associated with it: the “real” adventure modeled on Charles Muntz, and the real “adventure” of modern domestic life. (We will go ahead and say that the former is the ideal adventure and the latter is the domestic adventure.) This symbolic coupling doesn’t appear compatible, and in fact, the house seems somewhat inimical to Carl’s original idea of the ideal-adventure. Take the early scene when Carl first meets Ellie in the house and his balloon floats up through a chasm in the second floor. Carl must traverse a fragile plank to retrieve this symbol. He abruptly falls through the wood plank and breaks his arm, unable to retrieve the symbol of his ideal-adventure. The house continues – throughout that masterful montage – to represent the obstacles to Carl’s ideal-adventure. The realities of modern life – money, marriage, domesticity – continuously defer the dream vacation/adventure to Paradise Falls. As the film presents it, Carl is seduced by two different types of adventure: the ideal and the domestic. His devotion to the latter makes the former impossible.
It’s hard not to pick up on a couple messages here: 1.) Modern life only allows us to achieve the ability to go on adventure when it’s too late. When Carl finally purchases tickets to Venezuela, he and Ellie are way past the age to do anything but sightseeing and turning in early, to say nothing of the fact that her death is the cruel and final impediment. 2.) Domestic married life prevented him from the adventure that he had always meant to take. Toward the end, after he has finally placed the house in its intended place and Russell has gone off to save Kevin, the snipe, Carl picks up Ellie’s “Adventure” book and finally realizes that she considered their domestic life the real adventure. On the one hand, he had felt like he let her down by not going to South America, but on the other hand, we get the impression that despite Ellie’s enthusiasm for the ideal-adventure, she was much more intent on the domestic-adventure.
The rest of the film takes the form of a fantasy adventure, and it stands in stark contrast to the realism of the early part of the film with the montage. Yet everything about the dream-like, ideal-adventure is bound up with the tensions of Carl’s real life. His ideal-adventure is not an escape; rather it encodes all the hostility that has built up in Carl’s life.
If it isn’t an accustomed rule in the film world that any time a house loosens and detaches from its foundation and sails away into clouds, finally landing in some strange Eden, a dream has ensued, then it should be. Add to this that Carl picks up three unlikely companions on the way. And while no flying monkeys haunt and harass the four, there are some pretty sinister, if ultimately harmless, talking dogs. So, if we are in the dream world then we are in the strange matrix of wish-fulfillment, displacement, secondary revision, etc. As such, we must look beyond that strangely coherent surface of the adventure and try to understand, like Freud, the dream-thought, the real-life tension, that underlies it all.
If we refer to IMDB’s trivia page for our film, or if we just watch the film again, we will see an interesting physical connection between Carl and Russell involving their half-tucked collars. We do not need much discussion to come up with the conclusion that Russell is a more ideal young Carl, or what Carl wishes he could have been at that age. Instead of tramping around with a single pathetic balloon and a pair of goggles like Carl did as a kid, Russell effortlessly discovers the rare species of snipe that has apparently eluded Charles Muntz, Carl’s childhood idol, for decades. Russell dangles from a rope (a couple times) dodging darts in a literal/figurative dogfight; flies solo to save his companion; gets captured, tied up, threatened; and finally saves the day. Russell is innocent, loyal, and brave, and most importantly for our purposes, unwilling to stand by while Carl sulks over a girl who isn’t even alive. Russell is Carl’s childhood wish fulfilled. Russell goes on the adventure that Carl dreams he could have had had he never been seduced by the domestic-adventure.
Our villain, Charles Muntz provides us with another dream element: the double (or “uncanny” depending on how Freudian you want to be). Charles and Carl, for all etymological purposes, are the same name. In many ways Charles Muntz is Carl’s evil double in this dreamscape, and as such he is the adventurer Carl must define himself against. Carl finally possesses the heroic qualities he must to fulfill the ideal. Carl’s innocence stands in stark contrast to Muntz’s experience, but Muntz’s experience has not been shaped by noble motives. Muntz is motivated by greed, pride, a desire for fame, and the need to redeem himself from being exposed as a fraud. He is only self-interested. Throughout his adventure, Carl discovers self-sacrifice, loyalty. As such, his ideals and the qualities he finally embodies enable him to wrench the spirit of adventure away from the corruption of Charles Muntz.
We shouldn’t hesitate to note that there are no women in Carl’s dream-adventure. Only boys and old men in this wish-fulfillment (unless you count the female bird named Kevin). The absence of any female actors in this adventure make it a masculine undertaking. Yet the presence of the house is a female imposition on this fantasy crusade. It’s emasculating and it’s always in the way. Carl redeems his spirit only when he empties the house, gives up his uxoriousness, meets up with his pals, and takes a more active role in fulfilling his adventure.
Part II: Hostility and Neoliberal Capital