Mention Up to someone, and it is almost inconceivable that their response will not immediately mention the montage. The sequence which opens the film has come to overshadow all that follows so completely, it almost feels like a short film appended to the beginning of the wild, raucous action-adventure that follows. The “Married Life” sequence is a piece of cinematic showmanship that rivals, and arguably exceeds, the rest of Pixar’s filmic output: an ode to a life lived together, with all of the ups and downs that entails. Accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s brilliant, simultaneously crushing and uplifting score, we watch as Carl and Ellie marry, plan for their future, and see those plans continually deferred by the grind of daily life.
The pull of this sequence is so great, the original idea for this piece fell under the title “Up, Mortality, and Dreams Deferred.” It seemed appropriate to talk about the beauty and the tragedy of that sequence in terms of the sophisticated message it carries: Life is a short, fragile thing to be treasured, and dreams are powerful things that do not always come true. One of the many things to love about Pixar films is their stubborn refusal to talk down to their intended audience. Pixar doesn’t make children’s films, nor do they make the sort of dreck DreamWorks often turns out that tries to make a kid’s movie more palatable for parents by throwing in plenty of references that will whiz over the heads of young’uns and keep their elders entertained. No, Pixar makes, to borrow an old adage, films for the whole family: emotionally and thematically complex works that respect the sophistication of children (who are smarter and more capable than Hollywood generally gives them credit for) and thus provide real, meaty stories that will appeal across generational divides.
The fact is, however, that Up isn’t really about dreams deferred—and, in point of fact, neither is that rightly lauded sequence, which only gains that meaning because it is viewed so frequently as divorced from the film that follows. No, in truth, Up is about the power of dreams to keep us going; this is not a film about death, but a film about life. Sure, Carl (Ed Asner) is mourning the loss of Ellie, and yes, he takes off on his adventure in part to keep his promise to her, but the arc of the film is less about his grief and more about the dizzying allure of possibility.
Viewed through this lens, the film’s more overtly kid-friendly conceits—talking dogs and anthropomorphized birds, for example—take on a new meaning. It isn’t that Up loses its subtlety and emotional resonance as it gets caught up in an adventure full of references to Roald Dahl and 1930s adventure serials, it’s that Carl loses his insularity and harsh exterior when he gets caught up in life again, and reminded of how much joy, hope, and possibility exist just outside his front door.
Carl’s house moves locations throughout the film, in one of its most gloriously fanciful conceits, but it needn’t have shifted at all to tell the story at its core: life is waiting for all of us to live it, and while it is easy to get caught up in ourselves and in the mundane things that keep us away from adventure, we should never lose sight of that picture on our mantle, of that dream deferred that we might someday accomplish. Dreams deferred do not wither and die, Up reminds us. They exist right outside our front door if only we remember to open our doors, step out of our private worlds, and find them again. Maybe Up is about mortality, but if so, it views that word as a synonym for possibility, and as a constant reminder that our short time on Earth shouldn’t be squandered. Dreams keep us going through dark times by reminding us what it is we sacrifice for, but they can do something far more powerful. They can provide a template for how we make our way in the world. They can give us something to aspire to. They can make sure that, even when we’re down, we look forever up and aspire, someday, to climb to those heights.
— Jordan Ferguson