"Thanks for the Adventure": The Gospel According to Pixar's "Up"
Posted by Steve Turley ● Jan 10, 2016 7:13:31 PM
Up introduces us to a young boy named Carl Fredricksen. We first meet Carl when he is just eight-years old, sitting in a darkened cinema, wearing his WWI leather flight helmet. He sits in enraptured attention when the newsreel flickers onto the screen about Carl’s hero, the famous adventurer Charles Muntz, whose motto was ‘Adventure is out there’. Muntz had returned from a year-long adventure on his special air craft, a blimp he called ‘The Spirit of Adventure’. As he comes before the news cameras, Muntz presents to the world his great discovery, a skeleton of a giant bird Muntz called ‘The Monster of Paradise Falls’. Carl’s face beams with delight at the movie screen: one day he too will go off exploring the world’s adventures for himself.
But then the announcer gives the shocking news: “The National Explorers’ Society accuses Muntz of fabricating the skeleton!”
Carl watches the screen, horrified, as the Explorers’ Society removes Muntz’s photo from their adventurer’s Wall of Fame.
But Muntz is defiant: “I promise to capture the beast … alive!” he cries out before entering back into his aircraft. “And I will not come back until I do.”
After the newsreel ends, Carl runs back home with a balloon in his hand, on which he wrote the words, ‘The Spirit of Adventure’, pretending the balloon was his airship. He was buzzing and zooming with the sounds of the aircraft down the sidewalk, only to be interrupted by another voice in the distance, ‘Adventure is out there!’ Carl turns and sees an old abandoned house and looks into the window. There he sees a young girl, named Ellie, who, equipped with her own WWI leather flight helmet, is pretending to pilot the Spirit of Adventure in the abandoned living room.
‘What are you doing?’ she cried out in response to Carl staring at her. ‘Don’t you know that this is an exclusive club? Only explorers get in here. Do you think you got what it takes? Well do you?’
Carl is speechless. ‘Alright, you’re in. Welcome aboard,’ she says. Ellie takes off her helmet and shakes out here messy red hair. On the front of her shirt there were loads of buttons and badges. She unfastens one made out of the cap from a bottle of grape soda and pins it on Carl’s shirt. ‘You and me, we’re in a club now’.
And as he sits in his bed later that night trying to read, a blue balloon with a stick tied to the end floats in through Carl’s window and hovers above his bed. Ellie’s head pops through the window, ‘Hey, kid! Thought you might need a little cheering up.’ And the two begin to read Ellie’s very own adventure book she put together.
She pointed to pictures of Charles Muntz. ‘When I get big, I’m going where he’s going – South America. It’s like America, but south. Wanna know where I’m gonna live? Paradise Falls. A land lost in time’.
Ellie points to a beautiful photo of a steep mountain with a flat top, rolling trees and a flowing water falls. ‘I’m gonna park my clubhouse there right next to the falls’. Then, she flips through the book until she comes to a page marked STUFF I’M GOING TO DO, where all the following pages were blank. ‘I’m saving these pages for all the adventures I’m gonna have … Only I don’t know how I’m gonna get to Paradise Falls’.
Just then, she catches a glimpse of a collection of toy blimps on Carl’s shelf.
‘That’s it! You can take us there in a blimp! Swear you’ll take us. Cross your heart! Cross it!’
Carl crossed his heart.
‘Good, you promised, no backing out’.
And so ended their first day together, a day that would turn into the rest of their lives. Carl and Ellie, now young adults, get married and purchase their old abandoned clubhouse. They move in and restore it little by little each day. Ellie gets a job at the local zoo, and Carl does as well, selling balloons from a cart.
And together they keep a money jar that has written on it, PARADISE FALLS, where they would toss in their spare change.
But expenses always seemed to get in the way: a new tire for the car, a new roof for the house, a cast for Carl’s broken leg.
But Carl was always determined to keep his promise.
And one day, on their anniversary, Carl, now an old man, decides to surprise Ellie with tickets to South America. But before he can, Ellie gets sick. And as she sits in the hospitable bed, a blue balloon floats into her room from the opened door and hovers over her bed. Carl walks in, and sits down with her, holding her hand…. for the last time.
As the years pass, unfortunately for Carl, his neighborhood is being increasingly torn down to make room for a bunch of tall buildings, and eventually, his is the only original house on the block. And, then, through a court order, he is forced to leave his home, their beloved clubhouse.
That evening, he stares at a picture of his Ellie, and, with a determined look, crosses his heart.
The next morning, to the shock of everyone in the neighborhood, thousands upon thousands of balloons appear floating above his roof all tied to his house which miraculously lifts the house off its foundations and high up into the air and Carl flies away. With a smile of satisfaction, he looks down from a thousand feet up, takes out his compass, steers the house south, and Carl sits back enjoying his balloon flight to South America ….
…..only to hear a knock at his door.
Perplexed, he opens the door, and finds a little boy name Russell, a cub scout who was caught on Carl’s porch hoping to assist Carl and as a result earn his Assisting the Elderly badge.
Carl and Russell become friends and eventually land the house in South America, just in sight of Paradise Falls.
They end up running into and befriending the giant bird that got Charles Muntz in trouble all those years ago. Then, they meet his hero, Charles Muntz, now an old man, who has spent that last decades trying to capture the bird. But Muntz thinks that Carl and Russell are there to get the bird for themselves and so Muntz tries to kill them. They escape only to see the bird captured and taken into Muntz’s blimp.
In the process of trying to free the bird, Carl and Russell have a chance to talk, and Russell reveals to Carl that his parents have divorced and he rarely sees his father. “My dad used to come to all my sweat lodge meetings. And afterwards we’d go get ice cream at Fenton’s. I always get chocolate and he gets butter-brickle. Then we’d sit on this one curb, right outside, and I’ll count all the blue cars and he counts all the red ones, and whoever gets the most wins.” Russell pauses: “I like that curb. That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.”
Carl and Russell finally rescue the bird by flying up into the air in Carl’s balloon-floating house and intercepting Muntz’s aircraft. In the process, Muntz is thwarted and Carl and Russell take over the aircraft, but at the expense of Carl’s house, which they last see disappearing downward into the clouds. They free the bird, fly the aircraft home, just in time for Russell to attend his sweat lodge meeting and receive his Assisting the Elderly Badge. And it is Carl who is the one who pins the badge on Russell at the ceremony, only Carl pins on Russell the grape-soda pin that Ellie gave to him as children, what he calls ‘the highest honor that I can bestow, the Ellie badge’.
The movie ends with Carl and Russell sitting on a curb in front of Fenton’s, eating ice-cream and counting cars. And as the camera pans away, for the final scene, we get a glimpse of where Carl and Ellie’s club-house landed: right in the middle of Paradise Falls.
As I think through this film, I see two kinds of physics at work. On the one hand, there is a seemingly miraculous and wonderful physics where balloons lift houses up into paradise.
On the other hand, there is the physics of adventure. Adventure, like the balloons, supposedly overcomes the limitations of the world, it defies conventions, it transcends the tyranny of the mundane and seems to give meaning and purpose and accomplishment to life.
And yet, throughout the film, there is a strange tension between these two physics. The physics of adventure demands Carl and Ellie reach Paradise Falls and yet their house and circumstances prevent them from getting there. His balloon business hardly affords Carl the luxury of pursuing adventurous travel. And when he meets his childhood hero, Charles Muntz, the embodiment of adventure, Muntz in his blind ambition tries to kill him. The balloon motif throughout the film both draws them to adventure and yet keeps them from it.
And as I reflect on this tension, I can’t help but think of our own age, this modern age in which we find ourselves, for we are in an age that imputes tremendous value to the adventure promised in success and achievement and accomplishment. We are in fact the first age that tells our young people ‘You can do whatever you want to do, all you have to do is follow your heart and it will never let you down’. There has been for the last several months a billboard on I-95 of British singer Susan Boyle which says romantically, ‘She dreamed a dream’, and then exhorts us to ‘live your dreams’.
This seems so innocent to us, as it did of course for Carl and Ellie, and yet there is something extraordinarily detrimental, indeed, as we find with Charles Muntz, even sinister below the surface.
C.S. Lewis described the difference between the modern age and the classical age as involving two fundamentally different orientations to the world, we might say two different physics. For classical man, the fundamental question was: ‘How do I conform my soul to the world around me and thus be drawn up into divine life, and the answer was through prayer, virtue, and knowledge. However, for modern man, the question is inverted: modern man is not interested in how to conform the soul to reality, rather modern man asks how do I conform the world to my own desires and ambitions, and the answer involves those institutions that operate by the mechanisms of power and manipulation, namely, science, technology, and the state.
And so now reality is judged not in terms of virtue and faithfulness, but rather in terms of success, that is, how well one has actually conformed circumstances to his own goals, needs, and desires.
Today, we have a class of people who are ‘famous solely for being famous’, that is, people ascribed with celebrity status for no particular identifiable reason other than their association with celebrity status. The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge may have been the first to use the actual phrase back in 1967 when he wrote: "In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something—as a writer or an actor or a criminal; for some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one is famous for being famous. People who come up to one in the street or in public places to claim recognition nearly always say: 'I've seen you on the telly!'”
In other words, our age is unique in that fame is no longer linked to moral qualities, such as good and evil, but now solely through amoral categories such as ‘new’, ‘hip’, ‘contemporary’, ‘cool’, or my favorite, ‘fun’.
There is, however, a radically dehumanizing aspect to this civilizational shift. For as Lewis notes, by cutting ourselves off from prayer, virtue, and knowledge, we have cut ourselves off from those frames of reference that classically awaken love within us, namely the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
‘Love’ in the classical sense is a desire for union with the divine source of life, a desire to conform the soul to an eternal, transcendent reality that endows the cosmos with meaning and purpose and thus awakens our true humanity. In contrast, ‘love’ in the modern age has been reduced to an emotive, sappy, therapeutic, even temperamental term that has nothing outside of the self to sustain it. And thus our affections become highly erratic, impermanent, and promiscuous.
Moreover, there is an odd irony in all this; in that by attempting to conform the world around the self, we end up imprisoning ourselves. In the classical world, the purpose of culture was to act as a portal to conform the soul to reality; culture linked the human person with the larger cosmos filled with divine meaning and purpose. But culture in the modern age has a different function; it is used by the individual to conform the world around the self. And thus, culture becomes a kind of prison that surrounds us, absorbs and distracts us, and cuts us off from the transcendent, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, that awakens love and leads us to the divine source of life.
Up depicts well this imprisonment with Charles Muntz, whose slavery to his own ambitions for fame and fortune is depicted by his life as a hermit living in a cave over the course of several decades. He is sequestered from humanity. He knows nothing of love or relationship. He can manipulate the lives of others, but he cannot share his life with others.
And as a result of the absence of love, we find that this blind ambition has a murderous side to it as well, in that Muntz is willing to kill off anyone that could possibly get into the way of his desires.
And I think, too, of what we, as a modern culture, cut off from the transcendent source of love, have been willing to do in order to secure the success of our ambitions. In January of this year, on the 39th anniversary of Rove v. Wade, President Obama defended the practice of infanticide that has killed off over 50 million of our children because it “enables our daughters to fulfill their dreams.”
When the desires of the self, success and achievement, fame and fortune, science and the state, act as our key values, we become not only vacuous and banal, but also indescribably cruel and violent.
Yet, as we see throughout the film, something is tugging Carl away from this physics of adventure and celebrity. And we see this tension finally resolved when Carl has been abandoned by Russell who goes on his own to help free the bird from Muntz, and Carl sits down all alone in his house now situated in Paradise Falls. On his lap is Ellie’s Adventure Book. He opened it up and adjusted some of the pictures in the front, and then turned to the page that said STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. He sighs in agony, knowing that the pages that followed were empty, just like his promise to her.
And as he closes the book, he notices that there is a photograph underneath the fold of the title page, and so he opens the book back up, and, to Carl’s surprise, he finds their wedding picture, followed by a picture of them together in their backyard, their birthdays together, their first car, trips to the park, their times at the zoo. The pages weren’t blank at all, but were instead full of pictures of their life together.
The last photo was of them sitting side by side in their chairs. They were old, and they were happy. And below the photo Ellie wrote these words:
“Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one. Love, Ellie.”
Carl now realized that he did not let Ellie down; he kept his promise: their whole life together was Paradise Falls.
For well over a millennium, classical Christian civilization understood that space and time had meaning only in terms of their participation in something greater, which gave them their eternal significance. The only way of making sense of the world and our human experience was by understanding the totality of creation as rooted in divine life and love.
Thus, since Plato, philosophy has understood that the love shared by two persons is an image of a loving desire for the eternally True, Good, and Beautiful. Classically, love involves an attraction, a gravitational pull that draws us upward to that which transcends our spatial and temporal limitations, and thus lifts us up into an indissoluble union with that which never ends, the divine source of life.
I therefore do not think it coincidence that throughout the film, Carl embodies this physics of love with a gesture, the crossing of his heart. The cross is the manifestation of love par excellence; it is the revelation of a love not of this world; a love that comes to us not through success or celebrity, but rather through the brokenness of our lives.
The cross is where God and humanity confront each other in the deepest and starkest of terms. It is on the cross that humanity is revealed for what it has become: when truth comes into a world comprised of lies and power and manipulation, it can only appear as crucified. And in that display of our madness, our violence, we see a love that knows no bounds, no depths too low; we see a love that conquers the world by being totally conquered, for the power of love is not the power of this world.
And what is the resurrection? It is the unquestionable display that this love is in fact unconquerable and inextinguishable, infinite in its abundance and eternal in its life; which in turn awakens a comparable love within us and thus restores us back to paradise.
Thus, both Up and the Christian gospel gift us with a profound truth: paradise is not so much a place, but a person. Love is the ultimate adventure, and relationship is the ultimate promise.
And so, in the midst of all our challenges and our discouragements, all of our successes and failures, all of our hopes and disappointments, let us always remember and never forget: Christ is Risen!
The adventure has begun.
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Up pictures courtesy of Pixar Films.