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Disney Pixar’s Up is a masterpiece that leaves sentimental saps, such as myself, in a state of emotional disarray. I rose and fell with the plot, channeling my anger at the greedy construction company, bracing myself during the thunderstorm, and celebrating as the villainous Charles Muntz fell from the sky. I’ve watched the movie enough times to quote scenes and conduct the brilliant score. With every viewing, I notice a new detail that makes me fall deeper in love. I realize Mr. Fredricksen brought his mailbox to South America, Ellie was scrapbooking for her husband on her deathbed, and Russell needed a father figure just as much as Mr. Fredricksen needed a son. The creators of this movie fired arrow after arrow into my heart and always hit their mark. When I watched the movie earlier today, I made an effort to notice how the makers of Up crafted these devastating assaults. I became fixated on the characterization, particularly how each character was designed. In “The Art of Up” by Tim Hauser, I read that each character was modeled after a simple shape, but I hadn’t realized how ubiquitous this tactic was.
Carl Fredricksen is a square. His box-like head is made possible by a 90-degree chin and echoed in his angular glasses. Even the wrinkles adorning his forehead are cut in straight lines. The theming continues with Fredricksen’s sharply creased trousers, rectangular belt buckle, and distractingly square knuckles. All these design choices highlight Fredricksen’s terse nature and lack of tolerance for nonsense. His sharp nods are sharpened by his angular chin, and his staunch determination is underscored by his crisp bow tie. It’s as though Mr. Fredricksen’s personality is so striking that it overflows into his physical characteristics and apparel. But it’s not just the design choices, but the contrasts in Up as well.
Ellie is Carl’s sweetheart and further evidence for “opposites attract.” Carl is angular and reserved and Ellie is curved and expressive. Age wrote its history gracefully across her features, granting her smile-lines and ovular glasses. Her head is round and soft, crowned with an elegant bun. Carl’s brows rest furrowed atop his glasses, but Ellie’s float in a constant state of curiosity and delight. Ellie’s chair is round and patterned, and Carl’s plain leather seat consists of right angles and straight lines. Ellie drinks from a teacup while Carl sips from a mug. Ellie’s coffee table is a circle, and Carl’s is a square.. Every one of Ellie’s portraits is a round shape, and as you can probably guess, Carl’s images are always framed with corners. Even the lamps illuminating their bedroom reflect their distinctions. Ellie’s lamp is a dome while Carl’s light comes from a modest rectangular prism.
Due to Ellie’s death, the two share less than ten minutes of screen time. However, the creators of Up developed their relationship through the tiniest details. This constant characterization submerges the viewer into the lives of Ellie and Carl, causing us to care so deeply about the couple that it hurts even more when death separates them. But the artists and animators did not stop there.
Carl is continually confronted by a cast of contrasting characters (pardon my alliteration but I can’t help myself sometimes). Enter Russell: a lovable youngster in pursuit of his ‘assisting the elderly’ patch. Not only is age a distinctive difference between Mr. Fredricksen and Russell, but we again see physical contrasts. With a round face and soft features, Russell serves as another contrast to Mr. Fredricksen’s angular disposition. Russell is naive and undaunted, quick to trust and quicker to share personal information. His innocence is captured in rosy cheeks and unkempt hair. Where Mr. Fredricksen’s hands are gray and boxed, Russell’s are flushed and plump. These contrasts emphasize the lessons the two characters share. Russell demonstrates the importance of loyalty and honesty while Mr. Fredricksen leads with grit and resilience. Russell shares an optimistic perspective unhindered by past disappointments. Mr. Fredricksen teaches wisdom forged by decades of experience. They complement each other, continuing the precedent set by Ellie, rounding out Carl’s sharp edges.
Even the animals are shaped by contrasts. Kevin, the brightly colored bird who we later discover is a girl, is oval-shaped. Dug, the talking golden retriever, has a round body punctuated with a big, ovular nose and fluffy tail. Everywhere Carl Fredricksen goes he meets another character who is like Ellie and unlike him. These constant contrasts build and build until a pivotal moment. Carl pages through Ellie’s scrapbook and finds a message from his late wife thanking him for the adventure and encouraging him to have his own. Her note releases him from the obligation he feels to preserve their house, causing him to recognize the people in front of him right now. Perhaps he sees Ellie’s gentleness reflected in the way Russell cares for Kevin or how Dug refuses to leave even when Carl gives him every reason to or how much Kevin will do for her chicks. Or maybe he hates the way he resembles Charles Muntz’s cruelty with his sharply drawn wrinkles and angry eyebrows. No matter the reason, Carl rights his priorities and comes to the aid of his friends. Though loneliness and loss had carved sharp edges into Carl Fredricksen, the contrasting characters in his life softened those lines.
Beneath every charming character and plot twist is a host of tiny artistic decisions and creative detail. Up has heightened my awareness of the immense amount of work that goes into the art of emotional devastation. I love re-watching movies to catch a glimpse of that process, to understand the arrows lodged in my chest. The artists and animators responsible for Up are master craftsmen, and I will continue to be a target standing at the end of their archery range, taking in more arrows every time I watch.
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