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"Sentimental" is a funny word. When used to refer to a state of mind, it has come to suggest a artificiality, an arrangement of feelings that takes the place of the feelings themselves; eventually, one understands that sentimentality is an anaesthetic. For me, the supreme moment of sentimentality in modern cinema occurs in Brian de Palma's The Untouchables. When Al Capone (Robert de Niro), attending a performance of I Pagliacci that has moved him to tears, is told that Jim Malone (Sean Connery) has been killed, he cannot suppress the smile that cuts through the convulsions of his sobs. The fundamental falsity of Capone's response to the opera (itself long suspect as a well of bogus sentiment) is made clear in an instant. Sentimentality coats everything it washes over with a film of toxic sludge.
"Sentimental," however, when used as an adjective to describe an object, or a work of art, or a place, or anything other than a person's feelings is a very different sort of word. There is nothing toxic about it, certainly. We call something "sentimental" when we suspect that other people are going to be moved by something that does not move us. It is a keyword of young adulthood — that time in life when the prospect of being moved is alarming rather than seductive, and when surrender of any kind is suspect. The interest that people in their twenties and thirties take in denaturing the objects of their parents' nostalgia has the quality of a magic spell, meant to preclude their own growing old. One's prime of life is in any case a time for doing, not for remembering.
But is it remembering? Is that what old people are doing? Getting on myself, I don't think so. Missing is more like it. Looking back fondly at the time when so-and-so kissed you-know-who is not what older people do. Rather, they look back at the chance that so-and-so had to kiss you-know-who, but didn't. What they recall are the dreams that did not come true, the children who did not arrive, the possibilities that fell infertile to the ground. You can't really remember something that never happened.
The glory of the montage in the early part of Up, the beautiful new movie from Pixar, is that Carl Frederiksen (voiced by Ed Asner, but coming off as Spencer Tracy) wants his Ellie back. This old man, looking at photographs, doesn't want to go back to their time; he wants their time to continue. Life without her is a hollow thing. (No wonder he strikes some viewers as "curmudgeonly"!) His body is old, but his spirit remains passionate — passionate enough to provoke him to tie up his house to a colossal bunch of helium balloons and escape a world that quite literally no longer has a place for him. Perhaps he imagines that it's a stunt that his Ellie — a daredevil in her day — would dream up. It is the perfect realization, within a movie aimed at children, of the desire for death and transfiguration, for rejoining dead loved ones in Paradise.
Because Up is aimed at children (though made, I'm convinced, for the pleasure of their grandparents), Carl's ascent into the blue empyrean takes him to South America, not Elysium; not to Paradise but to Paradise Falls, the remote ridge that Ellie wanted to "explore" when she was a fearless tomboy (and Carl a bashful neighbor). When his house lands near but not at his intended destination, he has a perilous adventure. His companion on this quest is Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who, prior to takeoff, sought to "assist" Carl, in order to earn the one merit badge that's missing from his sash. Russell's experience of actual wilderness conditions, such as the ones that the unlikely pair now find themselves in, turns out to be nil, so he is very much a net annoyance to Carl. All Carl wants to do is to walk his house (still buoyed by balloons) to the waterfall some distance along the ridge. Step by imperceptible step, Carl accepts Russell as a fellow human being, and this is what the adventure is for. It's only when some new external nuisance presents himself that Carl is nudged a little closer toward a genuine relationship with the boy.
The hair-rising adventure drags Carl into a confrontation with his own boyhood hero (Christopher Plummer). With its talking dogs and Disneyesque dodo birds, it is highly fabulous, which will thrill the children, but without tiring their elders, heartily moved by so much of the film to this point, any more than is strictly necessary. The children will be watching the dogs, the dodo, the dirigible, and, maybe, Russell; but for anyone over fifty, Carl remains the principal character in this entertainment. The mature viewer will find that watching the action sequences that lead to the climax of Up is very like playing with a bright, attractive toddler: its inherent limitations are easily and altogether overlooked. Punctuated by a second pang-filled look at Ellie's scrapbook (don't even think about braving this without tears), the roller coaster ride exalts the good and deposes the bad. Once back where they came from, Carl and Russell appear not to have left anything of importance behind — except, in Carl's case, what ought to have been left behind.
I wonder how clearly Russell will speak to the parents in the audience. Pudgily fond of sweets, Russell is the saddest victim of a broken home that I have ever seen in an animated film, or perhaps in any movie. He wants that last merit badge, you see, because he has been told that his father, who now lives with a woman who regards Russell as a pest, will attend the awards ceremony. Never has the longing for a dad been so nakedly (but also appealingly) paraded on screen. I hope that Up makes at least one shaky couple resolve to stick it out for the sake of the kids. (June 2009)
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