SPOILERS: Be advised I can’t discuss this film (and the character voiced by the topic of this blogathon, Christopher Plummer) without revealing a major spoiler.
Pixar’s 2009 animated feature Up is so unusual in so many ways. A family film that focuses mainly on an elderly character, its themes are sorrowful and even dark. It’s a rare film (live or animated) that contemplates aging and regret. Pixar is celebrated for its imaginative output, and in my opinion Up is its most fanciful and imaginative film to date.
The film begins with a young boy named Carl at the movies (probably during the 1940s) watching newsreels about a famous explorer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Carl is such a fan of Muntz that he wears a helmet and goggles like his. He is stunned to find out his hero has been accused of faking his latest discovery. Muntz disappears, swearing he will one day clear his name.
Carl runs into a feisty little girl named Ellie who is just as much a fan of Muntz as he is. When they grow up they court, marry, and renovate a small house, all the while planning an adventure to Paradise Falls, the last place Muntz was seen. Carl sells balloons to children to make a living. They save their pocket change for their goals, but life intervenes. They are unable to have children, and as the years slide by they end up never leaving for their adventure. Finally, Ellie becomes ill and dies, leaving Carl (voiced as an elderly man by Ed Asner) a bereft and irascible old man.
Urban development leaves the little house surrounded by a construction zone. Carl stubbornly refuses to sell his house, until an incident with the law forces him to move to an old age home. On the day they come to fetch him, he blows up dozens of balloons that lift his house clear off the ground.
Unwittingly, he ends up with a passenger, a boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is a Wilderness Explorer, a sort-of boy scout keen to win a badge for aiding the elderly. They end up near Paradise Falls. On arrival, Carl is determined to drag the still somewhat aloft house to Paradise Falls, as he and Ellie always dreamed. Russell finds a huge and colorful bird he names Kevin. They also run into a pack of dogs that can talk, including one named Dug, who immediately attaches himself to Carl.
Turns out the dogs are owned by none other than Carl’s childhood idol, Charles Muntz, who happens to be looking for the bird Russell has found. At first friendly and welcoming, it quickly turns out Muntz is willing to do anything to capture the bird. Carl must decide between his goal of taking his house to Paradise Falls and saving Kevin from the clutches of the obsessed Muntz.
The character of Muntz is clearly modeled on the movie star adventurers of the 1930s and 1940s, i.e. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Tyrone Power, etc. He is a “surprise” villain, in the sense that the main characters are initially unaware of his capacity for cruelty and crime.
In fact, I would say that Muntz is the most heinous of the Pixar villains, possibly one of the most heinous of the Disney villains as a whole. Perhaps it seems that way because he’s not a magical figure, but an ordinary man. He’s willing to kill and destroy over an obsession that the rest of the world forgot about long ago.
Who better to voice Muntz than the urbane Christopher Plummer? One could imagine him playing a character just like him in a live action film when he was a young man. Plummer has always been the kind of actor who could easily slip into heroic or villainous roles, and in this film, he voices a character who embodies both.
Up features two men near the end of their lives still trying to fulfill long-cherished dreams. Carl’s character arc is poignant precisely because Muntz is such a perfect foil. He could have been a great man. Instead, he never let go of the past and isolated himself to the point where he could no longer feel empathy. Carl learns to let go of the past and live the rest of his life connected to the world.
Up is a beautiful film enhanced by its rare themes and voice performances by two remarkable veteran actors.