The title of the new Disney/Pixar movie “Up,” as well as its signature image of a house floating beneath thousands of tethered balloons, reminds us how frequently the theme of Lightness appears in children’s literature. From Mary Poppins to Peter Pan, from Tarzan swinging on vines to Harry Potter scooting on his broomstick, children’s stories seem to feature the quick, the lithe and the aerial. Maybe that’s not surprising. While adults seem earthbound, youngsters zoom by on skateboards or jump from heights as caped incarnations of Superman.
The mature, in fact, seem to suffer from the debilitating effects of kryptonite; they are victims of Heaviness. While children “play all day long” in J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” presumably their parents go to work or attend meetings. Indeed, the tragic moment in “Peter Pan” occurs near the end when the ever-youthful Peter comes to invite Wendy on another adventure and is shocked to find a gray-haired lady in the shadows; she can no longer fly, Wendy sadly explains, because “I am old.” It is the accumulation of “body armor” over the years and in response to trauma that, psychologist Wilhelm Reich theorized, explains the change of fluid and flexible youngsters into stiff, sclerotic seniors.
The movie “Up” presents this as a clash. In one corner is 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), a once-upbeat man who has become a grumpy widower. In the other corner is an eager and talkative 8-year-old named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer intent on earning his merit badge for assisting the elderly when he knocks on Carl’s door. The way they are drawn emphasizes this contrast between Heaviness and Lightness, old age and youth: Carl (with a square head and square glasses) is all hard edges, while Russell (egg-shaped and balloon-like) is a soft and babyish Humpty Dumpty.
These two opposites are thrown together when Russell ascends the porch just at the moment Carl releases the balloons that lift his house free from its foundation and send it flying. Here, apparently, is a hybrid vehicle inspired by “The Wizard of Oz,” combining Dorothy’s mobile home and the Wizard’s hot-air balloon. But Carl isn’t headed to Oz. His destination is South America -- more specifically, Paradise Falls, “A Land Lost in Time.”
With a descriptive place name like that, it’s difficult to miss the references to two adolescent novels from yesteryear: Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Land That Time Forgot” (1918). But in truth, the jungle wilderness full of odd animals where Carl and Russell touch down might just as easily have taken its name from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” In fairy tales, this region is called the Dark Woods.
In fairy tales, heroes are often tested by encountering someone who seems nice but turns out to be otherwise: a peddler woman who offers Snow White a lovely apple, an old lady who welcomes hungry Hansel and Gretel into her gingerbread cottage, a wolf in grandma’s clothing who invites in Little Red Riding Hood. When they land, Carl and Russell encounter this character in Charles Muntz, a famous adventurer living near Paradise Falls and surrounded by talking dogs and canine servants. At first he seems a great host and a Dr. Dolittle, but eventually Muntz reveals himself to be a version of the villainous scientist who experiments with animals in H. G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Carl and Russell narrowly escape.
When they return from their adventures, Carl takes Russell under his wing in a grandfatherly way. When the boy is awarded his merit badge, this senior citizen takes the place of Russell’s absent father and stands behind the youngster at the ceremony. Afterward, the two sit on a curb and eat ice cream cones. Carl’s Lightness has been restored, but in a specific way.
In films like “Big” and “17 Again,” it seemed that the recovery of Lightness required juvenility: Simply put, you needed to become a kid again. Consider Steven Spielberg’s movie “Hook,” his imagined sequel to “Peter Pan.” Peter (played by Robin Williams) has grown up and forgotten who he was; instead of a lighthearted sprite, he has become a middle-aged businessman weighed down by responsibilities and tied to his cellphone. Over the course of the film, Spielberg’s Peter must recover his childhood so he can fly again, and that eventually happens when the 40-year-old engages in a food fight.
“Up” takes a different tack toward the recovery of Lightness than this advocacy of childishness. Instead, we see the Melting of the Curmudgeon’s Heart and the buoyancy that accompanies that; Carl’s change is akin to that of the reformed Scrooge who becomes joyous and lighthearted on Christmas Day. But perhaps the story “Up” most resembles is “Heidi,” in which a young girl transforms her misanthropic grandfather. In this terrific film, Carl’s spirits rise when he watches out for Russell and discovers the pleasures known to grandparents.
This focus on a senior and his transformation is uncommon, both in children’s books and in children’s films; to be sure, grandparents appear in, say, “Heidi” or “Whale Rider,” but typically we follow a child around. Here we see the world through Carl’s eyes. Indeed, the filmmakers came up with a way to remind us of that: When you go see “Up” in 3-D, you are given square black glasses that are copies of those worn by Carl. That is genius. We not only see the world through his eyes, we change with him as well.