The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
A friend loves at all times, and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Pixar’s 10th film is cinematic magic! In their 15 years of producing films they have filled the screen with films telling stories that charm and thrill us, and their latest release is one of their best, right up there with WALL-E. Thanks to them adults no longer need the excuse of a child to go and see an animated film—Pixar has erased any boundary between an “adult” and a “children’s” film.
And speaking of a child, one of the delights in this story is the way in which a child leads a grumpy old man out of his funk into a bright new world of love and joy, reflecting just a bit Isaiah the prophet’s vision of a child leading dangerous animals in a renewed, harmonious world of shalom. The child is Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), a chubby Wilderness Scout wearing over his uniform a sash filled with medals. He needs just one more to become a Boy Explorer, that badge being one gained from Helping the Elderly. 78 year-old Carl Fredricksend (Ed Asner) is the grumpy old man, and he does not want any help from a pesky boy. He rejects all offers of assistance from the persistent boy, finally slamming the door in his face.
Carl lives alone in his old house in a neighborhood being taken over by high rises. A developer wants to buy his house so that the lot can be a part of his new building project, but the house is the treasure of Carl’s heart. It is filled with pictures and mementos of Ellie, the love of his life who died some years ago. In an absolutely fabulous montage that begins with the two of them meeting as children and discovering their common love for adventure we see the story of their marriage unfold, the last five minutes or so with no dialogue (this might remind you of the great sequence in WALL-E that also resembles one of the films of the silent era.). Carl and Ellie’s hero was the explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who had explored the South American jungle around Paradise Falls, but who, after a scandal, had disappeared in that region. Their dream had been to save enough so that they could fly to Paradise Falls, even perhaps discovering what had happened to their idol. However, the small things of daily life—car repairs, dental and medical bills—had found them constantly dipping into their savings. By the time there was enough money for Carl to purchase two flight tickets, they were old, and Ellie was dying from an illness. Carl had only pictures and furniture from their life together, the most precious thing being the scrap book Ellie had left. The section called “Stuff I’m Going to Do” is filled with blank pages. Faced with the grim prospect of going into a retirement home, he decides to try to fulfill that 70 year-old promise of going to Paradise Falls.
Carl had earned his living as a balloon salesman, so appropriately it is a HUGE collection of balloons rather than an airline that he decides to use to fly to his destination. Just at the moment when the outside world is intruding by about to force him into the retirement home, the old man goes back inside his house allegedly for a bathroom necessity, but actually to activate his plan. Soon the colorful balloons are filling up with helium and tugging at the house. Their pull is greater than both gravity and the pipes and bricks that connect the old structure to the ground. To the astonishment of the men outside, the house becomes airborne, with Carl gleefully waving goodbye. Pleased that at last he is on his way, he settles back inside. Then—Knock, knock! What could that be at this altitude, high above the city streets? Carl sees no one when he opens the door, until—it is that pesky boy that he thought he had shooed away! But Russell had returned, and is now terrified as he stands on the narrow porch almost hugging the wall.
What follows is an adventure even greater than Carl had dreamt of. Or, for that matter, than Russell could have imagined, since the city-bound Wilderness Scout had never actually been in a wilderness before their touchdown in South America. An adventure including their finding the lost explorer (a dream, it turns out, that might have been best left unrealized); discovering a huge flightless bird that bonds with Russell; duels (with a walker as a weapon) and aerial dog-fights; and actual dogs, able to talk thanks to ingenious collars that the explorer had invented. The latter provides some delightful humor, their talk being just the kind one would expect from dogs.
Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have gifted us with what will become a classic, one filled with humor and life lessons that can be enjoyed by children and adults.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. What is Carl like when you first meet him? How does your view of him change when you see his “back story” ? How could this film be of help to those who seek to minister to the elderly, whether at retirement homes or still living alone?
2. What is Russell like? How is he a bit different from the usual young hero? What quality does he show at the beginning by refusing to take Carl’s “No” for a final answer? (Hint: compare him to the widow in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:1-6.)
3. What happened to Carl and Ellie’s dream of travel and adventure? Have you had to defer any such dream? By the time that Russell enters the picture what has happened to Carl’s spirit? How does the past dominate him? Note how the contrast in colors between the house and the balloons reflect this (what is the dominate color of the former?).
4. How is Russell like that child in the passage from Isaiah? Carl in turn also has a benevolent effect on the boy: what apparently is the boy lacking in his family life?
5. When they finally encounter the lost explorer/inventor, what happens to Carl’s image of him? Have you had an experience of a person you had admired turning out differently than expected when you met or got to know her?
6. How are the South American adventures a delightful riff on dozens of such adventure films from the Thirties and Forties?
7. What does Russell help Carl see in regard to the house and its memorable treasures? How is this a reflection of the values that Jesus teaches in the above excerpt from his Sermon on the Mount?
8. What do you think of the boy’s comment about his earlier relationship with his father and his family life in the following?
Russell: “It might sound boring, But I kinda think it’s the boring stuff I remember the most.” 9. At the end of their adventure what does Carl find in the scrapbook? What was his real treasure, one that he did not at the time fully realize? What does the following note say about his wife? “Thanks for the adventure. Now go out and get a new one!” How is this an antidote for sorrow over loss?
10. At what points do you see God working in this film?