Lessons From “Up”

It's the Journey That Matters, in the end ...I came home from work today and there was Charlie at the television, remote in hand. He’d cued up a DVD because he’s a big fan of dismantling a movie to find the inconsistencies, continuity errors, and miscellaneous curiosities embedded there. It’s like working a puzzle, I think. I enjoy sudoku, he does movies. It works.

So, anyway, the Pixar movie, “Up” is running. Sort of. I mean, it’s running in bits and pieces, stops and starts, repeats and closeups. Luckily, he fell asleep in record time, which meant the movie could roll on, unhampered, which meant I could watch … yet again … and marvel at the message. It’s one of the most pleasant ways I know to jerk me back into reality when I get too serious and lose focus on what’s really important.

A couple of friends say they’ve never been able to get past the first segment of this children’s movie (and it’s probably not really for kids) simply because it’s too sad. It’s a cartoon, they say. It’s supposed to be happy. I don’t know. If you’re old enough, think “Bambi.” You’ll get it.

Maybe I should put in a spoiler alert here. “Up” tells the story of Carl and Ellie Frederickson. Well, actually, it tells the story of Carl’s discovery of a fundamental truth of life, but the couple’s life together is integral to the whole movie. See, first we see Carl and Ellie’s lives play out, from the two intrepid would-be adventurers’ childhood meeting to their normal life together, making plans for reaching their dream — a house at Paradise Falls in South America. It’s the great adventure, what they save and scrimp for, what they set their sights on. But then life gets in the way, as it always does, and before long we see an older, failing Ellie slip away without reaching Paradise Falls and the grand adventure it represents. She leaves behind a heart-broken, irascible man who feels guilty that he was never able to make that dream of adventure come true. So life, for Carl, is bitter, tired, a failure.

Need a tissue? You might if you were watching it. I usually do, although it may be because I’m older and I understand a little bit about unrealized dreams and guilt and the bittersweet nature of life.

That’s just in the first five minutes or so; the rest of the movie emerges from the past. In a nutshell, Carl, with the help of an eager but dad-deprived Wilderness Explorer, a rare and unusual South American bird named Kevin and a talking dog (“but it’s a TALKING DOG!”) named Dug, manages to float his house using balloons — lots of ’em — to the very precipice of Paradise Falls.

Forget about the impossibility of the task. When that house thuds solidly on land there, Carl’s content — for a moment. He’s fulfilled Ellie’s dream of adventure, but the satisfaction of getting there is quickly replaced with the classic letdown. Regrets pour in even stronger than before. She’s not here. It’s too late to enjoy. It’s as he’s sadly looking through her journal of childhood photos that he reaches the page that reads, “Things I’m going to do” — the point at which he’s never paged beyond because, well, they never “did” anything beyond daily living and he always assumed it was empty. Pained, he begins to shut the book when the page slips down and he notices a photo behind it.

Ah. Cue the blinking neon arrow. There he finds pages and pages of photos from their life together. Ellie captured all those normal, everyday moments of living, of connection, of happiness, of life being lived. At the last entry she’s written, “Thanks for the adventures. Now go have a new one!”

And this, then, is the message: their lives together were the adventure. It was never the destination at all.

Let’s all cry, because the message is so elemental and true … and we know it. In our hearts and souls, we know with a clarity of insight that’s downright scary, that this, THIS is what’s important. THIS is what matters.

And thus this embittered old man, eaten up with regret that he and Ellie never got to have an adventure, finally understands.

Lest you think this movie is really more like a drama than an animated comedy, think again. That’s the coolest part of all — it’s a movie fill with fun, laughter, and light that never once hits you over the head with that concept.

Like Carl and Ellie, most of us focus so strongly on where we’re going that we forget that what really matters is life and the living of it. Charlie and I do this yet today. We think about retirement, and the kind of house we’ll want to buy, and where we’ll be, and what we’ll do. But it’s the here-and-now that really matters. It’s the house we’re in now, the adventures we have now, that we’ll hold in our hearts as we go along.

None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow. Let’s make what we can of today so that when we, like Carl, page through that old photo album, our perspective lets us relive every adventure we’ve had rather than mourn the one grand goal we never reached.

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