Pixar has by now gotten to the point where, if they wanted to go The Producers route and make a really bad movie, they’d have to outsource it. By those standards, this isn’t in the same league as some of their best work. However, it has an emotional resonance that took me by surprise.
Much of the credit for that ought to go to the first act, which depicts a fairly simple love story between two kindred spirits. Carl and Ellie meet as little kids who want to be explorers — their shared dream is a house on a cliff in South America. And while they make plans to achieve that dream, they grow up, fall in love, get married and like what appears to be a storybook life in most respects. And the dream remains, always in the background but never completely forgotten.
Then Ellie dies, and Carl finds himself without much reason to live the same life. When it comes time to move into a retirement home, he makes his escape by attaching a gazillion helium balloons to his house and flying away in it. Up in the air, he realizes that he has a stowaway — a boy scout (Wilderness Explorer, to be precise). What happens next is inventive in its details but fairly standard in its overall construction. While the inventiveness involves such wonders as a fight to the death between two arthritic geezers, the plot itself makes all the stops that the genre more or less requires — a new world, new acquaintances, a new enemy, initial disappointments and a big final victory. And of course, a message about the life we ought to treasure being that which happens when we are busy treasuring dreams of an other life.
What holds it all together is the love story right at the beginning. Even as he is immersed in the challenges of dealing with a strange world, Carl still talks to Ellie. In a way, this isn’t so much a story about a flying house or about clinging to our dreams, but about getting over the loss of a loved one.
As for the house, it becomes a symbol of their lives together — both the one they lived and the one they wanted to live. It ends up where it should, and Carl ends up where he should. He probably still talks to Ellie, but I suspect he doesn’t feel so guilty anymore about being alive while she isn’t.