Disney knows its literature. “The Lion King” is repackaged “Hamlet,” and the majority of the studio’s releases prior to the 2000s were variations on fables and Brothers Grimm tales. In “Up,” Disney/Pixar’s newest release, the studios team up to reinvent perhaps the greatest novel of all time, “Don Quixote.”
The premise is simple: An old, isolated, and socially outcast man takes on a wonderfully ludicrous endeavor in order to give his life meaning. In Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece, “Don Quixote,” the titular character fights windmills in a vain attempt to revive the ideal of chivalry. In “Up,” a bedraggled and curmudgeonly Carl Fredrickson aims to remember his late wife by following through on a long-lost promise.
In both cases, the characters succeed through their failures. When Don Quixote lies at his deathbed, the presumed thematic result would be the final death of chivalry and honor; instead, Sancho Panza, Quixote’s trusted friend, and Quixote’s relatives are all invigorated by the dying man’s daring and imagination. If anything, Don Quixote’s martyrdom in the name of chivalry has done more to preserve it than any real knight ever could. Without saying too much in the way of plot, trust that “Up” allows Fredrickson the same dignity.
Of course, Fredrickson has his own Sancho Panza as well — a well-intentioned but buffoonish young Wilderness Explorer named Russell, who accompanies Fredricksen on his quixotic quest to fly his house to South America. Not to forget, a talking dog, Dug, serves as a trusty steed in lieu of Quixote’s Rocinante.
None of this is to suggest that Disney’s work is derivative. “Up” is by no means a saccharine retelling of the classic work; instead it is a clever and deeply felt reinvention of the work. While originating on the same premise of an adventurous and daring dream, “Up” explores the issues of our time — most notably, loss. Moreover, the film captures the bittersweet effect of Cervantes’ irony throughout — Fredrickson, Russell and Dug are not heroic figures. Instead, they are all deeply flawed and rely on one another in order to survive their epic quest. The effect is palpable, somewhere near your left ventricle.
Finally, “Up” breathes new life into a wonderful literary genre that is often forgotten in film outside of the “road trip” movie: the picaresque. The simplicity of storytelling in “Up” trusts its genre and trusts its audience to become entangled with its characters and their trials. By the end of the film, Disney/Pixar makes good on the implicit promise of the genre and reifies the audience’s faith in humanity.
Much like the closing scenes at the end of “Don Quixote,” the last moments of “Up” reassure the audience that there is a life worth living, even through the hardest of hardships, and that it isn’t too far out of reach. In these times, this is an important message for everyone to hear, no matter what their age.
Kellen Hoxworth, of Mahtomedi, is a director of theater and has recently worked on productions of “Hamlet” and “Mother Courage and Her Children,” and is currently working on the GreenHouse New Play Festival at HotCity Theatre http://www.hotcitytheatre.org/greenhouse.html in St. Louis, Mo.