Tuesday, September 30, 2014

UP! and the Brevity of Life

The Pixar animated movie Up! follows the last adventure of a 78-year-old balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen. It's a great story and a fun ride, but one of the most important elements of the film is Carl's status as a widower. His wife, Ellie, was more than the love of his life—she was the spark and spirit, as well. But because the story begins some time after Ellie's death, the filmmakers had to find a way to communicate the depth and meaning of Carl and Ellie's relationship in a way that didn't take away from the main plot line. 

Their solution is a short vignette at the beginning of the movie that quickly and powerfully details the story of their lives. This vignette basically operates as a short film that could be viewed independently from the rest of the movie. There is no dialogue—only a series of brief scenes perfectly complemented by a musical score. But the result speaks volumes about the thrilling ups and terrible downs we all face in a lifetime.

The vignette starts with a brief glimpse of Carl and Ellie's wedding day, and then moves to their first home and first jobs—Carl as a balloon salesman at a zoo and Ellie as a zookeeper. The couple race up a grassy hill together, then look up at the sky and imagine pictures forming in the clouds. Then the clouds are all shaped like babies, and then Carl and Ellie are painting a nursery together. It's an idyllic look at young love and marriage.

But this isn't an idyllic life. The scene shifts to Carl and Ellie in a hospital room with pre-natal diagrams on the walls. A doctor is talking and gesturing. Ellie is weeping into her hands. Next, Carl comforts his wife by reminding her of an old dream they shared when they were children—travelling to a place called Paradise Falls together. Rejuvenated, Ellie creates a dream jar labeled "Paradise Falls," and into the jar goes all of the young couple's spare money.

Again, however, life happens. First their car pops a tire. Then Carl visits the hospital. Then a tree falls and damages the roof of their home. Each of these inconveniences necessitates the dream jar be smashed and the money spent. Soon, Carl and Ellie have gray in their hair. And in a flash they become elderly.

Near the end of the vignette, Carl remembers their dream of visiting Paradise Falls, and he purchases two tickets from a travel agency. But Ellie collapses on her way back up the grassy hill from their youth. We see her in a hospital bed, with Carl holding her hand and kissing her forehead. Then we see Carl sitting alone at the front of a church. He holds a solitary balloon in his hand. The vignette closes as Carl carries the balloon into his house, which has turned cold and gray. The balloon is a lone spot of color against the gloom, and then everything fades to black. (You can watch the clip here)

It's a wonderful triumph of film making. But more importantly, the series of clips and scenes is a portrayal of the human story. Our lives are fun, deep, tragic, and tender. But they are also brief—"a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). In the only psalm attributed to Moses, he wrote, “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (90:10). Those aren’t words we want to hear. We want to remain forever young, but Scripture reminds us that the years pass and death will one day arrive.

That leaves us to wrestle with two essential questions: Am I ready to “fly away” at life’s end, having trusted Christ as my Savior? And am I using my fleeting days to please the One who loves me eternally? You can’t control the length of your life, but you can control its depth. How do we do that? Invest our lives in the only two things that will endure the test of time—the word of God (Mar 13:31) and people (Ecc. 3:11). In his autobiography, Just As I Am, Billy Graham wrote, “What is the greatest surprise you have found about life?” a university student asked me several years ago. “The brevity of it,” I replied without hesitation. Time moves so quickly, and no matter who we are or what we have done, the time will come when our lives will be over. As Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).[1]

[1] Billy Graham, Just As I Am (New York: Harper, 1997), 739.

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