This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
An old Native American proverb says, “Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in their moccasins.” These wise words summarize one of the many rich themes at the heart of Disney/Pixar’s Up, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. At first glance, Carl Fredricksen is just a grumpy old widower with an unhealthy attachment to his house/material belongings, and Russell is merely a naïve young lad who talks way too much. However, as we grow to better understand the painful backstories of these two characters, we realize their annoying characteristics are covers for a hidden brokenness they long to be healed of.
Beyond this classic theme of avoiding prejudgment, Up also makes a powerful case for the dangers of sentimental attachment. Carl is in an extended state of mourning after the death of his beloved wife Ellie, and he becomes excessively protective over every material reminder of her, believing that they keep her spirit alive. But after he meets Russell and goes on the adventure of a lifetime, he begins to see that Ellie’s spirit is much more fully alive in aspects of life other than sentimental paraphernalia. Both themes are interwoven beautifully and make Up a film worthy of extensive analysis.
Much has already been written about the poignant simplicity of Up’s first ten minutes. Two adventure-craving children named Carl and Ellie meet, grow up together, and fall in love. Their married life is filled with both great joy and deep sorrow, and it is tragically ended by the premature death of Ellie. Carl is heartbroken not only by her death, but also by his seeming failure to fulfill a promise he made to her as a child: taking her to South America, home of the legendary Paradise Falls. Wracked with the pain of loss and guilt, he becomes a sort of recluse and snaps at anyone who dares speak to him.
After impulsively striking a construction worker who accidentally damages his mailbox, Carl is court-ordered to move into a retirement community. Having collected thousands of balloons from his years as a balloon salesman, he avoids this fate by unleashing balloons through the chimney and making his house airborne so that he can fly all the way to South America.
Much to his chagrin, Carl soon discovers that a talkative young Wilderness Explorer named Russell happened to be on the front porch when his house took flight. Russell has been trying to earn his “Assisting the Elderly” badge so that he can become a senior Wilderness Explorer, and he embraces this unexpected adventure with Mr. Fredricksen as the perfect opportunity to do so.
Carl cannot stand Russell’s boisterous company and wishes he were simply alone with the spiritual presence of Ellie. Nevertheless, upon arriving in South America, this odd couple is hurled into a series of misadventures that requires Carl to be protective and almost fatherly towards the boy. It turns out that a protective father figure is exactly what Russell needs, as is revealed in a poignant scene during which Russell sheepishly tells Mr. Fredricksen that he does not know how to put up a tent.
“Well, why didn’t you ask your dad how to build a tent?” Carl asks. Russell sadly replies, “I don’t think he wants to talk about this stuff… He’s away a lot. I don’t see him much.” He also reveals that his dad is now living with a woman other than his mom, which clearly breaks Carl’s heart and gives him a newfound sympathy for this talkative young lad.
While Carl has now learned of Russell’s hidden brokenness, it would seem that Russell is too naïve to understand the heavy grief in Carl’s soul. However, he is smarter than meets the eye, and he quickly picks up on the fact that Carl is still deeply in love with a woman who has passed away. In a humorous scene, he spots Carl talking to the soul of Ellie and immediately starts talking to her too. He also witnesses the strong attachment Carl has to his house and every spiritual reminder of Ellie, and while he does not say much about it, he clearly understands how much these things mean to the man.
The danger of sentimental attachment really becomes the core theme directly prior to the climax of the film. Carl has angered Russell because he failed to protect their exotic bird-friend Kevin from the clutches of the sinister Charles Muntz. Sitting alone in his memories-filled house as Russell mopes outside, Carl wistfully begins to look through the “Adventure Book” that Ellie made when she was a child. He still feels immense guilt over failing to take her to Paradise Falls during her lifetime, and he cannot bring himself to look through the second half of the scrapbook, which she said she was saving for all the adventures she planned on having in Paradise Falls.
However, just as Carl is about to close the scrapbook, he notices that there are pictures in the second half. Opening it back up, he is touched to see that Ellie has filled the “Adventures I’m Going to Have” section of the book with pictures of their life together. On the last page is a tear-jerking yet encouraging note: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!” Realizing that Ellie wants him to move on with his life and give Russell the fatherly love that he needs, he crosses his heart to her that he will carry on the adventure with Russell and safely bring him home.
Just as Carl has finished looking through the scrapbook, Russell takes some balloons and a leaf-blower and announces that he is going to go save Kevin from Charles Muntz. Upon seeing him fly away, Carl panics and tries to get the house airborne again, but it is weighed down by too much stuff. In a profound moment of interior conversion, Carl tosses every material attachment out of the house so that he can fly away to help Russell. He understands now that Ellie’s spirit is fully alive not in the house nor in the furniture, but rather in her love and liveliness that grief temporarily robbed from his own soul.
Carl succeeds in rescuing both Russell and Kevin, but in the process, his beloved house is lost. Assuming that Carl must be heartbroken by this loss, Russell sympathetically says, “I’m sorry about your house, Mr. Fredricksen.” Carl unexpectedly replies, “You know, it’s just a house.” He has grown to love Russell like the son he never had, and the beauty of this love is a far greater token of Ellie’s compassionate spirit than the house could ever be.
Up is a profound, delightful, and multi-layered film that only improves upon every viewing. It reminds us to treat each person we meet with the utmost kindness and respect, for we never know what hidden brokenness they may be facing. Carl’s inner transformation also exhibits the truth that if we truly want to carry on the legacy/spirit of lost loved ones, we must simply strive to emulate their virtues rather than hold onto material reminders of them. Adventure is out there, so let us leave behind the slavery of comfort and embark on an empathetic journey of self-giving.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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