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Breaking Down: Up
The first time I saw Up was on May 31st, 2009: exactly eight years ago today. It was my girlfriend's birthday, and we went to see the film together. Our reactions embodied the quintessential movie poster trope: we laughed and we cried. Sometimes we laughed so hard that we cried, and sometimes we laughed at how much we were crying. It was difficult to say where one emotion ended and the other began; some experiences break down the difference between the two.
To say that Up resonated with me would be an understatement. I was at a personal crossroads: 25 years old, in a long-term relationship, and confronting the tough questions about life, love, and commitment that every man of honor must eventually stare down. The film's message seemed tailor made for the moment. Three weeks later I proposed, she said yes, and we played the film's score at our wedding reception. It was the alarm that woke us up this morning, too.
Writing this essay entailed watching Up many times, and doing so yielded far more depth (and, consequently, a much longer essay) than I had anticipated. Some of these observations I didn't make until my seventh or eighth viewing. This is one of the great strengths of digital animation: so much time goes into each shot that each frame is brimming with detail. When you have to create everything from scratch, nothing is there without a reason. The film's personal impact seems similarly undiluted; certain sequences remain emotionally overwhelming to this day. If you've seen the film, you know which ones I mean.
Up is a very lovingly crafted film, even by Pixar's standards. It is a layered film with many recurring themes, expansive metaphors, and pervasive symmetry, and this breakdown is my attempt to illuminate as many of its themes and details as possible.
Please note that these comments assume that you've already seen the film. I imagine that this essay would be enhanced by watching it again in conjunction with the reading, but I've included screenshots to illustrate most of the things being discussed. If you find this essay even a fraction as enjoyable as I found Up, I'll have done my job.
0:52 We open with an old-timey newsreel to introduce the character of Charles Muntz, the location we'll be spending most of the film in, Carl's lifelong love affair with the amazing, and the army of dogs. It's also an excuse to use phrases like "prohibition paddy wagons" and "the bee's knees." I wonder how Pixar's animators felt about having to sully their gorgeous animation by making it black and white and adding filmic artifacts to suit the period.
Muntz's catchphrase is "Adventure is out there!" Like many things in the film, it'll take on added meaning later.
1:50 The newsreel shows Muntz presenting the remains of "the monster of Paradise Falls" to a packed theater in a shot reminiscent of 1933's King Kong. This means that if you saw Up in the theater, at this point in the film you were in a theater, watching a movie of a kid in a theater, watching a movie of a guy in a theater. How very meta.
The scientists of Muntz's day conclude that the skeleton he came back with is a forgery, and Muntz is stripped of his membership to the National Explorer's Society. They do this by tearing a badge from the left side of his jacket, leaving a blank spot where the badge was: directly over his heart. This is going to be a running theme, and each character will be defined by how (or whether) they fill that void.
3:35 Carl runs around the neighborhood (holding a balloon, naturally) before hearing a voice coming from inside an abandoned house. He investigates. Inside, he meets Ellie, named after one of co-writer and co-director Pete Docter's daughters (Elie). She also provided the character's voice and some of her childhood drawings. Ellie is pretending the house is actually Muntz's blimp, the Spirit of Adventure, and has fashioned a fairly elaborate fake steering system in front of the window. She's also wearing a magenta bow in her hair.
4:14 Ellie accepts Carl into her adventurer's club, pinning a "Grape Soda" bottle cap on him. Carl's first adventure is retrieving a balloon that's floated upstairs, and he promptly breaks his arm (his right arm) in the attempt.
That night, Ellie visits Carl through his window. His wallpaper and pajamas are both covered in airplanes, and the book he's reading when she interrupts him has a picture of a blimp in it. The interruption is warranted, however, because Ellie has decided to show Carl her Adventure Book, which he must swear to keep secret ("cross your heart!"). Inside is a picture of Paradise Falls, and she reads the caption aloud to him: "Paradise Falls, a land lost in time." This description will take on another layer of meaning later in the film.
Ellie shows Carl a section of the book called "Stuff I'm Going To Do" and flips through the blank pages at the end. She's left a lot of room for the adventures she plans to have.
7:11 The loquacious Ellie babbles on some more and then leaves, saying: "You know, you don't talk very much. I like you!"
We're less than eight minutes in and we seem to have the makings of a boilerplate family film: two young children with a shared love of adventure and starkly defined personalities journey to South America. But Up is about to upend our expectations by fast forwarding almost 70 years.
7:20 The film's most powerful sequence starts happily, with some Gershwinian music during which Carl and Ellie get married and fix up the same abandoned house they first met in. This is the high point of a score that ended up winning composer Michael Giacchino an Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe. Note that the flowers in their wedding (and the church's carpet, for that matter) are magenta. Here's betting Ellie picked them.
Docter described this sequence as originally consisting of a number of short scenes with much more detail. As they went on they excised the nonessential elements, which they eventually decided included the dialogue. Pixar has, out of necessity, had to find ways for things like desk lamps to express themselves without speaking, and their practice doing so serves them tremendously well here.
7:48 Ellie runs up a hill, and Carl staggers after her, tired. In the background we see the tops of a house or two and a quaint church steeple. They lay on top of the hill and point out clouds that look like things, the first being a turtle.
8:02 We see that Ellie and Carl both work at a zoo; she comes out of an exhibit labeled "South America" with a brightly multi-colored bird on her arm. Carl, naturally, sells balloons. There are two things about Ellie worth noting: first, that she's once again added a splash of color to her outfit (a scarf) and, once again, it's magenta. Second, that her work uniform looks a lot like a Boy Scout's uniform.
8:13 Ellie and Carl sit and read. Notice that everything related to Ellie is round, and everything related to Carl is rectangular. On Ellie's side, we have her very curvy chair, a round cup on a round saucer, sitting next to a round lamp, sitting on a round end table. Later we see that her chair has a round footstool as well, though it isn't in this shot. On Carl's side, we have his square jaw, his square chair, a lamp with a square base and an unusually square lamp shade sitting on a square end table, and, somehow, a square mug. His glasses are square, too. We'll see more of this later. Also note that Ellie is dressed very colorfully (and has a magenta headband), and Carl very modestly.
Back to looking at clouds. Ellie finds one that she thinks looks like an elephant with wings; something fantastical. Carl points out one shaped like a baby; something a bit more grounded. Ellie responds by pointing out nine that look like babies, to her. We see that Ellie is the creative one, and dreams big, while Carl is a bit more down to earth. In other words: he's the square.
8:40 Ellie and Carl painting a prospective baby's room. Ellie's painting is round (an oval), and has no boundaries or edges. Note that Carl is hanging little toy blimps above the crib, and that Ellie's painting includes a bird (stork). And Ellie's wearing magenta again, this time in the form of a kerchief. And the crib, where their child of the circular Ellie and the square Carl will sleep? It literally combines their shapes, with rounded rectangles.
We slide from the baby's room to the doctor's office, with Ellie's head in her hands and the doctor somberly explaining something. Some subtle fertility charts in the background tell us all we need to know. There are no words in this scene, but you could use thousands to describe it. It is flawless.