Posted by: thealienist | February 3, 2010

Man’s Search for Meaning: Looking “UP”

I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I took my family to see Disney/Pixar’s “Up.”  (SPOILER ALERT!)  What I know I was not ready to see was an extremely poignant and insightful movie about joy and loss, and meaninglessness and fulfillment.


The first 20 minutes of the movie are heart-wrenching but necessary.  Although it may seem that the main character of the movie is Carl Fredrickson, in another sense the movie is about Ellie.  By the end of the first 20 minutes of the movie, Ellie has found Carl, befriended him, grown up, married him, tried to have children, been diagnosed as infertile, grown old, taken ill, and died.  However, throughout the movie, Ellie lives on, though the form of her existence changes.  For much of the first 20 minutes, she is alive, active, and sharing in the live of Carl-and-Ellie. When the main narrative of the story finally begins, Ellie’s presence is felt in Carl’s constant thoughts of her, in the home they lived in together, and in the items they had collected through their life together.  Occupying an almost holy place in this shrine is a scrapbook.  When they first met as children, Ellie showed Carl her book, entitled “My Adventure Book.”  It became a record of their dreams, and after Ellie’s death, of their failed dreams and lost youth.  In fact, the lifelessness of these objects seems only to reinforce Carl’s loss, though we understand how Carl treasures them despite his pain.  Their loss would feel to him like the complete loss of his beloved wife.  However, by the end of the movie, a new, unsuspected, vibrant source of Ellie’s presence is revealed, and with it, Carl’s search for meaning in life is, paradoxically, both complete and just beginning.

The Crisis and the Quest

The beginning of the main narrative finds Carl alone in a dark house that had once been alive with love and joy but now is threatened by the passage of time and the encroachment of newer, stronger, and seemingly more useful buildings.  Carl and his house are mirror images of one another — old, weathered, starting to fall apart, and holding the remnants of a seemingly lost but great and beautiful love.  Carl and his house also are threatened by a similar fate.  Both have been declared a public nuisance.  Carl, because he defended his house, and his house, because it stood in the way of progress.  For these acts, Carl faces being sent to a retirement home, while his house will be destroyed to make way for new development.   These threats, however, are able to rouse Carl from his passive-aggressive stranglehold on the past and provoke him to drastic action.

Carl’s trip in his house is a true flight of fancy.  Superficially, it is clear that he has escaped with Ellie to complete their otherwise lost dream of living on Rainbow Falls.  However, it is unclear what Carl’s plan is once he gets there.  There is a sense (never stated) that this is a suicide mission — that once he is there, his life will be complete, and he will be ready to die.  Certainly, he cannot expect to live by himself in the jungles of South America.  Whatever his plans were, though, were changed by a fortunate stowaway, the Wilderness Scout, Russell.

Russell’s presence forces Carl to confront issues other than his own.  He tries to exclude Russell from his life and even considers discarding Russell after he has allowed him to come into the safety of his home, but he is not so far gone as to act on his fantasy.  Once he has accepted Russell into his life, Russell acts as a magnet for wondrous and exotic experiences.  Russell guides the house to Rainbow Falls, figures out how to deliver the house to the site near the falls where Ellie imagined them living, and befriends a mysterious giant bird and a talking dog.  Despite all of this, however, Carl rejects Russell, the bird, and the dog as irritants.  At least until he finally makes a human contact with Russell.

Russell is a young, over-eager Wilderness Scout who wandered into Carl’s life not because of any genuine interest in one for the other but because Russell wanted to help an elderly person — any elderly person — so he could get his “helping the elderly” badge.  They wind up fated to walk the same path because of Russell’s annoying persistence in trying to help Carl and Carl’s heartless attempt to get rid of the boy by sending him on a “snipe hunt.”  Carl and Russell’s relationship changes when Carl finds out that Russell is trying to get his badge so that his idolized (but negligent) father will come to see him for the award ceremony.  The dawning sense of mutual loss gives Carl his first glimpse of a new life.

On his trip with Russell, Carl learns some difficult lessons about chasing childhood dreams.  He finds his and Ellie’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz, an explorer who has grown into a paranoid old man.  Soured by the loss of his reputation, Muntz retreated to the jungle to capture a living specimen of a previously unknown giant bird whose skeleton he was earlier accused of forging.  His inability to capture the bird and his incessant focus on his lost past led him from a heroic past to the role of villain in the movie.  He has retreated from human contact and now keeps company only with his dogs.  He suspects everyone of trying to steal his bird and rob him of his dream of renewed fame.  In Charles Muntz, we see what Carl would become if he had remained socially isolated, stuck in the past, unable to complete mourning the loss of his wife, and obsessed with his solipsistic dream.  In meeting Charles, Carl realizes that old dreams can, in real life, become toxic threats.  He also finds that his adventure puts his sterile isolation with Ellie’s relics in jeopardy.

The climax of the movie occurs when Muntz forces Carl to choose between his cherished but lifeless memories of Ellie as embodied in his house and its relics and his new relationship with Russell.  The decision was a foregone conclusion as revealed in the Carl’s willingness to discard many of the household items he and Ellie shared to rescue Russell. His ability to discard these items was prompted by his discovery of previously unread pages in Ellie’s Adventure Book.  Carl had always stopped reading Ellie’s book on a page where she had written, “Things I am going to do.”  He had assumed that since they had not achieved her earlier dreams, she had not continued with her book.  However, in the pages that followed, Carl found pictures of their married life followed by an inscription, “Thanks for the adventure.  Now go and have your own.”  This discovery changed Carl’s view of his life with Ellie.  It was not a failed task that he had to complete.  It was a string of successes he could draw on and build his life on.  Thus, when Charles Muntz threatens to destroy both Carl’s house (representative of his memories of life with Ellie) and Russell, Carl is ready to see the full importance of his predicament.  His decision to sacrifice his house to save Russell leads to Muntz’s destruction, but where does that leave Carl?

The Resolution

What happens to Carl when he lets go of his house and watches it float away?  Carl begins to live again and his and Ellie’s dreams start to live again.  This is most evident in Carl assuming the father role to Russell.  Carl stands with the other fathers at Russell’s Wilderness Scout meeting and gives Russell “The Ellie Badge.”  Russell becomes the child that Carl and Ellie could never have.  Carl is also able to take Charles Muntz’s place, decide not to seek his goals at the expense of another (letting the bird go), and returning to society with Muntz’s dirigible, “The Spirit of Adventure.”  But what became of Ellie?  She once more became an active part of Carl’s life.  The closing credits show Carl engaging in a variety of activities that he had originally engaged in with Ellie.  The activities were not done in isolation, though.  They did not draw Carl away from an authentic life.  Rather, they were the means by which Carl engaged in life and reached out to others.  Symbolically, Ellie’s fate is shown in one of the final images of the movie.  In letting go of his house (symbolic of his immature, isolating memories of Ellie), he allowed it to settle beside Rainbow Falls and become what he and Ellie always wished it could be — their private paradise.


  1. Fantastic, insightful and helpful post! Thanks!


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