The theme of Pixar’s surrealist film, Up (2009) is shouted by Ellie, the love of Carl’s life as an eight year old little girl. After seeing the Carl, later voiced by Edward Asner as a kid sneak into an abandoned house, ridged up to imitate a blimp with worn down blankets and rope, Ellie shouts at the top of her lungs, “ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE!” as she flies the house in her imagination. Now sure she was referencing their mutual hero, Charles Muntz; the exiled explorer voiced by Christopher Plummer, but the subtext of this theme goes deeper than what is said. It is in the form of irony. Though Ellie is a very little girl, she is roaring, daring and probably the bravest person Carl has ever met. This projects that the theme means more than just the idea of traveling on an epic journey within the world. “Adventure is out there” primitively states that “life should be lived to the fullest.” In this aspect, it states for our protagonist, Carl who is stubbornly introverted to live his life outside of his comfort zone and embrace the unknown. Take for example the scene where they were both in the attic as kids. Ellie motivates Carl to walk across a single thin wooden board spanning across the gaping hole which used to be the floor of the attic in order to retrieve his blue balloon. This single scene cost Carl a broken arm, but hooked him into falling in love with Ellie and began his life in a new more productive direction.
So let’s now fly into not only understanding the story, but also the genre. Talking dogs and urbanized individuals in the middle of a jungle aside, IMDB says this film is about a “seventy-eight old [man,] Carl Fredricksen [who] travels to Paradise Falls in his home equipped with balloons inadvertently [with Russel,] a young stowaway.” This logline is pretty accurate, but this is only what you see on the screen. According to Blake Snyder’s novel Save the Cat, Pete Docter’s (Inside Out) and Bob Peterson’s (Finding Nemo) film is about Carl and the journey he goes on established off a promise he made to his wife, is a Golden Fleece. A Golden Fleece is about an individual who goes on a journey seeking a treasure, but in the end finds the greatest treasure of all…himself. There are three recognizable units for a film like this. The first is a prize or primal desire of treasure. The second is protagonist’s buddy who helps him along the way and finally a road from which is traveled by the protagonist either by him/herself or with a clan.
A Golden Fleece story is all about what the individual discovers about themselves along the journey. The first element is the prize. It is a form of treasure which is sought after by the protagonist. Now in order to pin down what the primal desire is we need to extinguish who our protagonist is.
No offense to Disney, but they do blatantly establish who our hero is. Carl is our guy not only because it is the first person we are introduced to, but he has the most character growth (more on this aspect in a moment). Carl is our hero and so the treasure he is after is to fulfill a personal promise he made in the past years to Ellie. Ever since they were kids she would make him cross his heart and swear that he would take her to Paradise Falls because that is where she wants to go to explore. The entire story is based off of this personal obligation he makes to her and because in his mind he never fulfilled his promise before Ellie dies, Carl has never forgiven himself. This in a fashion explains why Carl is so stubborn in his old age and will not move out of his house. Not only is he in mourning for the death of his wife, but Carl is punishing himself for letting the distraction of life get in the way of taking Ellie to Paradise Falls. However that is only a theory. Moving on to the second unit; the buddy.
The second unit to this Golden Fleece is the protagonist’s buddy who helps Carl along the way. Typically our hero is dull and needs to change. Carl is missing something in his life and as a result of this absence he is extremely unhappily. The buddy who tags along later on in the story has elements of skill, experience and attitude which helps temporarily fill Carl on what he is missing. In an essence the buddy reminds the protagonist to change through demonstration. Ellie and Russel (Jordan Nagai) are his buddies. Russel and Ellie are both basically the same. They are incredibly adaptive to change, they both easily forgive and when things are looking down in the dumps, Russel and Ellie proactively do not let the negative affect their outlook on life as they do something about the situation. This is what Carl needs in his life and surprise… Russel wants to be an explorer just like Ellie!
On a side note of story development, the reason why Carl is our protagonist is due to his character growth. In the beginning Carl as an old man is introduced as a misunderstood stubborn individual who wants to take his house to the waterfalls of Venezuela. But when he realizes Ellie was in Paradise Falls the whole time she was married to him, he turns into a strong, cunning father figure who saves Russel from the bad guy. This is what is so beautiful about the Golden Fleece element in film. The only time you truly realize what is important in your life is when you are put to rigorous trials of a journey. Moving on from the past always makes people better than they once were. Now for the third and most important element, the road.
The road in which the hero goes on is the most important. Without it, the character would not have a chance of changing. A road in a Golden Fleece can be a physical entity or a symbolic entity, so for Up (2009), the road Carl and Russel journey on is a physical on of air and land. Now when I say the road is the most important, I do not mean the road literately. What I am implying is what the character goes through emotionally during the journey that makes him/her question where his/her value are. These are expository versions of everyday tribulations which not only translates the hero as a fish out of water, but propagates the questioning of what is most important in life thus identifying oneself. One of these trials is called a road apple. A road apple is not an object, but more of a moment when the victory is in sight and then something gets in the way of accomplishment. For a clearer example, take the scene in Saving Private Ryan where Captain Miller finally finds Ryan and tells him he is here to take Ryan home. The road apple is when Ryan says, “No thanks.” This is the moment when the transformation within our protagonist occurs and they have to decide how to act differently in order to obtain what is truly important. We see this when Carl finally fulfills his promise of planting the house next to the waterfall.
The theoretical theme which was once spoken becomes a physical establishment through the actions of the protagonist. The road apple is found when Carl is sitting in his chair after he finally places his house next to the waterfall and thinks to himself, “…Well, now what?” After struggling throughout the entire film to get his house to this point, you think Carl would be at peace, finally forgiving himself and accomplishing is goal, but he is still feels a sense of discomfort as if nothing has changed for the better. This is where we see the transformation. When he sits down, opens the Ellie’s photo album and turns the extra page of where her note reads, “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one! – Ellie,” Carl realizes all of this was for nothing and the element of most important in his life was to ask forgiveness form Russel because he treated him wrongly. Carl figured out that being there for Russel and helping him succeed in life was more important than living a selfish contrived life in holding on to a dead past. He embraced a betterment of life in getting over the fear of change. The theme of Up (2009) is, “Adventure is out there!” So, when are you going to start living your life?’
Other films that present the same theme are Little Miss Sunshine, Finding Nemo and O Brother Where Art Thou?.
IMDB – Up
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.
Blake Snyder – M. Wiese Productions – 2005.
Up. Dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson. Prod. Jonas Rivera. By Pete Docter, Bob Peterson. Perf. Edward Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer.