[Full spoilers for Up follow]
[For the love of God, if you haven’t seen Up, please go watch it right now]
Pixar’s UP (2009) is one of my favorite films of all time. A masterpiece of smart storytelling decisions amount to what may be one of the most dense and tightly paced narratives in existence. Within 96 minutes the film effortlessly blends comedy, tragedy, adventure, and one of the most meaningful examinations of the human condition yet committed to celluloid. And in a format accessible to all ages! In its first 11 minutes, Up exhibits a more thoughtful, true, and heartbreaking love story than most films manage in their entire runtimes. It has to, because while Up is a film about Love, it’s equally about Loss. While these elements to the film are in the text, they’re also supported by an incredibly deep, yet seemingly effortless symbolism that perfectly represents the effect of loss on human Identity.
Up is all about badges.
Each of the primary characters in the film, Carl Fredricksen, Russell, and Charles Muntz are defined by badges. Carl’s “Ellie Badge” was given to him in his youth. Its literal purpose was to christen him an “Adventurer,” but it’s clear that to Carl the more important factor was that it represented the relationship he had with his best friend and the love of his life. When Ellie dies, this badge becomes just one of many symbols of his loss. Russell’s Wilderness Explorer sash is covered in badges, but the one most important to him is the one he is missing: “Assisting the Elderly.” Its literal purpose is to promote Russel to a “Senior Wilderness Scout,” but to Russell, it’s an opportunity to spend time with and make proud an absent father who has promised to come to the ceremony. In the first moments of the film, Charles Muntz is depicted as the role model adult adventurer that Carl and Ellie bond over. Muntz has already earned a badge from a real adventuring organization, but after failing to prove findings of a rare bird he discovered, the badge is stripped from him and he’s labeled a phony. The unfaded spot on Muntz’s leather jacket serves a constant visual reminder of the profession and reputation that he lost.
It’s no coincidence that all three of these badges (or empty badge spots) are placed directly over the characters’ hearts. They represent the deepest desires of each character, and consequentially the source of their pain. I also don’t think it’s by chance that the major characters in the film all belong to groups that society consistently disregards: pets, children, and the elderly. All three are presented honestly. Pet’s aren’t always terribly smart, and can be overbearingly affectionate. Children often arrive at all the wrong conclusions and require constant feedback and attention. The elderly need the investment and friendship that younger adults get, but can be slow to keep up, and irritable because of health issues and a lifetime of emotional pain. These characters are strangers in plain sight, and their isolation and need for love is palpable. The elderly characters have already resigned themselves to a life of loneliness, but Russell the child and Dug the dog haven’t learned to lose hope yet.
Carl finally makes the decision to flee an oppressive society that values him only for his real estate and sets out on the adventure he always had promised to go on with his late wife. But Carl can’t stand the thought of going alone, so he takes literally all of his baggage with him. The imagery of a house floating through the sky is as beautiful as it is preposterous, and for all intents and purposes, to Carl the house is Ellie. Like Ellie, the beautiful home elevates and propels Carl to the things that help him grow. And like her memory, eventually the home becomes a burden. As he continues his adventure, he is now literally dragging his baggage behind him.
It’s clear by this point that Carl has issues. The inciting incident already saw him bludgeoning a construction worker over the destruction of a mailbox he and Ellie painted together. Now Carl finds himself in South America, with a young stranger who wants nothing more than to be loved, and assists in bearing Carl’s burden in a desperate attempt to fill the hole in his own heart. They come across Dug, one of Muntz’s bird-hunting dogs, who lacks a literal badge metaphor, (other than perhaps the anti-empowerment “cone of shame”). Dug is also desperately pursuing a goal (catching the bird) in the hopes of earning the love and respect of his master and his pack.
Dug’s willingness to almost immediately adopt Carl as his new master is one of the elements that bothered me when I originally saw the film. Dogs are supposed to be loyal, right? But in the subtext (and especially in the “prequel” short film Dug’s Special Mission) it’s obvious that Dug is never going to gain the respect of his peers under Muntz’s militaristic regime. Dug is a lover, not a fighter, and his establishment as the new “Alpha” at the film’s end signals not just a happy ending of acceptance for him, but a positive change in priorities for all of Muntz’s dogs.
Over the course of Carl’s story, he slowly begins to crawl out of his self-involved shell and sees Russel, Dug, and even Kevin the bird as individuals with their own pains and propensity to love. This culminates just as he meets Charles Muntz, and receives a sudden and horrifying image of what happens to those who can’t move on from their pain. Muntz, whose passion originally inspired Carl, is now an obsessive, reclusive, insane, serial killer. And Muntz gets the funny idea (once again, it seems) that the visitors of his domain are after “his bird.”
In a moment of impassioned solidarity, Kevin, Dug, Russel, and Carl make their escape in one of the best chase scenes of all time. This is the way you do action scenes, Hollywood! Give us something to invest in and then put the heroes in peril. No number of VFX explosions could replace Carl’s sudden understanding of the danger they are in, or his simultaneous realization that he is not Russel’s babysitter but his sole protector. No crumbling buildings will replace the thrill of Dug’s abject betrayal of his murderous pack, or the real danger he puts himself in to protect a new master he senses love in. No kung fu will outmatch Kevin, previously a hilariously worthless party member, suddenly seeing danger and becoming the engine of their escape. No 50-car pileup will replace the exhilaration of seeing the increasing burden of Ellie (the home) suddenly becoming the “wind beneath their wings” and propelling them over all obstacles and pitfalls in their path.
This setup is the first glimpse Carl gets into not just his physical salvation from the hands of Muntz, but also his spiritual one. He realizes that he isn’t an island alone in his sorrow. Other people need him, and he needs them. It makes his betrayal sting all the more when, posed with the choice of choosing to save Kevin from Muntz or his house from a fire, he chooses the house.
Russell’s reaction to this betrayal is telling. He does what neither Carl or Muntz have been able to do and gives up his sash and his chance at a badge. Keep in mind, that at this point, he has just completed his mission to assist the elderly. If his goal were still to win the love of his father through achievement, he would have at least stopped to get Mr. Fredricksen’s signature. But Russell has learned two things at this point: 1) Unconditional love is attainable when we have the courage to go look for it, and 2) Carl, like Russell’s father, is self-involved (the opposite of loving) and that no amount of effort on Russell’s part will convince either of them to be there for him when he really needs them.
Russell wisely chooses to save the friend who has loved him the whole time: Kevin.
Carl has also accomplished his mission. He brought Ellie on the adventure he always promised her. But upon Russell’s bitter rebuke, and the reflection on his betrayal of Kevin, and condemnation of Dug, his victory feels immensely hollow. He hasn’t quite registered it, but he had purpose again. He had love again. And he threw both away for a memory.
In a moment of… desperation? …reflection? He turns to Ellie’s Adventure Scrapbook. He hits an all time low as he reaches the page “Things I’m Going to Do.” The weight of his failure finally lands on him. Yes, he brought Ellie’s memory with him, but Ellie would never actually get to Paradise Falls. She will never fill her scrapbook.
And then he realizes that she already has.
Life was Ellie’s adventure, and he had already shared it with her.
It’s the single most heart wrenching beat in any film I’ve seen. It’s also the only moment I’ve seen where the thematic and emotional beats play stronger in a 3D viewing, contrasting the “reality” of the world with the beautiful memories, now only photographs.
Carl turns to Ellie’s chair, as if to share the revelation with her, then realizes that the only thing left in it is Russell’s sash, and that a living and loving heart has been beside him all along. He had it all wrong, and now Russell is alone, and placing himself in danger that he is absolutely not equipped to deal with, because of Carl’s mistakes.
And so Carl crosses his heart and steels his spirit. He casts aside the memories that are literally weighing him down, and Ellie soars again, lifting him on his own adventure. He dons the sash, the heart of a Wilderness Explorer that he not only had lost himself, but had driven from Russell. He purifies it from the baggage that Russell carried with it, because he himself now represents the love that was missing in it from the start. He locks his crutch behind his back, no longer a strut to prop him against the weight of the world, but a broadsword to smite his enemies and save his friends!
And so he does, and in one last moment of solidarity, motivates Russell with the Wilderness Explorer call that only ever gave him an earache before: “Caw Caw… ROWR!”
Muntz perishes by his own hand. His death is not that of a mustache twirling villain, but of a man in pain who wasn’t able to let go. Muntz is the only main character in the story that refuses to give up his badge. He can’t accept that loss is an inevitable and necessary part of life, and so loses himself in the process. The stakes in this movie are so powerful, because Muntz illustrates them so clearly. He is who Carl will become if he can’t move on.
Fortunately, Carl’s revelation comes at the nick of time, and he is able to preserve the love that he earned on his beautiful, misguided adventure. In a final act of contrition, he takes Russell’s father’s place at the Wilderness Explorer ceremony, and finally parts with his last physical reminder of Ellie in the most meaningful way he can think to.
Carl gives up his badge, simultaneously relieving himself of its burden and reviving the value of its original intention – an act of love and acceptance – a reminder that adventure is out there.
TOP 25 is a series of Editorials about my 25 favorite films of all time. Check out my full list here.