Even the most quarrelsome couple on House Hunters would agree that Carl’s house is a treasure. It’s quirky, it’s Victorian, and it comes furnished with millions of balloons. What’s not to love? We’ll tell you what: it’s a symbol of Carl’s stubborn, unhealthy relationship with the past.
Carl’s house is a memorial to Ellie. Heck, it’s practically a shrine. Her pictures are everywhere, and Carl talks to her on the regular. That may seem touching, but it’s also a little creepy, right? Carl holes up in that house like a hermit and refuses to leave and interact with the world around him. By hiding in his house, he’s hiding in a past that he can never recapture, spinning his wheels until he can join Ellie. What Carl needs to do is move on, pronto.
The weight of Carl’s house—and all of the memories it holds—is crushing, and it’s further illustrated by the way Carl struggles to lug it through the jungle to Paradise Falls. He’s literally tied to his past. He can’t change or grow or live a remotely awesome life until, in the wise words of another complicated Disney star, Queen Elsa of Arendelle, he lets it go.
And that’s exactly what happens. When the cord snaps on Carl’s house during his climactic battle with Muntz, the house floats away and Carl is finally free. “It’s just a house,” he tells Russell when Russell offers his condolences over his AWOL abode. Carl’s finally ready to rejoin the land of the living and build a new foundation for adventure.
Ellie will always be with him, of course; but she’ll be in his heart.
Carl is a square—and we’re not just saying that because the old man’s out of step with the culture at large and still refers to people as dirty hippies. No, Carl is literally a square. He has a big square head, and big square glasses. “At 78, his body resembles a stack of cardboard boxes,” writes film critic Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He is one seriously boxy dude.
Here’s the thing: Carl’s cube-tacular appearance isn’t an accident. Neither is roly-poly Russell’s round physique. The shape of the characters in Up reflects their personalities. Carl’s square shape symbolizes his steadiness and reluctance to change. “A cube is not something that rolls or moves fast—it is very stable—perfect for Carl,” explains Up’s co-director, Bob Peterson. “A circle can roll and move fast—great for Russell.” We’d say Russell looks more like an egg, which would explain why the kid’s a little off-kilter, but you get the point.
In Up, a character’s shape is the outward expression of his inner makeup. For Carl, “…we were trying to get a physical manifestation of who he was inside,” co-director Pete Docter told The Hollywood Reporter. “We decided he was a closed-off, set-in-his-ways guy, and that felt like a square...Even in the set design, the pictures in his house of Carl are all in square frames, while his wife is in circular frames. You get this really pushed shape language for all the characters in the film.” (Source)
That shape language, as Docter calls it, even extends to Muntz and his madness. Muntz sports a large, diamond shaped head, which PopMatters’ Bill Gibron claims represents the fallen explorer’s “lifelong sense of defeat.” It also reflects the crazy amount of pressure he put upon himself to find Kevin and clear his name. Think about it: What happens when you crush a square? Yep, you get a diamond.
We don’t know why Carl had millions of balloons lying around his house, but we’re sure glad that he did. Without those helium-filled suckers, Carl never would have taken off, and neither would Up’s adventuresome story.
The balloons in Up symbolize the wonderment and spirit of childhood. When we first meet Carl, he’s a kid toting a balloon with “The Spirit of Adventure” scrawled on it. Later, when a pint-sized Ellie wants to get in touch with Carl, she sails a balloon through his open bedroom window. At the end of the montage celebrating Carl and Ellie’s marriage, Carl scoots a similar balloon into Ellie’s hospital room. It’s a reminder of their fun-filled past, and encouragement to keep her spirits high.
If the balloons in Up represent the awe and amazement of childhood, then they also symbolize Ellie’s spirit—specifically the massive bundle of balloons that helps Carl carry their home through the jungle. Although we don’t see a whole lot of Ellie, it’s clear from the glimpse that we do get that Ellie had a buoyant personality. That’s why she was such a solid match for our main man Carl. He was grounded and stable; she was bright and carefree. When Carl looks to the sky to talk to Ellie, he looks not just to the heavens, but also toward the buhzillion balloons hovering over him like so many helium-filled guardian angels.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Before his quest, Carl’s just your average, everyday hermit. Retired and widowed, he lives alone and spends his days inside his house, watching TV with the shades drawn and waiting for the mail to arrive. He’s lonely and stuck in a disgruntled, antisocial rut.
Carl’s initial call to action comes in the form of the construction project going on all around his house. The head of the construction company wants Carl to move, which would mean leaving his house, which is essentially a shrine to his late wife, Ellie, and trying something new.
Carl repeatedly clashes with the construction company, and tells them they can have his house…when he’s dead.
Russell shows up on Carl’s front porch, wanting to help Carl with just about anything in order to earn his Assisting the Elderly badge. Carl doesn’t know it yet, but young Russell’s going to rock his world—you know, once he finishes the snipe hunt Carl sends him on just to get the bubbly kid out of his hair.
Faced with the prospect of moving to Shady Oaks, Carl outfits his house with millions of helium balloons and takes to the sky, setting his journey in motion. Once he and his home lift off, there’s no turning back.
Carl’s first challenge is dealing with Russell, who accidentally stows away onboard Carl’s floating abode. Carl begrudgingly accepts him as an ally, and then the unlikely duo faces its first real test: piloting Carl’s house through a wicked thunderstorm.
Once they land in South America, their quest for Paradise Falls is loaded with even more obstacles and enemies. For starters, they have to drag Carl’s house to Paradise Falls before its balloons are totally zapped of their helium. Along the way, they pick up two more allies that Carl initially views as enemies, or at least major pains in the butt: Kevin and Dug.
And then there’s Muntz’s dog pack. There’s no confusion about these conniving canines: they’re enemies from the start, as they pursue, and ultimately capture, Carl and his crew.
After Muntz realizes that Carl and Russell are just an old man and a roly-poly kid, he invites them to dinner onboard his opulent airship as his guests. Carl quickly recognizes that Muntz has gone bonkers and will stop at nothing to capture Kevin; he and Russell need to get out of there ASAP. The dog pack may have been dangerous, but their master, Muntz, is the real threat: not just to Carl’s mission, but also to his life.
When Carl, Russell, Dug, and Kevin run away from Muntz, the fallen explorer’s dog pack is hot on their trail. Carl and his posse outrun the dogs, only to have Muntz himself track them down, capture Kevin, and set Carl’s beloved house on fire. Still, Carl and Russell survive. Sometimes it pays not to be a giant, exotic bird.
With Muntz out of his hair, Carl and his house finally reach Paradise Falls, but the victory is hollow. Muntz has Kevin in his clutches, and Russell feels Carl let them down. When Russell heads back to Muntz’s airship on a solo mission to save Kevin, Carl has a change of heart, realizing that his real mission is to keep his new pals safe.
Carl’s road back is literally the road back into the mouth of Muntz’s madness. It’s the reverse of his initial call to adventure: back then, Carl drove Russell away by sending him on a snipe hunt. Now, Carl’s actively pursuing Russell. He lugs all of his and Ellie’s belongings out of the house so it’s light enough to fly again, and takes off for Muntz’s airship, his sights set on saving Russell.
Carl is reborn as a geriatric action hero in his final, most dangerous battle with Muntz on Muntz’s airship. Carl puts his life on the line to save his friends; if he fails, the consequences would be huge. Ultimately, he rescues Russell, Kevin, and Dug, and sends Muntz plunging to his death. Peace out, Chuck.
Carl returns to the States a changed man. Most notably, he picks up a surrogate son—and a dog! More importantly, he breaks out of his rut. He recognizes that his whole life has been an adventure, learns that everything from trekking in the jungle to chowing down on ice cream is better with friends, and harnesses the awesome power of his own heart.
From its rocky cliffs and waterfalls to Kevin and her brightly-colored brood, Up’s South American setting oozes adventure. It isn’t just out there, as Muntz might say, it’s everywhere.
While most of Up’s action takes place in the present day, the film starts out in the 1930s, when young Carl is a wide-eyed Muntz worshipper. But as Empire’s Ian Freer notes, “This ’30s milieu looms large: the entire film is fuelled by that decade’s spirit of derring-do, the thrill of hero worship and the sense of the world as a huge playground waiting to be explored.”
Carl may have discovered his thirst for adventure in the ‘30s, but, just like the grape soda bottle cap he got from Ellie, he carries it with him into the modern day—even if, when Up starts, he’s got it stashed away in his house under a thick layer of dust and disgruntlement.
Up’s exotic South American locale creates an atmosphere of exploration. It’s a place where anything can happen, and your next mind-blowing discovery waits just around the corner. That’s why Carl and Ellie save their hard-earned cash to visit. That’s why Muntz went there in the first place, and then parks his airship there for decades. That’s why it’s primo territory for Carl to break out of his funk and rediscover the power of his heart.
This all-encompassing spirit of adventure is conveyed through South America’s vibrant color palette, striking terrain, and fantastical creatures. The continent, as portrayed in Up, is straight-up whimsical. Dug and the rest of his talking dog pals don’t seem out of place there. Neither does chocolate-loving Kevin. Within the setting’s sense of fantasy, even an old man in a floating house doesn’t seem that strange.
Up’s setting may be fanciful, but get this: Paradise Falls and its exotic surroundings are based on an actual place. No, really. According to PopMatters’ Bill Gibron, Up’s crew took their own journey to South America and camped out amidst the tepui Venezuela for inspiration.
“That was a blast,” co-director Pete Docter told The Hollywood Reporter. “We needed somewhere where this guy could get stuck…We initially set it on a tropical island, but that felt like you'd seen it so much. We then found these tabletop mountains that I'd never heard of before, in South America. We tried to find photographs and did as much research as we could. But it just seemed we needed to go there.”
And that’s exactly what they did. Docter, co-director Bob Peterson, and the rest of the crew experienced South America in all of its colorful splendor just like Carl and Russell did—you know, except with sketchbooks and digital cameras instead of a floating house and talking dogs.
For a story that features talking dogs and a seriously old dude dragging his house across South America, Up plays it pretty straight with its narrative structure. The story may be coated with complex emotions like love and loneliness, but it’s told in a forthright, chronological style. We start out with Carl as a kid, move quickly through his charmed life with Ellie, and then spend most of the narrative deep in Carl’s jungle trek as it plays out from moment to moment.
But let’s rewind for a second: Up’s most extraordinary narrative device is the dazzling four-minute montage that encapsulates Carl and Ellie’s marriage. “The marital sequence is one of the most moving animated episodes ever made,” says The New Yorker’s David Denby. “It’s like looking through a family photo album and knowing that every picture represents a crucial moment of experience.” Up’s montage tenderly tackles life-changing moments that we hardly ever see in an animated flick aimed at families. We’re talking about topics like infertility, aging, death, and grief. That’s some heavy stuff.
The point of Up’s montage isn’t just to make you hug your mom. As a narrative device, it serves to build an emotional foundation for the rest of the movie. Those four poetic minutes answer a slew of questions that are crucial for understanding Up’s narrative. How could Carl rig his home up with balloons and float away if he had kids and grandkids? How come Carl and Ellie never went to Paradise Falls? Why won’t Carl cash in on his house and buy a sailboat or something? Up is massive club sandwich of emotion. It has layers and without the foundation set by the montage, none of the story’s heartbreaks or triumphs would taste as delicious.
Pop quiz, Shmoop-shot: Is animation a genre or a technique?
We’d say it’s both. As a genre, animated films are characterized by brilliant colors and fantastical worlds. Up has both of those qualities in spades. From the millions of balloons that hoist Carl’s house up, up, up and away to Kevin’s Technicolor plumage, Up is a feast for the eyes. Its representation of South America is equally vibrant—and populated with whimsical elements that scream animation. (We’re looking at you again, Kevin.) In short, Up fits the animation mold because its computer-generated universe is dynamic and populated with people, places, creatures and events—you know, like a floating house—that aren’t possible in a live-action flick.
Up is bursting at its cinematic seams with adventure. We have characters on a quest, an exotic jungle locale, and an epic battle requiring acts of heroism—and tennis balls. Muntz himself, with his pencil thin mustache and swashbuckling demeanor, is a throwback to adventure movie stars of old, like Errol Flynn. But Muntz and Carl also subvert the conventions of the genre. How? Because they’re ancient! Up is a high-stakes journey into the unknown, and with its geriatric stars, it’s also a bold twist on the adventure film.
Comedy films are all about bringing the chuckles. What makes Up so funny? First, there’s Carl and Russell’s odd couple relationship. Up wrings laughs from their age gap and contrasting demeanors. Then there are visual gags, like Muntz and Carl’s old man fight, complete with creaking joints, a cane-turned-sword, and spat dentures.
Last, but not least, we have Dug and the rest of the talking dog pack. They’re an example of clash of context humor, meaning that putting dogs in the place of henchmen yields absurd, and absurdly funny, results. From their obsession with squirrels to Alpha’s malfunctioning voice box, Up’s dogs will have you panting with laughter.
See what we did there? Panting? Because they’re dogs? We know, we know; we’re so funny you forgot to laugh.
Up doesn’t just refer to the ascent of Carl’s house; it describes the trajectory of Carl himself. After Ellie’s death, Carl has nowhere to go but up. He’s stuck in a rut, hiding out in his house with the door slammed shut on society. The old guy’s lonelier than the last slice of pizza.
Carl’s tumultuous trek to Paradise Falls, then, reinvigorates his spirit. By welcoming Russell’s chatty companionship, he shakes the dust off of his personality and is resurrected. In the words of the famed Philadelphia philosopher Patti LaBelle, he’s feeling good from his head to his shoes. Knows where he’s going and knows what to do. He’s tidied up his point of view. He’s got a new attitu-u-ude.
In short, Carl’s spirits are lifted by his epic journey through the jungle. His heart is up and running again, and he’s ready for the next adventure.
We have two things happening at the end of Up. Let’s start with the easy one: Carl and Russell eating ice cream on the curb, counting red and blue cars.
This is a callback to the story that Russell told Carl about his dad. They had a post-Wilderness Lodge meeting ritual: head to Fentons, load up on chocolate and butter brickle, and count cars. Whoever spots the most, wins. The fact that Carl is subbing in for Russell’s AWOL dad and the end of Up cements Carl’s new role in the kid’s life. In short, he’s going to be there for him through thick and thin and lots of delicious frozen calories.
The other part of the ending is far more mysterious. In the last shot of the film, we see Carl and Ellie’s house sitting next to Paradise Falls, just like in Ellie’s childhood drawing. How did that get there?
We’d posit that Ellie nudged it there, and here’s why.
The balloons that kept the house afloat symbolize Ellie’s buoyant personality. Just like Carl fills in for Russell’s dad, those bright, vivacious balloons are a stand-in for Ellie. Furthermore, Carl talks to Ellie repeatedly throughout the movie. She may not be part of the jungle journey, physically, but she’s definitely there in spirit. So when the house gets cut loose in Carl’s climactic battle with Muntz, Ellie guides their home to where it needs to be.
What do you think? Does Ellie steer the house to Paradise Falls, or should we just chalk its perfect placement up to movie magic? Either way, it’s a sweet ending to this chapter in Carl and Ellie’s adventure-stuffed love story.
Up earns its PG rating for its emotional heft. The montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage is moving and tackles some tough topics, like infertility and death, which might require a healthy dose of parental guidance for younger viewers.