They say no man is an island. Well, whoever “they” are…they've never met Carl Fredricksen. He’s private, stubborn, and crustier than a slice of week-old sourdough.
Carl isn’t your average action hero. He’s…an old man. “And not a tough Clint Eastwood-with-a-gun old man,” explains film critic Tom Long; “this guy's a broken-down, portly, creaky, box-faced ancient grump.” He’s retired, he’s a widower, and his hobbies include unhappily riding his stair chair, watching TV with the shades drawn in the middle of the day like a hermit, and yelling at people to get off his porch. Dirty Harry, he is not.
But here’s the thing: Carl’s old age is his greatest asset. He’s smart, he’s resourceful, and, most of all, he has nothing to lose. The construction company wants to take the house he made a home with Ellie? Fine. He’ll just attach a million balloons to it and fly away. What’s the worst that could happen? The guy’s already older than dirt, and he’s all alone.
Ellie’s death leaves Carl searching for meaning in his life. He may be grumpier than Oscar the Grouch before he’s had his morning mochaccino, but he wasn’t always such a cranky old codger. When Up begins, Carl’s a kid. He’s shy and kind of dorky, but he’s also a huge Charles Muntz fanboy. Lil’ Carl digs adventure and dreams of being an explorer just like his idol. When he meets Ellie, a similarly adventure-obsessed kid, they become BFFs almost instantly. They get hitched, dream of traveling to Paradise Falls, but life keeps getting in the way. Despite all the disappointments, they’re happy together and devoted to each other.
But when Ellie dies, so does Carl’s hankering for adventure. He retreats into their brightly colored house, and slams the door on society. If the modern world has no use for Carl, then Carl has no use for the modern world. He doesn’t go full-on Grey Gardens, but he does slide into a crazy old recluse persona with relish, pouring prune juice in gas tanks and lobbing dated insults at the construction crew. He misses Ellie. He still talks to her.
Simply put, Carl’s stuck in a rut. What he needs is a good kick in the pants, and he gets it from the threat of Shady Oaks. Moving to a retirement home would end Carl’s independence and put a zeppelin-sized dent in his dignity. That’s why Carl revolts. Dinner at 4 o’clock and Wheel of Fortune reruns? Carl’s not going out like that.
Carl’s journey to Paradise Falls may be motivated by his desire to do right by Ellie, but, in the end, he gets a lot more out of the trip.
For starters, he gets a new family. Russell may start out a chatty, chubby pain in the butt, but by the end of the film, he’s the son Carl and Ellie were never able to have. When Carl commands Russell to stay in the house while he saves Kevin, it’s not because Russell’s an annoyance, it’s because the kid’s become precious cargo. “I don’t want your help,” Carl says. “I want you safe.” Carl’s love for Russell is deep and true. He even serves as his stand-in father, literally substituting for Russell’s deadbeat dad at Russell’s Wilderness Explorer ceremony and taking him out for ice cream.
But wait—there’s more!
Carl doesn’t just get a de facto son, he gets a dog, too. Dug is the slobbering embodiment of the biggest lesson that Carl learns on his quest: love is all over the place and you just have to knuckle up and let it in. While Dug adores him from the jump, it takes Carl a long time to warm up to Dug. He spends most of the movie trying to drive Dug away, just like he does everyone else.
But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how long it takes Carl to wake up. What’s important is that he does, period. He opens his heart—and his house—and lets Dug in. “Can you stay?” Carl replies to Dug’s request to take him in. “Why, you’re my dog, aren’t you? And I’m your master!” Dug, just like Russell, shows Carl that having an adventure isn’t worth a hill of South American beans if you don’t have your friends at your side.
In the end, Carl returns home a changed man—and not just because he crushes Muntz like a geriatric Dwayne Johnson. In his quest to find Paradise Falls, Carl finds a reason to go on. He realizes that the greatest adventures lie in the littlest moments, like hilltop picnics and counting red and blue cars. The formerly cantankerous old coot finally understands that his whole life has been one fantastic voyage after another—and there’s still time to add pages to his Adventure Book.
If you have a little brother or sister, then you know Russell all too well. He’s boisterous, he’s goofy, he’s…well, he’s kind of annoying, isn’t he?
Russell talks more than Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel combined. It’s non-stop, and it starts immediately. When we—and Carl—first meet Russell, he’s on Carl’s doorstep, pestering the old coot in pursuit of his Assisting the Elderly badge. Every time Carl turns down Russell’s offer to help, Russell soldiers on;
RUSSELL: I could help you cross the street… I could help you cross your yard… I could help you cross your porch.
He presses Carl so much that Carl sends the loquacious little tyke on a snipe hunt just to get rid of him. And really, can you blame him?
Here’s the thing, though: Russell’s perky persistence is the perfect compliment to Carl’s crusty, old man crankiness. He’s the soda pop to Carl’s puddle of tepid tap water. Russell’s resolve and enthusiasm shake the dust off of Carl. They force him to start considering other people, and to start interacting with them in more meaningful ways than pouring prune juice in their gas tanks or whacking them with his cane.
Russell’s chatty tenacity also nudges Carl closer and closer to Paradise Falls. Nothing gets this kid down. Not a lost GPS unit, not a dog pack hot on his trail—nothing. Think about it: who’s the one that pilots Carl’s house through the nasty thunderstorm that threatens to end their quest before it even begins? It’s Russell; Carl passed out! We don’t about you, but if we were in a storm, in a flying house, with an old dude that just keeled over, we’d be freaking out. But Russell just forges on. Without Russell’s exuberance and determination, Carl’s chance of getting to South America is slimmer than an iPhone 12.
Russell brings a lot of baggage on his adventure with Carl, and we don’t mean his backpack. Through his conversations with Carl, we learn that Russell’s parents are divorced. Not only that, but his dad has gotten remarried to some broad named Phyllis who tells Russell that he bugs his dad too much. Not cool, Phyllis.
Still, Russell looks up to his pops;
RUSSELL: He’s really good at camping and how to make fire from rocks and stuff. He used to come to all my Sweat Lodge meetings, and afterwards, we’d go get ice cream at Fentons.
You’ll note that Russell says his dad used to attend his scout meetings and take him out for a couple of scoops of chocolate. Nowadays, Russell’s Dad is AWOL, and, as tenacious as Russell is, there isn’t a darn thing he can do about it. In other words, while Carl’s social exile is totally self-imposed, Russell’s isn’t. Not even a little bit.
You’d think that, with the way the emotional deck is stacked against Russell, he’d be a sullen, bratty kid with a backpack full of The Cure records and overdramatic eye rolls. But he’s not. Russell remains open and optimistic. He has an unwaveringly enthusiastic sense of hope. That’s why he still has faith in his deadbeat dad. That’s why he’s confident he and Carl will make it to Paradise Falls. That’s why he thinks he can save Kevin from Muntz all by himself. And that’s how he reawakens Carl’s thirst for adventure.
Russell reminds Carl of what he was like when he was a kid himself—what it was like to get psyched about things like movies, Muntz, and making new pals. More than that, he reminds Carl of what Ellie was like: exuberant, talkative, and utterly certain that not only is adventure out there, it’s all around you, just waiting for you to discover it.
That’s exactly what happens to Carl when he meets Charles Muntz.
Muntz wasn’t always a maniac. When we first meet him, it’s in the newsreel that begins the film and entrances young Carl. Muntz is a celebrated, swashbuckling explorer who travels the world in a monstrous, extravagant airship, The Spirit of Adventure. He even has a cool, Errol Flynn style mustache. You can see why Carl and Ellie would admire him.
But when Muntz’s discovery of a rare, bird-like creature is widely discredited, it’s the beginning of the end for Muntz—and his sanity. Humiliated, he heads back to South America to clear his name, and that’s where Carl meets him, many decades later. Muntz has become a recluse, just like Carl—except instead of hiding in his house and watching daytime TV, Muntz is holed up in his dusty airship with only his damaged pride and a pack of mechanized dogs to keep him company. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
As far as movie villains go, Muntz ranks pretty high on the Menace-O-Meter. First, there’s the fact that he’s still alive after all of these years. How is that even possible? Second, there’s his pack of canine henchmen. He’s not only trained these treacherous pups to cook his meals and fly fighter planes, he’s outfitted them all with special collars that allow them to talk. Evil genius much?
Then there’s the monologue that he delivers to Carl and Russell over dinner, which suggests he’s also a straight-up murderer.;
MUNTZ: You know Carl, these people who pass through here, they all tell pretty good stories. A surveyor making a map... A botanist cataloging plants...an old man taking his house to Paradise Falls. That's the best one yet. I can't wait to hear how it ends.
We have a pretty good idea how that story would end if Muntz has his way, and Carl does, too; that’s why he grabs Russell and gets the heck out of there. In all of his years of self-imposed exile, Muntz has gone bonkers.
Ultimately, Muntz teaches Carl an important lesson—you know, in between setting his house on fire and trying to kill both him and Russell. It’s a lesson echoed by Russell’s stories about his deadbeat dad, and it goes a little something like this: Your heroes may not be as awesome as they seem. Sometimes they turn out to be crazy old hermits who live in a flying shrine to their younger self and teach pit bulls how to cook hot dogs. So if you’re seeking inspiration, your best bet may just be to look within yourself. You might be surprised by how fearless, intrepid, and downright heroic you can be.
Kevin, with her love of chocolate and flamboyant feathers, may be what Empire’s Ian Freer calls “a space cadet version of Road Runner,” but there’s more to this gal than just comic relief. She isn’t just part of Carl’s motley jungle crew for laughs; she’s there to teach him a lesson.
Just like Dug, Kevin is all about unconditional love. When Carl tries to get rid of her by chucking Russell’s chocolate into the jungle, she’s not having it. Well, technically, she is: she hunts down that candy—because candy—but then she brings it right back to Carl’s side.
More importantly, she’s a mother who’s fiercely protective of her fuzzy little kids. Nothing will stop her in her pursuit to bring food back to her brood—not even a nasty bite to the leg from one of Muntz’s dogs. In that respect, her love isn’t just unconditional; it’s self-sacrificing and tenacious. Kind of reminds you Carl’s protection of Russell in the film’s final act, no? He’ll stop at nothing to save his surrogate son from maniacal Muntz, battling him onboard—and on top of—Muntz’s treacherous, high-flying headquarters.
But the similarities between Kevin and Carl don’t end there. Her colorful plumage also reflects the vibrant hues of Carl’s balloons—those same balloons that echo Ellie’s influence on Carl.
Balloons are Carl and Ellie’s jam. When they’re kids, she propels a blue balloon into Carl’s bedroom after he breaks his arm; then they solidify their status as BFFs forever—as well as their plan to travel to Paradise Falls together. When they work at the zoo, Carl sells balloons. And when Ellie gets sick, Carl scoots a callback blue balloon into Ellie’s hospital room to lift her spirits. Balloons are their calling card.
Which brings us back to Kevin: her bold, colorful look is an in-your-face reminder to Carl of what matters—or rather, what used to matter when Ellie was around, and what should matter to him still. Just like the balloons, Kevin represents Carl’s confident, constructive mindset when he was with Ellie, before he was Sir Grumps-A-Lot, when he believed that adventure was not only out there, but it was a heck of a lot more fun with friends.
We can all agree that talking dogs are hilarious. Like, overpriced movie Coke out your nose hilarious. But here’s the thing: Dug is a mutt with a message. He’s the drooling, squirrel-chasing personification of one Up’s most important themes: love is all around you; all you have to do is let it in.
When Carl first meets Dug, Carl wants nada to do with him. Dug, on the other hand, is head over heels for his curmudgeonly new pal.
DUG [to Carl]: My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.
Dug doesn’t care that Carl’s kind of a jerk at this stage in the narrative. He digs him unconditionally from the get-go, and his devotion never stops. You might say that he’s dogged in his pursuit to show Carl some much-needed love.
Sorry. We couldn’t resist.
Dug does all that he can to help Carl, and frequently puts his own furry life on the line to divert his doggie bros in Muntz’s dog pack from Carl’s trail. What does he ask for in return? Nothing. And really, “pals” is too strong a word to describe Alpha and the rest of his canine crew. Those pups don’t have any love for Dug. In that respect, Carl has more in common with Dug that he even—squirrel!
Those construction workers sure seem to mean well, don’t they? After all, they’re only doing their job. They have a cold, suited-up boss to report to, and a dinged-up mailbox is just part of the gig when you’re working with heavy machinery. Right?
Okay, sure. But the construction workers also serve another, more important purpose: The hard-hatted laborers, and the company they work for, represent society’s dim view of the elderly. Carl’s a speed bump on the road to progress. They may be generally good-natured in their dealings with him, but what they really want him to do is shut up and get out of the way. Like the nurses from Shady Oaks, they don’t get what all of Carl’s fuss is about.
In short, the construction workers’ insensitive treatment of Carl and his desire to preserve his and Ellie’s memory-packed house reflects how our youth-obsessed culture straight-up ignores senior citizens, their wisdom, and their contributions. That’s why they’re shocked when Carl and his house hit the sky. That’s why, as a viewer, you can’t help but cheer when Carl’s all, “So long, boys! I’ll send you a postcard from Paradise Falls.” Those narrow-minded construction workers just got played by a septuagenarian. Oh, snap!