Up is a very charming story with characters who are lovable, engaging and honest and a plot and pace which keep our attention. We are drawn in through memories and emotions and then swept away on a journey with our protagonist, a grumpy old man named Carl. And much like many non-animated films starring grumpy old men (and women), we learn early on that Carl didn’t start out that way and it takes an adventure, a cute kid (and a dog) to help fix it.
Right from the start, Docter, Peterson and McCarthy establish characters who grab our attention and pull us effortlessly into their story. In the first 25 pages, in addition to our protagonist Carl (our adventurous kid/responsible adult/crabby old man protagonist), we also meet energetic/enthusiastic Ellie (Carl’s lost love), Charles Muntz (the childhood idol), Russell (the kid who reminds our protagonist of himself as a kid and who adds tension and gives Carl someone to love) and the construction workers, real estate developer, police and nursing home agents (the bad guys).
Even though the characters are animated and adorable, they have been given realistic qualities and real life problems. While destruction and cartoons have been cohabitating forever, it’s unusual to have a married couple in an animated film experience such dramatic and heartbreaking real life situations (i.e., trouble conceiving, miscarriage, money problems, growing old, forgotten dreams, sickness/loss/death). By giving the characters human qualities and real life experiences and feelings, we as viewers empathize with them just like they were real people and we come to understand why our protagonist became this grumpy old man. This is effective because once empathy has been achieved we become locked in and invested.
In this week’s lecture, we learned the importance of actions over dialogue: “Not just dialogue, but also your characters’ actions: think of the volumes of information that can be conveyed by a glare, a question that is met with silence, or a character simply watching another character’s actions.” In Up, action (past and present) weaves the setting. “Each scene should contain only the absolutely essential information (so as not to distract from the overall plot and theme).” In the first 25 pages, we are given a lot of information in a short period of time, but it’s done well and all of it is critical to the story. Simple actions like Ellie pushing Carl onto the beam show how much he needed her “pushing him.” And in the moment when Carl touches Ellie’s handprint on the mailbox and smiles, he doesn’t need to say anything to show us how much he loves and misses her.
Just like a real person mourning the death of a spouse, Carl loses his spirit and zest for life. He was, at one time, in love with life, adventure and he had a charismatic woman to share his life. They shared their dreams but then they grew up and life got in the way. When Ellie died, their dreams fueled by her energy died with her and Carl is left mourning her loss and the loss of those dreams. It is easy to understand why he fights so hard to keep his home from being torn down by developers; it’s all he has left and his memories of Ellie are tied up in the house especially since it’s the one tangible thing they achieved together. By the time we get to Plot Point 1 and Carl makes the decision to launch the balloons and fly away with the house, we want him to learn to live again and we are ready to float away with him.
At times, the pace and fluidity of the dialogue kept things moving (i.e., Ellie’s rapid fire dialogue) and at other times removing the dialogue altogether slowed things down and forced us to pay close attention to the actions and details. Even though we were given a lot of information in the setup, the elements were easily digestible and critical to the story. Giving the details and emotions efficiently allows the story to get to the point—or the adventure—faster. This is especially effective when we consider that animated films are watched by both children and adults. The kids may be watching primarily for the excitement and effects but this film gives adults everything they need, too, with a relevant and captivating story full of drama and emotion.
The writers also utilized parallels to set up the story and bring the characters to life. For example, we have physical, mental and emotional parallels between Carl and his childhood idol Charles Muntz and between Carl and Russell. It was like meeting three generations. After all Carl had been through in the first 25 pages of the script, we want him to go on that big adventure he’d promised Ellie and to succeed where his childhood idol failed. We also want him to take Russell (the son he and Ellie never had) with him so he doesn’t eventually wind up on the same path.
Props also play a huge role in helping us get to know the characters and advancing the plot. Seemingly simple things like the ties showing the passage of time or the torn adventure badge and the missing scout merit badge showing a failed attempt at a goal and, of course, the balloons and the house itself were so symbolic to the ups and downs of Carl and Ellie’s life. And perhaps the most important prop is Ellie’s adventure book which showed Ellie and Carl’s hopes and dreams and we see Carl looking at it with regret for what wasn’t yet accomplished.
The beauty of Up is that everyone can relate to this story. We have all experienced some sort of loss in our lives and it is easy to imagine failing at a dream or feeling left behind, lost, lonely and stuck. Through charming characters, realistic situations and some savvy storytelling techniques, the writers bring Up’s characters to life and make us believe that anything is possible.