Movie analysis: “Up”

Scott Myers
8 min readJun 2, 2009

Up is a delight, wonderful characters on a classic hero’s journey in a richly detailed animated world. But for me as always with a Pixar movie, it’s the story that stands out most. Its screenplay, written by Bob Peterson, who also co-directed the movie, makes excellent use of primary character archetypes.



It’s Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) as he hits on all the major P factors:

* The story is told from his perspective. The movie begins with young Carl where we learn about his love of adventure. The story follows Carl as he meets young Ellie, an adventurous soulmate. A montage takes us through their courtship, marriage, and the tragedy of Ellie’s death, all of which impacts Carl deeply. And for the rest of the story, no matter what characters are introduced, the dynamic is almost always based upon each of them in relation to Carl.

* It’s Carl’s goal — to fulfill his promise to Ellie and go to Paradise Valley in South America — that sets the plot into motion and creates the end-point of the movie.

* It’s Carl’s character who goes through the most significant transformation, realizing his goal of bringing Ellie — in the form of his memories of her, her Book of Adventure, and the house itself — to the exact spot atop Paradise Valley by the waterfall — then moving into a new adventure with Russell, Dug, Kevin and the rest. In addition, Carl evolves from disliking Russell to becoming Russell’s surrogate father figure. And Carl’s disposition changes as well — from cantankerous old man, just stringing out the days until he dies, to an upbeat, vital, and ‘alive’ version of himself.


The principal Nemesis figure is Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). What’s interesting about Muntz’s character in relation to Carl is that Muntz serves as an inspiration to Carl when he’s a young boy, in some ways the very vision of who Carl imagines himself being and becoming. But Muntz ‘devolves’ into a Nemesis when he becomes obsessed with salvaging his legacy by finding a rare bird in the jungles of Paradise Valley, his fixation moving Muntz away from the initial innocence of exploration for discovery’s sake to the ‘dark side’ of exploration in service to one’s ego. In classic Nemesis fashion, Muntz not only provides opposition to the Protagonist reaching his goal — his efforts to kidnap Kevin, the rare bird who ends up as Russell’s pet and a member of Carl’s troupe, disrupting Carl’s plans — but also demonstrates how Carl could, if he chose, go down his own dark side path: If he insists on achieving the goal not so much to satisfy Ellie’s dream, but rather his own ego-needs to fulfill the promise he made to her.

By the end of the story, it becomes a classic Bad Guy vs. Good Guy battle with death on the line.

It’s interesting to note that after the movie’s opening newsreel sequence which features Muntz, this Nemesis character doesn’t reappear until very far into Act Two. The script does a good job of interweaving other characters who provide an oppositional dynamic to Carl — Russell, a thunderstorm, Kevin, and the ever-present hassle of having to move Carl’s house — until Muntz re-enters the plot.

Finally, Muntz’s dogs, most especially Beta (Delroy Lindo), are part of Muntz’s team and provide a nemesis function.


The two characters who are tied most directly to Carl’s emotional self are Ellie (Elie Docter) and Russell (Jordan Nagai). In young Ellie, Carl finds the love of his life and they get married. Indeed, it is the inability of Ellie to have a child and her death that drives home the necessity Carl feels to make her goal — going to Paradise Valley — his goal. Even though Ellie is dead, she remains very much ‘alive’ to Carl throughout the story in part through a number of talismans which take on her ‘spirit’ — the house itself, the Book of Adventure, her photo, the grape soda pin. And when he finally manages to set the house on the exact spot atop Paradise Valley, as envisioned by Ellie, she magically ‘reappears’ to him through a series of touching photos in the Book of Adventure, ending with her handwritten note, thanking him for fulfilling the promise he made to her (“cross your heart”), then setting Carl ‘free’ with the admonition: “Now go have a new adventure.”

And in deft fashion, the script sets up another Attractor character with which Carl can have that new adventure: Russell. The Carl-Russell relationship has the feel of a classic rom-com dynamic — at first, Carl can’t stand the kid — but by the end of the movie, Russell’s dogged determination and basic goodness causes Carl to warm up to the boy. But symbolically, Carl’s biggest point of connection with Russell is that he is the embodiment of Ellie’s adventurous spirit. That’s what Carl gets from Russell. What Russell gets from Carl is a ‘father,’ someone who does show up for his merit badge ceremony, who does sit on the curb outside his favorite ice cream parlor counting red and blue cars, just like his absentee father used to do.

So the Attractor function is passed like a baton — starting with Ellie and her dream of going to Paradise Valley, and once that dream is realized, to Russell, as Carl’s goal shifts to embrace Russell’s goal: Save Kevin and reunite the bird with her babies.

One final thought re the Attractor: The house itself is an extension of the Ellie-Carl dynamic, so it’s interesting to note that after Ellie relieves Carl of the obligation to realize their shared dream, Carl becomes ‘free’ of the house as well. Of course, it’s a beautiful and fitting touch that the house ends up atop Paradise Valley, back on the spot where Ellie dreamed for all those years.


In my view, the Mentor is Dug, voiced by the movie’s screenwriter Bob Peterson. This may cause some head-scratching, but consider this. First, Dug is the character who has the most insight and understanding of the jungle, Muntz, and Muntz’s other dogs — and with this ‘wisdom’ fulfills at least one function of the Mentor character. Also Dug plays a pivotal role in assisting Carl in the Final Struggle, another role often played by the Mentor. But I think the most important mentoring Dug does is by providing a symbolic conduit for Carl to see Russell with ‘new’ eyes. For just as Dug is loyal, trustworthy, and dogged in his pursuit of that which is good, so is Russell. Indeed, the identification — as far as Carl is concerned — between Dug and Russell is such that they share an exact same beat: The house rises into the air, Carl settles into a chair, then a knock at the door. First time, it’s Russell; later, it’s Dug.

With Dug, Carl can envision what a companion can be — after all, that’s one of the primary descriptors of a dog in relation to its owner. Carl’s experience of Dug teaches Carl that Russell can be a good companion, too, opening up a possibility Carl had left for dead after Ellie was gone.


From scene to scene, this dynamic shifts from one character to another as at times Russell, Dug, and even the house present obstacles and roadblocks to Carl, but the primary Trickster character is Kevin. First off, Kevin is actually a girl, not a boy — a trick played on Russell and the others. Second, Kevin constantly messes with Carl: Kevin eats Carl’s walker; Kevin eats some of the house’s balloons; Kevin follows the group when she’s not supposed to, then disappears when they need her around. But most importantly, Kevin is the cause of the biggest test Carl has: Getting Kevin back from Muntz so Carl can (A) get the house to Ellie’s spot atop Paradise Valley and (B) save Russell’s life. In other words, it’s Kevin who brings the Nemesis back into the plot; without Kevin, there is no Final Struggle — no Big Test — at least as it’s played out in the movie.


— This is the second consecutive Pixar movie (after Wall-E) to feature a lengthy sequence in which there is literally zero dialogue. Wall-E has a first act that is comprised almost solely with Wall-E on the planet by himself, going about his business, then interacting with Eve (where they do eventually engage in some rudimentary dialogue). In Up, after young Carl meets young Ellie, there is an absolutely beautifully crafted sequence tracking key moments in Carl and Ellie’s marriage — all with no dialogue. It’s not only wonderful storytelling, it’s a great reminder: Movies are primarily a visual medium.

— There are so many talismans , objects that take on emotional / symbolic meaning. Everything from the grape soda button to Russell’s merit badges to Ellie’s photo to the Book of Adventure to the house. There’s even a motion — crossing one’s heart — that takes on enormous significance, both between Carl and Ellie, and Carl and Russell. Another great reminder: Make use of talismans.

— Last night, I had a post about movie cliches with this point:

Actually from a screenwriter’s standpoint, cliches can be a helpful starting point. Take the cliche, go in the opposite direction, and have fun with it.

Pixar is fantastic at doing this and nowhere better than with the Nemesis dog Beta. A vicious looking Doberman, when we first meet the dog, his speaker-altered voice sounds like a cousin of Alvin & the Chipmunks, completely the opposite of a snarling ‘bad’ dog — a fine example of going in the opposite direction of the cliche and having fun with it.

— Finally, I have to say that Up is a remarkably sweet movie. And I mean that in the most positive way possible. The characters are so loveable, so engaging, so resonate emotionally, and the themes simple, honest, real — all of that with not one whiff of edge, seemingly Hollywood’s most vaunted contemporary aesthetic. To which I say, “Hallelujah!” It proves there is room for all types of movies, even a sweet movie with a grumpy old senior citizen as a Protagonist. And the $68M in opening weekend box office is a tremendous affirmation of Pixar’s instincts.

Bottom line, they’ve done it yet again. All hail Pixar!

UPDATE: In thinking about the movie some more, two other thoughts came to mind. (1) If I recall correctly, after Ellie and Carl suffer their setback in an attempt to have a child, there’s a scene of Ellie sitting alone outside — depressed. Carl sees her through the window of their house. Then he takes the Book of Adventure out to her. She smiles. So in a way, that underscores even more the symbolic heft of Carl’s promise to her: Paradise Valley doesn’t just represent Ellie’s dream of adventure; it also takes on an emotional connection to the couple’s loss of a child. In a way, I suppose, rekindling the fantasy of going to Paradise Valley fills the vacuum created by their childlessness. And thus, isn’t it interesting to think that Carl chooses to fill the vacuum of missing Ellie and missing his home as well (being relocated to the retirement village) by rekindling — again — the dream of going to Paradise Valley. (2) Several times on the journey in South America, Carl looks up to the house, hovering above him, and talks to it as if he’s talking to Ellie. And that makes sense, does it not, not only because of her identification with the house, but also being up in the ‘heavens,’ her floating house ‘up there’ as well.

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