If anybody knows structure, it’s the storytellers at Pixar. To kick off Film Three-Quarterly, let’s take a look at this sweet, inter-generational adventure in which the elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) takes off in his balloon-powered house to escape the old folks home in search of Paradise Falls, South America. However, he has the ingratiating Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) as an unintentional stowaway. This is journey narrative and a comedy, so lets look at the three quarter scenes of this film and if they confirm to our theories about narrative structure. This is a 96 minute film, so our major scenes should happen at 1) 24:00 2) 48:00 and 3) 72:00 minutes. (SPOILER: They do.)
The opening 10 minutes is a masterpiece of an introductory sequence that both sets up the future elements of the plot (explorer Charles Muntz, the monster bird he claims he found in Venezuela, and the “Spirit of Adventure”) and condenses Carl’s lifelong romance and marriage to his one true love Ellie. We then catch up with Carl in the present day. Ellie has passed on, he’s depressed, and is threatened with gentrification taking his house and a nursing home as his fate.
Our first quarter scene, then, happens when Carl has taken off in his balloon house and, while in mid-air, opens the front door to find Russell on his porch. Ten minutes earlier in the film, he tried to get rid of Russell. But now they are indeed stuck together, and this scene both illustrates how the Boy Scout will be annoying (he’s a motormouth and doesn’t ask permission) and helpful (he spots the approaching storm clouds). This is the beginning of their journey. One is geographic, to Venezuela. The other, more important journey, is that of emotional growth.
By the time we get to our middle scene, the two have landed near the falls, met both the “Monster” of Paradise Falls (a gawky bird that Russell names Kevin), and Dug (Bob Peterson) one of the best animated dogs since The Triplets of Belleville. We also know that three attack dogs are on their trail. Just like he felt about Russell, Carl wants to get rid of these two animals, but in the middle scene, Carl’s emotional world changes.
The scene takes place in the dark around a campfire under a drizzling rain. After a wonderful, Buster Keaton-worthy visual gag about a tent, we learn along with Carl that Russell has an absentee father and no mother, so when Russell asks as he drifts off to sleep to protect both the bird and the dog, Carl says yes.
Carl has gone from a curmudgeon who wanted to leave society and people to live inside his memories and grief to a man now responsible for three other lives. This decision now sends the film into its second half. And its done in one of the quietest moments in the film. (It also will be important in the film’s final scene.)
By the time we get to the third quarter, Carl has received all he thought he wanted. He’s reached his destination, and met his childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who withdrew from the world in scandal. In essence he’s met his idealistic double. But Muntz is still living with past desires and wants that Monster bird. Muntz and his dogs capture the bird and Carl chooses to save his house from the threat of fire rather than help.
Our final quarter, then, takes place at the lowest point, but not for long. Russell feels sad and betrayed, and as Carl looks around his now nearly destroyed house, he once again thumbs through his photo album, indulging in memories of his life with Ellie. This photo album brings us emotionally right back to the beginning, but a handwritten note from Ellie makes Carl see that he’s been living in the past for too long. This is a comedy with a happy ending, and so Carl makes a decision that to live in the moment. It is beautifully presented in this shot, with Russell’s Boy Scout sash lying over the arm of Ellie’s chair, symbolic of how Carl’s objects of devotion occupy similar places in his heart. That’s masterful stuff, folks.
This choice sends Carl and Russell towards the conclusion of their story, which ties all the emotional threads in a satisfying way. There’s so much more to “Up,” but in this first installment of F3Q, we can see how structure helps carry the emotional back story for both the main characters.
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Written by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy