A structural overview of UP (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Thomas McCarthy 2009
I’ve been a big Pixar fan since stupidly missing out on the theatrical run of The Incredibles.
In 2008 the festival potential of my own short animation Tin Can Heart – wr/dir. by Rod March – vaporised when Wall-E appeared weeks after the completion of our film. The similarities were striking…
Still, I was pleased to see we were thinking along the same lines of the master storytellers of Pixar.
I’ve seen UP twice now and I find it thematically one of the most powerful movies of recent times.
Perhaps it resonates with me because I feel I’m at the Mid Point of my own life.
“A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.” – Freamon (From: The Wire)
SPOILER ALERT – FULL STORY ANALYSIS
What follows is a rough but complete analysis, based on notes made in the dark of the cinema. Not all turned out legible afterwards…
At the bottom of this post I touch briefly on the Inciting Incident (I.I.) or Call to Adventure of UP.
Here’s another great movie that seems to fit itself wonderfully into an eigh-sequence Hero’s Journey.
A. Prologue: Dreaming of Adventure (10mins)
01.30 Little Carl in cinema: ‘Spotlight on adventure!’
02.00 Explorer Muntz found to be cheating.
02.30 Muntz off to capture the monster & clear his name.
03.30 Carl follows a girl’s voice into a house.
04.30 Ellie: You & me are in a club together now! Badge.
05.00 Getting the balloon down – Carl falls…
05.30 Carl in bed – a balloon with a message floats in.
06.00 Ellie’s Adventure Book: I’m going where he’s going…
07.00 Carl & Ellie are getting married.
08.30 Ellie wants lots of children but can’t have any.
09.00 Saving up for the trip. Misfortune keeps striking.
10.00 Carl sees Ellie’s childhood photo, time is passing.
10.30 Carl buys plane tickets; Ellie gets sick & passes away.
B. Ordinary Life in an Ordinary World (10mins)
11.30 Carl’s life alone: daily routine.
13.30 House is surrounded by a building site.
14.00 Mail: ‘Shady Oaks’ retirement village.
15.00 “You can have my house when I’m dead!”
15.30 Russell knocks: Need assistance today?
17.00 Carl sends him off: Find the snipe. -I’ll find it!
17.30 Mailbox damaged: Carl injures a man with his cane. (I.I.)
18.30 Court summons: ‘Shady Oaks’ guys will pick you up.
19.00 Carl is packing. Crosses his heart.
20.30 Meet you in a minute: a last goodbye.
21.00 Balloons: UP (PP1 – Crossing the Threshold)
Threshold Seq.: Up & away to South America (7mins)
21.30 House takes off: Postcard from Paradise Falls!
22.00 Flying through the city.
24.00 Knocking – Russell: “Please let me in”
25.30 Russell steering – sees cumulo-nimbus… 26.30 Storm, causing damage. Carl knocked out.
C. Moving House across the plateau (12mins)
28.30 Carl wakes up. Russell: I thought you were dead!
29.30 Descending, landing the house in the fog.
31.00 Fog clears: Paradise Falls on the other side!
33.00 I’ll assist you over there. Only 3 days of helium.
34.30 Dogs POV, after bird. Hearing aid noise stops them.
35.30 Russell’s wilderness toilet: dig hole before or after?
36.30 Russell has found the snipe – does it like chocolate?
37.30 Bird likes Russell. Russell wants to keep it: ‘Kevin’.
D. Dug and other dogs (9mins)
40.00 Voice: Are you OK over there? Dug.
41.00 Dog is trained. Speak! “Hi there.”
42.30 Other dogs and Alpha dog
44.30 Muntz: locate them. The dogs leave.
45.00 Trying to get rid of the bird: escape.
46.30 Setting up the tent in the rain.
47.30 Russell tells of his absent father and foster mum.
E. Entering the Spirit of Adventure (12mins)
55.00 The Spirit of Adventure zeppelin
55.30 The museum
56.30 Dinner served.
57.00 They called me a fraud: bring the creature home.
58.30 Russell talks about his bird.
59.00 Muntz sees the bird.
60.00 Dessert. Kevin calls from the house.
F. Muntz goes after Kevin (12mins)
61.00 Muntz sends dogs after Kevin. Chase.
63.00 Kevin injured, his chicks are calling.
65.30 Russell: boring stuff I remember the most.
66.30 Kevin caught, Muntz sets fire to the house.
67.30 The dogs take Kevin.
68.00 Russell: You gave away Kevin!
69.00 Carl pulls house to Pacific Falls.
70.00 Russell throws his badges in the sand.
70.30 House stuck. Carl goes inside, memories.
71.00 Finds entries in Book of Adventure.
72.00 Ellie’s photos: her life was an adventure.
G. Climax: Carl vs. Charles (12mins)
73.30 Russell on leafblower to rescue Kevin.
74.00 Carl throws old stuff out to get the house flying.
74.30 Flying again.
75.00 Dug: “hiding under the porch because I love you.”
76.30 The dogs have Russell “small mail man”.
77.00 Russell to be kicked out, Carl saves him.
78.00 On board, past the dogs, find Kevin.
78.30 Distracting the dogs: Carl throws the ball.
79.00 Russell falls.
80.00 Dogs attack in planes.
80.30 Charles attacks Carl with the sword. 81.00 Carl escapes with Kevin.
82.00 Alpha dog caught. Dug is now Alpha Dog.
82.30 Fighter pilot dogs distracted: “Squirrel!”
83.30 Carl, Dug & Russell on top of the zeppelin.
84.00 Muntz attacks with gun.
85.00 Muntz falls to his death.
85.30 ” Just a house.” Descending into the clouds.
H. Return with the Elixir (3mins)
86.00 Kevin reunited with her chicks.
87.00 Our friends flying the zeppelin.
87.30 Explorers’ Graduation.
88.30 Zeppelin parked for icecream.
89.00 The house has landed on Pacific Falls.
NOTES ON ACT ONE
UP has a classic 3-Act structure Hero’s Journey. The only journey stage that may not be immediately clear is the Inciting Incident (Call to Adventure).
What is the Inciting Incident (I.I.) in UP?
If the Adventure is the trip to Paradise Falls, then the strongest Call is surely Ellie’s “I’m going where he’s going”.
However, this is not the trigger to the story of UP. It only triggers the Prologue journey – thank you James – leading to Carl’s WOUND: at the end of this (seemingly) failed journey, Carl Fredricksen is a jaded senior, frustrated because his desire for adventure has ultimately left him alone, disappointed and unfulfilled. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life without longing, without passion for anything. Because passion will lead to disappointment.
This frustration over the things he never did is Carl’s flaw, the weakness he needs to overcome.
To understand the true Call to Adventure, let’s see in what way Carl’s Ordinary World is a fragile equilibrium. Then, the Call to Adventure (or I.I.) is the collapse of this untenable situation.
The one shot that shows the fragile equilibrium is the zoom out from Carl’s front porch to show the building site surrounding the house. Once we know that Carl will only give up his house over his dead body, we understand that something major is waiting to happen here.
The first event heralding the call to adventure is the brochure for the ‘Shady Oaks’ retirement village.
It reminds Carl that his time is running out and he needs to act now if he wants to do something with his life. But this is not the type of incident that immediately changes his life irreversibly.
So Carl refuses the call until a stronger Inciting Incident happens: a truck backs into his mailbox and causes a continuous series of consequences, leading to Carl’s decision to finally depart to South America.
It means that Russell comes knocking on Carl’s door at the exact moment in the story when we’re expecting the Mentor to turn up. Is Russell the mentor? It’s an ironic reversal of the archetypes but I think he is a combination of the Reflection character and the Mentor.
What are your thoughts on the story of UP? Please comment below!
Here is some awesome stuff for the fans of the UP artwork.
Did you see UP in 2D or 3D? Which do you prefer? Vote here.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.