Structure: Up

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)


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)

00.00 TITLES
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)

49.00 Kevin calling (can’t read my notes ;)
50.30 Kevin back with the dogs
52.30 Carl & Russell surrounded by dogs – Muntz
54.30 Muntz: no longer intruders; guests

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.


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.

13 thoughts on “Structure: Up”

  1. the inciting incident would have to be ellie’s death. that whole sequence, from meeting to that separation becomes carl’s motivation, to take ellie (who he personifies in the house and it’s furnishings) on the adventure he and they promised themselves but never actually followed. he’s seeking some sort of redemtion, perhaps from feelings of regret or failure. what he has missed, and is explained when carl goes thru the photo album, and goes past what he feels is the final page to those ellie has created of their life, their adventure, is that everyone’s adventures are different, thus beginning his redemption.

    look, it’s a beautiful story, so poetically told, so well rendered and drawn. thank whatever deity you like for pixar.

  2. Great film though I had one problem… dogs flying aeroplanes. I was ready to believe talking collars and doing basic household chores… but they lost me with aeroplanes.

    The inciting incident was definitely the truck backing into the mailbox. That lead to a series of events which forced him to take action and change his life. Prior to that he was a defeated and bitter old man.

  3. I was surprised that the villain old guy got so psychotic when he found out Carl was hiding the bird. It’s a pretty big jump to have a welcome guest for dinner, then suddenly be threatening to lop his head off. I just wish they had a stronger justification for his madness (and of course his old age).

    Really fun movie though.

  4. Great analysis, and mostly spot-on.

    I would disagree with Carl’s purpose and weakness to overcome. RVC was closer to the truth. Carl’s weakness is GUILT. He promised (Crossed his heart!) that he would take Ellie, the woman he loved, to Paradise Falls. There is actually some fairly heavy philosophy going on here for a Pixar flick, as Ellie’s death makes Carl a LOST SOUL (because he can never fulfill his broken promise now that she’s gone.) Carl desperately clings to everything Ellie, from putting his hand on her handprint on the mailbox to adjusting the robin on the mantel just as she did, because he fears that if he ever loses his tenuous hold on his memory of her, his guilt will become total, and his soul will descend to hell (in the literary sense). That’s why Carl is so furiously adamant about making it to the Falls, even to the point of refusing to do reasonable things that would not have prevented him from accomplishing his goal and might even have helped (for example, welcoming Kevin and Dug into the fellowship from the start). It is only when Carl receives Ellie’s benediction that he is forgiven and his guilt is wiped away utterly — leaving him so spiritually reborn that he no longer needs his cane. Carl had to be willing to confront and defeat his guilt at the shrine of Ellie before he could receive his reward.

    Hurt Locker was decent enough, but Up was so clearly the best film of 2009 that it was frustrating not to see it win Best Picture. It also serves as a writer’s clinic on Chekhov’s Guns, as they are fired perfectly one after another throughout the film.

  5. I think that they are out of there mind going up in a flying house but when ellie died i felt sorry for carl so i wish a nother “up” came out but this time won with russel growing up.

  6. hi i was think about al the thing that up has tuch me be and my family and it come out that up tuch me more so i wish a nother “up” come out and in it hade russel growing up this time and then at the end it should have him metting his mum and dad also carl could die and kevin could come into russel house.

    thank you

  7. I teach this film to my high school film class when they study screenwriting. My new favorite moment to point out is when Russell first meets Carl and is asking if he can help Carl cross the street. After numerous refusals, Russell says to Carl, “Well, I gotta help you cross SOMETHING.” When I realized the full meaning of this, I got chills. Carl has to keep his promise (the one he CROSSED his heart about) to Ellie, and Russell is the one who helps him do that. It is a powerful use of the crossing-the-heart motif, and also lovely foreshadowing.

    • One more thing, I believe his initial refusal of the journey is not when he receives the Shady Oaks brochure, but his refusal to go on the trip he had planned with Ellie, after her death. The two tickets sit on the mantle.

  8. Thank you for your very well done story analysis of Up, one of the best movies ever made, in my opinion. I agree that truck hitting the mailbox is the inciting incident. I think that Carl’s flaw that he needs to overcome is fear, and he holds onto things out of fear. It’s obvious that he is timid and fearful as a child, and I believe his need to hang onto the house also shows a fear of letting go. He leaves with the house because he fears Shady Oaks. His house is his safety zone. Notice right after the inciting incident, how he retreats into his home, and pulls the shades and curtains to hide. Also, he is so afraid of losing that house, that safety zone, that he will even risk his life and throw all other considerations to the wind to save it and to be able to stay in it.

    Charles Munz’s insanity is hinted at early on, during the newsreels, and I believe that they did establish throughout the movie that he was driven, (note the scene where the dogs appear trying to hunt Kevin, and all of the traps that have been set for her.) The dogs’ abilities are built up, with hilarious effect.

    I wanted to note the music, which is exceptional, and how the composer, Michael Chiaccino uses the same recognizable motif to create so many different moods. No matter how old and cynical I get, I can not watch this movie dry eyed.

    • Thank you Penelope. Excellent points.

      I also agree with you on the music. Michael Chiaccino is an amazing talent, which I only discovered through Pixar for his work on The Incredibles.

  9. Your analysis is wack af and wrong . you need to read save the cat again. and go dara mark’s amazing book.


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