Paradise Falls Up in Pixar’s Academy Award-Nominated Movie

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Spoiler alert: This movie is way too good to miss. If you haven’t seen it, this post does give some of it away so you might want to see it first.

Up begins as a childhood romance between two dreamers that blossoms into a happy marriage.  The wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together is emotionally breathtaking. In a few moments we see how time and circumstances edge out a dream they’ve shared since childhood. It captures the way relationships spark and settle. We see how important this couple is to one another and how much their shared dream figures in their relationship. This just might be one of the loveliest bits of film I’ve ever seen. The fact that it’s animated just made it more universal.

Ellie’s scrapbook, which Carl reverences but never opens, details their childhood plans to move their clubhouse to Paradise Falls, South America. When they were children he promised to help her. Their shared love of adventure and admiration for explorer Charles Muntz brings them together as children. Even after Muntz is discredited they continue to believe in him and dream of visiting Paradise Falls some day.

For Carl their South American adventure is a catalyst for hope. From time to time they make plans which fall through and the dream finally dies with Ellie. He feels he’s failed her because they never made that trip.

Carl becomes a stereotypical grumpy old man. Perhaps because they never have children, Carl becomes focused on his house because it symbolizes Ellie to him. They met in that house as children. It was their clubhouse. After they marry they buy the house and live there for their entire married lives. For Carl, every dream, every experience as a couple is tied to that house.

Carl doesn’t think he has any more life to live. He is just marking time surrounded by his memories of Ellie. Like many couples who have been together a long time Carl has become so accustomed to being part of the couple, Carl and Ellie, that he is unable to figure out how to be Carl without Ellie. When it looks like Carl will have to move out of the house he decides that the time has finally come. If he can’t take Ellie to South America, he can take the house, so full of memories of her.

Here the movie takes a fantasy turn. Carl uses helium and balloons left from his years as a balloon vendor to lift the house off its foundations and flies to South America. Russell, a boy who is just trying to earn his “help the elderly” badge for Wilderness Explorers becomes his unexpected companion. Russell is also experiencing loss because his father no longer spends time with him and longs for a father figure. Carl becomes less morose, enjoying the adventure but keeps Russell at arms length, focusing instead on his mission.

Carl and Russell’s South American adventures include encounters with Charles Muntz who turns out to be a brilliant, ambitious eccentric who has lost touch with his humanity. He’s been living in Paradise Falls looking for a live specimen of the skeletal bird he found earlier. He’s invented a collar which translates dogs’ thoughts into words and uses to dogs to hunt for the bird. Young Russell encounters the bird Muntz is looking for and names her Kevin. Without much support from Carl, Russell tries to protect Kevin from Muntz, who is so fixated on capturing the bird and restoring his adventure hero status that he becomes the villain of the story, setting his pack of dogs on Carl, Russell, and Kevin.

For Carl, who has idolized Muntz for most of his life, this is disheartening. He’s built a lifetime on expectations that Muntz is a great guy and that Paradise Falls is the epitome of happiness. Carl is utterly disillusioned and turns his attention on getting the house to the top of the falls. All that is left of his dream of adventure is his determination not to fail Ellie this one last time.

When Carl finally looks at the rest of Ellie’s scrapbook he realizes that Ellie was not disappointed because they never made it to South America. She revised her dreams rather than seeing them as unfulfilled. She treasured the reality of their life together rather than longing for the unfulfilled fantasy that their dream represents. She expresses her love and releases him to move on without her.

Paradise always falls when we try to define it for ourselves. Ellie loves the life she has rather than focusing on the paradise that’s out there out of reach. Carl and Muntz both become dysfunctional with their eyes so fixed on disappointments over what might have been.  Like Ellie, Russell shows optimism in the face of disappointment, finding paradise in the relationships he forms. He longs for something more but doesn’t let that keep him from engaging in the now. When Carl finally recognizes that his years with Ellie were already paradise he is able to find happiness in the present, turning his efforts toward making life a little bit better for Russell and other friends he meets along the way.


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