Carl is a reserved old man who, by a series of impulsive actions, will be removed from his house. It’s the very house he shared with Ellie, the love of his life who has since passed. He cannot stand the thought of leaving so he attaches hundreds of helium balloons to his house to take off. He accidentally takes a young boy scout Russell with him. They end up in the colorful Paradise Falls, where Carl and Russell get wrapped up in a dangerous adventure.
Voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, and Christopher Plummer. Directed by Pete Docter.
The opening scene tackles the theme of death. This is the driving force of the movie and may be intense for very young viewers.
Why You Should See It:
Much has been said about the opening scene, a montage with no dialogue that shows the passing of time for a happily married couple. Life happens: a barren womb, a broken leg, sickness. Still they dance at night, go on picnics, and save money for a trip to South America. Carl realizes too late that they’ve abandoned their planned vacation. He feels he has failed his wife. It hurts Carl enough to be embittered, isolated, regretful, and we see Carl sliding down a machine on his stairwell, then striking the machine when it doesn’t work. It is a moment of anguish against the house that is now his emotional tomb. There is not much greater pain than letting down your loved ones.
Carl and Ellie meet as kids: from that moment they’re inseparable, even after she passes away. Carl is absolutely distraught in his empty home, a constant reminder of his missing half. He meets a young Asian boy Russell, a plucky little boy scout who needs his final merit badge, and we sense Carl is harder on him than he ought to be because children are another reminder of his childless existence. He expresses his loss in purposeful seclusion.
It’s when they get to Paradise Falls that the movie appears to lose some of the earlier drama, but there is actually a subtle clash of wills that convey two outcomes. The explorer Muntz has lost his dream of finding a rare bird and has also gone into seclusion; he spends his days inventing and has become deranged. Carl now pursues his dream vacation as Ellie would have wanted, but he is living in the past. Both men in their old age have pursued admirable dreams in the wrong way. A key scene brings this together: Muntz the evil explorer sets Carl’s house on fire to grab the rare bird, and Carl chooses to save the house. This sounds reasonable, except Russell the young boy scout is infuriated. Russell cares deeply about the bird, and when Carl chooses the house over the bird, he has essentially crushed the dreams of a young man.
Carl believes he has done the right thing. My dream or none, he’s probably thinking. But the next scene reveals that Ellie has had no regrets spending her life with Carl. She wants him to move on. In a note almost from beyond the grave, she writes, “Thanks for the adventure — now go have a new one!” She was content to love and be loved. She did not need Paradise Falls. She had paradise all along.
The very next moment Carl picks up young Russell’s badges. He understands now: dreams are meant to be shared. Love is meant to go on. Life can be treasured for selfish gain, or it can be cherished for infectious joy. Carl and Russell win the bird, but by then we feel it’s not about the bird. Carl has regained his sense of wonder, the same one that enjoined him to Ellie, and he finds that companionship is the real adventure. In a sense, he has learned to look up.