Pixar‘s Up broke records at the Academy Awards this year winning Best Original Score and Best Animated Film in 2010. It was one of the only two animated films to be nominated for “Best Picture“. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Although this film came out last year, last night was my first chance to see Up. Up is a textbook example of utilizing Hollywood’s popular film structure, see my earlier post (09/05/10 Why Most Novels to Film Stink).
Film Structure in General
The basic elements of film/plot structure are fairly close to Joseph Campbell. You start off with an initial change of the ordinary world (The Catalyst), followed by a shift in the main character’s priorities, making him committed to a goal (The Big Event). Sometime after, he or she faces different challenges and the goal is either changed or the stakes are raised again (The Pinch). This leads up to the “cavern moment’ were all seems lost (The Crisis Point), followed by an inevitable battle (The Showdown) leading to a peak in conflict (Climax) and the story’s end (Resolution). That sounds fairly simple, so, let’s look at Pixar’s Up to see how it fits into this model.
This portion of the blog may contain some spoilers (I left these in white, highlight to read). Please be advised!
The Structure of “Up”
So let’s look at this, step by step.
- Carl Fredericksen’s ordinary world is one of adventure. He is an old man but he and his bride, Ellie, always dreamed of adventure in the form of following their childhood hero explorer, Charles Muntz, to South America to a place called Paradise Falls.Charles Muntz was discredited and disappeared after his claims of discovering a new exotic creature in S. America were debunked.
- Carl’s ordinary world is turned upside down when the catalyst occurs. After the death of his wife, the neighborhood dramatically changes and development encroaches all around the world that he knew. An argument with a construction worker results in a court sentence of Carl being forced into a retirement home. Around the same time, Carl meets Russell, a Wilderness Scout (basically a Boy Scout) trying to earn a new badge.
- Carl still has a few tricks up his sleeve and sets his house afloat with hundreds of helium-filled balloons. He shortly learns that Russell, whom he’d sent packing, had inadvertently become a stowaway!
- So, two goals are established. Can Carl make this impossible trip to Paradise Falls to honor the memory of his wife, Ellie? Can Russell help Carl and fulfill the requirements of his badge and thereby graduate to a new rank? These are the questions of the Big Event.
- Carl and Russell both make unexpected discoveries along their adventure, in the form of a talking dog, Dug; an exotic bird named Kevin; and famed explorer Charles Muntz. A little over halfway through the film, Carl and Russell have a heart-to-heart chat and their goals, while still present, have increased complexity. This is the pinch of the film. Russell has bonded with Kevin and makes Carl agree to a promise to help protect Kevin from any harm that might come along. This turns out to be a conflict of interests and Carl is forced to make a decision.
- Kevin is captured, Russell becomes heartbroken, and Dug, demoralized. At a crisis point, Carl loses his temper and finds himself alone.
- The rediscovery of a note from Ellie comes with a realization and Carl finally understands what he must do. This launches into a showdown where Carl must rescue Kevin, and get Russell and Dug back out of harm’s way.
- The showdown comes to a climax where Carl and Charles Muntz battle, followed by the resolution of the film, where the true needs (versus the goals) of Carl, Dug, and Russell are realized. The end credits further emphasize their new adventures together.
So that is Pixar’s Up in a nutshell! It’s fairly formulaic and yes, I left a lot out but I hope you’ll still go and check out the film. Simply put, Up is an enchanted family-friendly film with lots of humor — how could it not starring Ed Asner? It follows the Hollywood mould for a fantastic script and is unabashedly dog-friendly. My family and I were pleasantly surprised. Go out and rent a movie this weekend!
P.S. If you’re interested in reading more about film structure, formatting and marketing, please see David Trottier’s book: The Screenwriter’s Bible.