Sunday, January 3, 2010

Movie Message: Disney's Up

Movie Message: Disney's Up
Something tells me there's a bigger message here than the story of an uptight senior citizen who flies to South his house.

Up is the poignant story of retired balloon salesman and widower, Carl Fredrickson, who finally embarks on his childhood adventure - at 78-years-old - by tying thousands of helium balloons to his house and floating "up" and toward the legendary Paradise Falls somewhere in South America. The plot thickens when a chubby 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell happens upon Carl's porch just as his house takes flight. The redy-for-anything Russell seems immune to both rejection and bitterness, but it is Carl, so driven to get his house to its resting place, that he nearly misses the many wonderful opportunities and adventures along the way.

The movie begins hopefully, but soon takes a tragic turn with the passing of Carl's beloved wife Ellie. This event quickly establishes Carl's dramatic need and is captured brilliantly through a 4-minute montage of pure Disney - and movie - magic, spanning some 60 years of Carl and Ellie's beautiful life together. This montage is also reminiscent of the silent movies Carl and Ellie must have watched as wide-eyed children. Through their very full life together we are granted some solace, even if Carl and Ellie's dreams and a lifetime of adventure had been supplanted by the demands of daily life.

Carl remains haunted by Ellie's unrealized dreams, as evidenced by her uncompleted adventurer's scrapbook. Not only is Carl left behind to live with this pain, he is being forced out of the neighborhood and the home he and his beloved built together by the forces of progress and a determined developer. If only Carl had a session with the legendary psychologist Viktor Frankl to find some meaning in having outlived his vibrant wife, he may have also found a way to move past both his greatest love and even greater loss. Carl's hand is moved when an altercation with a member of the developer's crew creates the film's real turning point, leaving him with a choice between moving into a rest home, or finally taking action toward finally living his and Ellie's unfulfilled childhood adventure.

Our adventurers do miraculously arrive at Paradise Falls - albeit on the wrong side of the canyon - thanks to the magic of Pixar and an unexpected high-altitude storm. This was undoubtedly the same type of storm that delivered explorer Charles Muntz to this magical location many years earlier. As in real life, however, miracles usually only get us to the right zip code. History, religion, and ancient mythologies are replete with stories of "Promised Lands" that are one-part "miracle," and three-parts human effort, ingenuity, and heroism. Carl and Russell need more of the latter to get across the dangerous chasm between their landing spot and the falls, particularly since the balloons are consistently losing their ability to keep the house - and Carl's dreams - aloft.

It is also at this juncture where each character's deeper unmet needs and unfulfilled dreams rise to the surface. Even the viewers will see elements of their own abandoned dreams and missed opportunities rise up inside them as Carl, Russell, and explorer-turned-villain Charles Muntz wrestle with their own inner conflicts. Carl is not unlike Leo Tolstoy's character in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Though Carl had a much better wife, questions like, "What is the meaning of life?", "Was there more I should have done?", and "Did I miss the whole point?" can torment any of us who feel we have let too much of our authentic life slip by. With both Carl and "Ilyich," the agony of an unfinished life comes not simply from age or the effects of disease, but from the pressure of a clock ticking too quickly toward life's conclusion.

The real Paradise Falls, Angel Falls, is the tallest waterfall on earth at 979m with a clear drop of 807m

"Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James

Like so many people in the real world who today recognize that change must occur, Carl still only changes his location, when what needs to change is the character he brings into the next location. In the real world - and with nearly all of more than 30,000 homeless men we've worked with - change is often spelled e-s-c-a-p-e. Not surprisingly, instead of being grateful for having miraculously and safely landed at the famed Paradise Falls, Carl arrives as the same bitter, reclusive, and defensive old man he was when he left. And while Carl has every right to feel these emotions for what he has been through, seeing each new experience, new relationship, or even Paradise Falls through the past, only taints the view of the landscape and alienates us from everyone and everything we discover. I was referring to Carl.

Warning: Spoiler Alert

"But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press." - The Apostle Paul

Carl does complete his quest by landing his and Ellie's house in its ordained position above the falls, but not without conflict and great cost to his relationship and esteem in the eyes of young Russell, a boy already sensitive to abandonment from his absentee dad. Russell needs a male role model and mentor who will not only be there, but do what’s right, not just what’s expedient. Russell has chosen to save Kevin, and instead of join him in this heroic attempt, Carl dogmatically remains tied to his house. But something happens to Carl once his house comes to rest. Waiting again for Ellie to tell him what to do next, Carl gets the message.

Protecting our past memories and the wishes of those who have past is noble, but not when protecting the past comes at the expense of those with a chance at life, like Russell - or Kevin's babies. Russell needs a male role model as much as Carl needs to be one. Unfortunately, Carl's fear of losing his past life with Ellie has blinded him to Russell and Kevin's needs. Carl's only emotional connection is to his past, as evidenced by his cringing each time his fragile and clunky "house" - the storage unit for his past - is threatened by canyon walls or a meniacal villain.

"Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside the weight and the sin which does so easily beset us..." - The Apostle Paul

Great change can occur when we utilize those things from our past we have been dogmatically protecting, as resources for the future, whether for our own future or for the future of those who still have a chance to live out their dreams and great adventure. This epiphany helped transform Carl from someone who was first angry at Kevin for rummaging through his cupboards for food for her progeny, to a hero willing to "lay aside the weight" of his possessions, dumping his furniture so his house, rather, past, could become an effective vehicle again.

"Live as if you were living already for the second time, and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" - Dr. Viktor Frankl, survivor of four Nazi concentration camps, and author of 'Man's Search for Meaning' and 30 other works.

Is your Past keeping you from your Future?

It was no accident that Carl and Russell were tethered to a house loaded down with nostalgic and metaphorical weight. Using the balloons and helium from his career helped Carl's dream get off the ground and take flight, but when the house ceased being a vehicle for the future, it became a burden everywhere Carl went. Further still, children like Russell could end up tied down to past of their families until their own dreams are extinguished by sorrow, bitterness, and resentment. How will families learn that "achieving" - as in the case of Russell's workaholic dad or Carl's goal of "arriving" at Paradise Falls - is not as important as the adventure or the journey along the way? Maybe but seeing themselves through the characters in movies like Up. Like Carl, we can begin to see that achieving our lifelong dreams may not be as important as the life we live dreaming our dreams, or as important as the people waiting for us to dream them with.

Hanging on to the past and forgetting, rather, avoiding the demands of the present, appears to be the greatest obstacle to both our heroism, and to the adventure that comes with living heroically. Yes, Up is much more than a movie about a cantankerous old guy who doesn’t want to sell his house to the developer. It's fundamental message is how the weight - whether physical or mental - of our memories influences our freedom to live in the "present." Carl's house, as a metaphor for the past that he drags or tows everywhere with him, delivers a loaded question to the viewer: "How much of your past are you trying to tow into your present and future life? Would you say your "house" is more like a single story, a two story with a 3-car garage, or a French Colonial with a hint of Antebellum?" Like the proverbial ball and chain, Up brilliantly illustrates how being tied to our thoughts and memories of the past like Carl was actually prevent us from living today's life today. We are not free to see the world for its many possibilities or to recognize that others have real needs, but instead drives us to focus on but one objective: keeping our memories of the past intact. Some of us drag whole storage units full of junk from the past with us everywhere we go - O.K., that was me before I got the message - which made Carl's continual dragging his house around seem almost normal.

While the "past" can be a tremendous resource for the future, it is a cumbersome vehicle. Men have a reputation for hanging on to "stuff" from their past, whether its junk they collect in storage units, stories of who they used to be, or actual houses too full of memories of a past life to let new people or experiences in. The problem is not the stuff itself, but living each new day through the murky glasses of the old stuff.

"Every man is my superior in some way, in that, I learn of him." - Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Up also reminds us that just as our youth today need wise and mature role models, our seniors also need present and future-minded youth in their lives to save them from the temptation to become calcified monuments to bygone eras. Hero School has been working for more than a decade to pair the great wisdom and brain trust of our seniors with the current population of under-parented young people who need them. Perhaps Up can be the vehicle that brings both groups to Paradise Falls and beyond. -TT

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we're in a time when there are no heroes, they just don't know where to look.” - Ronald Reagan, 1911-2004

If past hurts, losses, or failures are holding you hostage, exercises like these can help put you back in time with the present:

1. Acknowledge the pain.
2. Grieve the Loss for a fixed period of time.
3. Forgive the person - and yourself.
4. Release the event.
5. Replace the thought trigger with a future hope.

“It is difficult to live in the present, ridiculous to live in the future, and impossible to live in the past. Nothing is as far away as one minute ago.”
Jim Bishop quotes (American Writer, 1907-1987)


  1. I really enjoyed this article. It is hard to admit how much like the character Carl, that I was. That was yesterday. Today, I am looking for opportunities to move forward into the future with a better outlook and attitude. One Sunday not to long ago, I was watching football when I heard God say, you can't play offense and defense at the same time. Meaning, stop fighting the past, forgive, and then plot your course forward. I'm still surrounded by giants that I'm not sure how to defeat, but I'll walk around them, soon as I know the way. Thanks, Tiger

  2. Great analogy, Lori. Thank you for your candor and courage as you embark to Paradise Falls.

  3. I really enjoyed your anology, It was ver y interesting