This isn’t going to be what you think.
Now, we’ve all seen ‘Up’, right? It’s the Disney/Pixar movie about the old man who loses his wife, then looks set to lose his house, till he launches a million balloons and floats of in that very house on a mission to go on the grand voyage that he and his beloved never got to go on. It’s a great film, everyone likes Up – it’s got an 8.2/10 score on IMDB, putting it at number 113 on the top films of all-time. Up is a story to which most viewers have some level of emotional attachment – that first fifteen minutes is possibly one of the best examples of effective, human, storytelling ever captured on film, and it’s all done with zero dialogue, you just see the events play out. It’s classic cinema, but it’s also the ultimate example of how when we have an emotional anchor tying us to the heart of a story, that all the other details start to matter a lot less.
So, (and stop reading if you’ve never seen Up and don’t want to me to ruin it for you) after that first 15-20 minutes, we’re emotionally tied to the outcome of Up. We want Mr Fredricksen to come out of this okay, because his life story is so relatable and true to life. He’s had to deal with losing the only person he ever loved, the one person he needed, and now he’s tied to the house they had together, the memories he keeps. We, as the audience, want more than anything for Mr. Fredricksen to win after that montage sequence, because that’s what we want for ourselves – it’d be terrible to think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for him, for us. But then Up takes a turn for the less logical.
Mr. Fredricksen ties about a million balloons to his house and floats it. I can go with that, it links back to his former life selling balloons to kids and his only motivation now is to take his wife on one last adventure in the home they made. But then he finds Russell on his porch. How did Russell end up on his porch? For one, Russell was at his house the previous day, so he must’ve come back the next morning to continue his search for the Snipe – okay, I can go with that. But then he also must’ve seen the guys from the home come to the front door and that didn’t deter him at all. Okay, stretching. Russell then, when the house starts lifting off the ground, must have either jumped onto the porch, or not got off the porch, depending on where he was at, and held on for dear life as it took off. There’s no logical reason for this. But we forgive this element because, well, who cares? The dude’s flying a house levitated by balloons, logic’s already largely been thrown out the window.
But more than that, we don’t care because we’re already emotionally invested in the outcome. We’ve bought into Mr. Fredricksen’s story, and it’ll take a hell of a lot to get us to stop caring about him now – details be damned.
In this sense, Up gets away with a heap of stroyline quirks and plot holes that other films wouldn’t have a chance of overcoming. How is it possible that the adventurer, Charles Muntz, is still alive and still chasing that bird when he was already an old man when Mr. Fredricksen was a boy. This is somewhat explained at the beginning, when they say Paradise Falls is ‘a land lost in time’, but is it, in fact, lost in time? Have they somehow travelled back in time? How was Muntz able to develop technology to translate dogs in an isolated forest? Why isn’t Mr. Fredricksen more amazed about this? Why isn’t Muntz happy to see another human, why isn’t he asking how the hell he gets back – he must have family or something? Why isn’t Muntz more surprised that some old man has flown a house to the falls? Does anyone care about any of this?
No. And that’s the triumph of Up. Up highlights the absolute power of human connection, of finding the human heart of a story, as an effective storytelling practise. If you can find the human heart to a story, you can make it about anything – wars happening in a galaxy far, far away, love stories happening on a doomed cruise liner in the time before it crashes. Human connection, linking with your audience and making your story relatable to them, is more important than virtually any other element. Because we connect through stories, we relate. It’s stories that bind us together and make us feel less alone in the world.
Up is the ultimate example of this. Don’t believe me? Imagine Up without that opening montage, with no context for his relationship, other than him talking to his now absent partner every now and then. And while gaps in logic are always less of an issue in kids films, they’re almost totally irrelevant in Up. Because all we want is for Mr. Fredricksen to get that house onto that clifftop, just like his wife always wanted. That emotional drive is powerful, the heart of the story is what everything else refers back to. If you can find your story’s heart, you’re on the path to building an emotionally resonant, and connective, piece.