Death is a constant companion in Pixar’s animated film Up. The prologue ensures neither Carl nor the audience forgets the emotional impact of the passing of his wife, Ellie. While the protagonist (and the movie itself) is generally amusing, witty, and content, the sad memory of Ellie perseveres through Carl’s apostrophic lines and the unforgettable house. Borrowing from The Wizard of Oz, Up places Carl in a surreal world that emphasizes the selfishness of pursuing adventure rather than valuing family. Like Dorothy, Carl fears he has disappointed a loved one, making Paradise Falls the psychological realm in which Carl overcomes the grief of underappreciating Ellie and failing to fulfill his promise to her.
Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the surreal qualities of Up can easily be glossed over. The oddness of Paradise Falls may be accepted as a product of the bizarre ideas and magic of Pixar—after all, the premise of the movie is an elderly man engineering a fully controllable, flyable house fueled by balloons. Oz is certainly more direct in presenting the Land of Oz as unreal, emphasizing Dorothy’s transition into unconsciousness and showing the physical transformation of Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch. Up nonetheless takes multiple steps to establish the impossible otherness of Paradise Falls. The most significant of these is the entrance into Paradise Falls. In a scene which mirrors Dorothy’s arrival at Oz, a spinning house caught in a storm slams into the camera. Following this life-threatening chaos is sudden peace within the house. When the protagonist opens their door/window, they discover an impossible, new place: Dorothy enters the fantastical world “over the rainbow,” and Carl appears in South America over the clouds. The use of balloons echoes the Wizard, who recalls he entered the strange land when “suddenly the wind changed, and the balloon floated down into the heart of this noble city.”
The impossible and unexplainable transportation from North America to South America introduces the alien world of Paradise Falls. Within the land itself, Carl discovers a highly-advanced dog collar which converts the thoughts of canines into multiple languages, a technology developed by a man separated from civilization. Numerous dogs accompany the man who has occupied Paradise Falls for decades, yet no female dogs are present to explain how these dogs were raised. The exotic bird which inhabits Paradise Falls is extremely capable of survival and produces multiple offspring, yet this fit species is small in number and limited to a single ecosystem.
Culminating the strangeness of Paradise Falls is Muntz. Both Up and Oz place characters known by the protagonist in the “real world” within the unimaginable world. Professor Marvel, Hunk, Hickory, Zeke, and Miss Gulch are recast respectively as Oz, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and the Wicked Witch. Carl’s childhood hero Charles Muntz returns, and the bird bones presented in the movie’s opening are recalled and given life through Kevin, the “monster of Paradise Falls.” While Kevin’s existence is expected due to the setup of the prologue, Muntz’s presence is peculiar. Young Carl views a film in which Muntz is an adult. The film is presented in a theater, suggesting but not confirming that Muntz departed soon before the final product of the film. Regardless, Muntz is portrayed as being far older than Carl. Within Paradise Falls, however, Muntz and Carl appear to be the same age. Though Carl ages significantly and Ellie dies from aging, the Muntz of Paradise Falls defies both aging and death.
The surreal characteristics of Paradise Falls and its inhabitants place a subtle question alongside the fantastical adventure of Up: is this adventure real? Oz presses that its story is an imaginary product of Dorothy’s mind, showing the audience Dorothy is asleep and watched over by others during the majority of the film. Up makes no such statement, yet the direct references to The Wizard of Oz and the hints toward Up’s impossibility suggest it too is imaginary. Paradise Falls, then, is a reflection of conflict within Carl’s mind. Like in Oz, this conflict is caused by a problem presented in the normal world. While Dorothy is forced to commit and defend herself after initially giving up Toto and later running from her problems, Carl must accept his inability to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls when, during the prologue, he sought so avidly to complete this promise.
Carl is driven to Paradise Falls because he mourns losing and failing Ellie. Thus his psychological journey within Paradise Falls involves progressing through the five stages of grief of the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When Kevin and Dug are introduced to Carl, he avoids them. He denies association, stating: “I am nobody’s master.” Their mere presence angers him. Carl’s denial of responsibility and anger are fueled by his urgent need to “park [the house] right next to the falls” as Ellie desired. When the house is threatened, Carl bargains Kevin for the protection of his home. Upon arrival at the falls, however, Carl becomes depressed. He concludes his journey by saving Kevin and abandoning his home, accepting the importance of Kevin’s life over that of the house.
Carl’s interactions with Kevin, Dug, Russell, and Muntz exhibit qualities of the Kübler-Ross model and thus represent the five stages in which Carl grieves. At first, he denies his failure to do as promised. He sets out for Paradise Falls, convinced he can still bring Ellie to her dream-home. Any distractions anger him; Kevin impedes his journey, causing him to bargain the bird away. Only when he succeeds in reaching Paradise Falls does he understand the futility of his quest. Ellie is gone. Carl did not provide Ellie the home she desired, and he will never have the opportunity to do so. In a climatic act of sacrifice, Carl leaves Paradise Falls and Ellie’s house forever, accepting this one promise must remain unfulfilled.
Oz too utilizes the five stages of grief within its fantastical Land of Oz. While Carl is shamed by his failure to act before Ellie’s death, Dorothy grieves because she actively chose to leave home. In Oz, Dorothy denies killing the Witch of the East, claiming this death “was an accident” rather than a choice. She strives to remedy her mistake and return home: she bargains with the Wizard and kills the Wicked Witch, becoming angry when, after gaining the broomstick, the Wizard postpones his promise. Depression occurs when the Wizard denies her. Here she realizes the full consequences for her actions, regretting “running away and hurting [Aunty Em’s] feelings.” This leads to the conclusion that “there’s no place like home.” Dorothy accepts it is her responsibility to remain at home regardless of the obstacles, problems, and foes which threaten her, learning to think of family and friends rather than solely herself.
Both Oz and Up include lessons gained through progression through the five stages of grief. The protagonists feel they have hurt their loved ones and seek to fix their mistakes. In Up, however, Carl is unsuccessful in satisfying his promise during Ellie’s lifetime. While Dorothy returns home, pleases Aunty Em, and learns how to preserve happiness for herself and her family, Carl leaves Paradise Falls after separating himself from his home. Thus Up inverts the ending of Oz and complicates the journey of the latter, forcing Carl to accept that Ellie is lost and the time to please her has passed.
Up further diverts from Oz through its lack of explanation. In Oz, Dorothy awakes from a dream; although she denies it, the characters—as well as the audience—know her adventure was imaginary. Up provides no such confirmation, returning Carl and Russell to the Senior Wilderness Explorer ceremony without comment. Dug, the other dogs, and Muntz’s dirigible accompany the protagonist into the normal world, implying Paradise Falls is real. This land possesses strange qualities and is discovered in an improbable manner, yet the prologue states the land exists and thus supports the possibility of Carl’s journey.
As fantastical as it is, the adventure in Paradise Falls cannot be labeled as existent or imaginary. Importance lies not in determining whether this journey is necessarily “real” but in recognizing it as a representation of the psychological conflict within Carl. The most notable aspect of the escapade of Paradise Falls is that it so effectively provides what Carl sought in the prologue. All which happens in this land revolves around the three things Carl obsessed over before launching his home into the sky: Kevin, Muntz, and the discovery of Paradise Falls.
Up’s opening shot is not of Carl or Ellie but rather of a film of Paradise Falls, Charles Muntz, and the bones of Kevin’s species. Carl engrosses himself in the video, making the film the most, if not only, important component of his life. Afterwards, he imagines himself as Muntz, hearing the film’s narrator describe his actions as amazing, adventurous feats. His subsequent attraction to Ellie and her clubhouse stems entirely from her equivalent obsession of Muntz, Paradise Falls, and exploration.
Following this opening is the second component of the prologue: the cinematic montage of Ellie’s and Carl’s married life. Carl and Ellie each participate in nearing the childhood goal of reaching Paradise Falls: both paint the clubhouse as young Ellie imagined it, both work within the “South America” section of a zoo, and both contribute their savings to reaching Paradise Falls. As the montage progresses, however, Carl and Ellie gradually diverge. It is Carl who produces the “Paradise Falls” jar and deposits the first coin. It is Carl who depressingly views the painting of Paradise Falls and subsequently buys tickets to South America. Though Ellie enjoys the entirety of their life together, Carl is preoccupied by the prospect of Paradise Falls. This division is illustrated in the brief time in which the couple hopes for children: Ellie is seen painting a crane delivering a baby while Carl hangs toy dirigibles over a crib. Ellie smiles at him, but he wholly admires the dirigibles. While Elle appreciates Carl and their potential child, Carl’s thoughts linger on the dirigible of his youth. When discovering she is infertile, Ellie painfully accepts the tragedy; Carl, on the other hand, avoids grief through the hope of Paradise Falls.
Carl’s desire to reach Paradise Falls is understandable. What is stunning, though, is that this desire acts as the primary focus of his life. The prologue centers on the film of Muntz and on Carl’s struggle to reach Paradise Falls; the remainder of Up takes place within Paradise Falls. Ellie appears and vanishes, presented in a fleeting montage of images and short memories. The longest scene of Ellie is one in which she appreciates adventure and exploration as wholeheartedly as Carl. By drastically lengthening the adventure of Paradise Falls and condensing Ellie’s life, Up shows Carl is consumed by his desire to reach Paradise Falls. The movie promotes Carl’s priorities, forcing the audience to focus on Paradise Falls and sacrifice the details of Ellie’s story.
Because Carl’s goals are so greatly emphasized in the prologue, it is surreal to see them conveniently return to him within Paradise Falls. Carl’s childhood is reborn as he discovers Paradise Falls, Kevin, Muntz’s dogs, the Spirit of Adventure, and the age-defying Muntz—all of which are presented in the opening film. Just as the prologue shows young Carl pretending to be Charles Muntz after viewing the theatrical video, the body of Up throws Carl into adventure alongside Muntz. He defeats and replaces Muntz, takes control of the dogs and dirigible, and becomes master over Kevin as Muntz never could.
The journey of Paradise Falls both satisfies Carl’s childhood aspirations and devalues them. Whether this journey is real or not, Paradise Falls acts as the turning point of Carl’s psychological state, forcing him to grieve not only the inability to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls but also the choice to focus on Paradise Falls. Discovering Ellie’s note saying “thanks for the adventure,” Carl realizes his misguided understanding of “adventure” and accepts his mistakes. Like Dorothy, Carl is taught humility and selflessness, learning family is superior to fantastical adventure. Up ends showing Muntz’s dirigible floating casually above Russell and Carl as they enjoy eating ice cream together, emphasizing the love of everyday life over the spirit of adventure.