Up and the Power of a Consistent Theme

It should come as no surprise to anyone who watches movies these days that Pixar is basically the pinnacle of consistent filmmaking out there today. If you pass their films up because they’re cartoons, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Pixar films are very rarely, especially lately, films whose message is aimed at children (This actually would be my only critique of their films: that sometimes they’re missing both intended audiences by trying to cater to both). What Pixar offers are films with very  “mature” messages that are crafted within the framework of a cartoon for children.

It’s no surprise that most people don’t rate Pixar films in relation to other films, they do so in relation to other Pixar products. They stand apart.

Up continues this trend. The film is filled with cute moments and the kinds of characters that will entice children, but its message is one that speaks almost exclusively to an adult audience. It might not be as exclusively aimed at an older generation as The Incredibles (at its core, a film about a mid-life crisis) or Wall-E (a cautionary tale about our excesses), but Up‘s core concept deals with what it means to fulfill our life’s dreams, something that you can hardly expect a child to grasp. Note that this isn’t a story about having a dream. It’s a story about what it means to pursue and achieve those dreams.

The film seems to distill wonder with its focus on achieving the impossible mixed with a flavor of old school adventure from the 40s and 50s era of cinema and television. It also packs a ridiculous emotional punch. If someone like me was choked up no less than half a dozen times in the film, a more susceptible film-goer can expect to be in tears at least twice. Not the kind of impact you usually expect from a movie supposedly for kids.

Okay, mini-review complete. Here’s where I warn you about spoilers. They’re coming up.

A big part of why Up, and Pixar films in general, succeed is their adherence to a theme. Don’t confuse theme with setting or plot. The theme here is seeking your dreams, and what that means for one’s life. Every major, and even some minor, characters in the film embody this theme in some fashion.

Carl (the little old man) has the dream of living in Argentina, as per his deceased wife’s unfulfilled childhood hope—but once there he realizes that pursuing this dream to the exclusion of all others is an ultimately unhealthy pursuit. Carl’s wife dreamed of living south of the equator, but ended up living an entirely different sort of dream with Carl. Charles Muntz has become obsessed by his dream and it has turned him into an evil and lonely man—this is what makes him Carl’s foil. Russell has the dream of fulfilling his boy scout badge quest—but this is really just his way of seeking out the approval of the father figure he wishes was around. Even the dog, Dug, dreams of being accepted by a loving master for the kind of creature he is.

Every major character pushes the audience towards the theme and explores a facet of it. And because of the intermingling, it makes it possible to really explore variations on the theme. Carl realizes that his dream all along was adventure, and that his wife realized long before he did that their life together, mundane as it might appear on the outside, was the true adventure. He realizes that by taking Russell under his wing, he has fulfilled the dream of being a father, a dream he abandoned long ago.

All of this adds up to make the film feel very cohesive, and that’s because everything is interrelated. They’re all sides of the same construction, functioning as support for the theme which forms the film’s core content. And for anyone interested in actually writing screenplays (as opposed to just watching and appreciating), it should be very apparent by now why a clear theme like this makes a film much easier to write.

If every character has a dream and a goal of their very own, every character has its own plot. Look at that plot for each person. You need a beginning, middle and an end for each. You’ll want a couple high points and low points for each plot. So, let’s say you have 4 characters, and each of their plots has 5 major points to it (start, middle, end, 1 low point, 1 high point)… well that sounds to me like you have at least 20 scenes. Tying them all together and working in your exposition, and you’re remarkably close to having a fully realized script.

Maybe later we’ll discuss the little details that can really give your script life as well. For example, it’s not an accident that the pin that Carl get’s from his wife, and the badge that Russell is missing from his scout sash are both located in the same position, and that position is right over their hearts.

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