"Up" and the life without regrets
"Thanks for the adventure. Now go have one of your own!"
"Up," if you're reading this, is a movie you probably loved as much as we did.
(If you didn't - meaning, if you haven't seen it - then don't read this article. Spoiler Alerts).
There's the story of Carl, the grumpy old man; Russell, the Wilderness Explorer on the quest for the merit badge; Dug, a golden retriever that talks, sort of; Kevin, a strange and exotic colorful-ostrich-type-thing; Charles F. Muntz, the famous adventurer; and of course, Ellie.
Plane-flying dogs, Carl yelling "No!" and closing the door on Russell, and Dug saying "I hid under the porch because I love you!" were probably enough to make the experience of this movie worth the price. But it seemed to us that something...something, we weren't sure what - made this movie especially moving...as if, beneath all the fun and excitement, there was a deeply profound message it had for us.
So, we dug into it.
Here is what we found.
One of the key questions of the movie is one that is dear to our own hearts: "What is a life without regrets?
And, how can we live a life without regrets?
To dig into this question, we have to start with the story of Ellie and Carl.
Ellie and Carl, from the time they were young, wanted lives full of adventure. The ultimate adventure - and their dream - was to, one day, go to what was probably The Most Adventerous Place On Earth - none other than Paradise Falls in South America. Arriving in Paradise Falls, to Ellie and Carl, would surely be the fulfillment of their dreams - their dreams of adventure and their dreams of life.
So this goal defined, for Carl and Ellie, the "life worth living": the dream is to go to Paradise Falls, and if they are able to reach that place, then, in a way, they will have lived a life worth living. On some level, if and when that would happen, they believe they would be fulfilled, they would have lived their dreams, and their lives would in large be without regrets. In short, they would have found "IT."
So they get married with grand expectations of a soon-to-be-realized, just-around-the-corner promise of perfect happiness.
But then...life happens. They save up a little money to travel to South America...but then have to spend it on repairing a car tire. Then a tree falls on the house - they have to fix that, don't they? Then an injury comes up, and they need to spend a little more for the hospital. Then something else comes up...and then something else comes up...
...and somehow, time goes on, and they just never quite get around to actually making it out to South America.
Carl, especially, forgets.
He forgets about his dreams, and Ellie's dreams, and an ongoing symphony of chores and errands distracts him - for months, years, decades - and redirects him deeper into the comfortable routine of the day-to-day. Every well-reasoned decision pushes the (quite impractical!) dream of South America off a bit - because, after all, they can always get around to going sometime later...
But then...one day, Carl wakes up as an old man...and realizes that all his dreams - and Ellie's dreams - seem to be long-gone.
The years are gone...and Ellie is gone...and his dreams of going to South America...and his dreams of a fulfilling life, and life without regrets...are all gone too. It's too late.
And so, as a feeble, lonely old man, locked in his house...Carl is faced squarely with the prospect that he will die, probably sometime soon, bitter and alone...and he never lived his dream of going to South America...and worse, he never took Ellie to South America either.
In other words, he has regrets.
And this has come to define his life: his gruff, antisocial demeanor masks a purposelessness and undigested grief that positions him to merely waste away his remaining days in a complacent, unfulfilling, numb resignation. The threat of being shipped off to a nursing home forces him to decide whether he will somehow, find some way to live, or if he will accept defeat and resign himself over to a lonely, dusty death.
Let's stop the story here, and ask: if the story were to actually end here (besides being the most bleak, depressing film Pixar would ever make - that would also make several hundred million dollars less than it did) - strictly in regards to Carl and his life...
- what went wrong?
Everyone starts out with good intentions. Everyone starts out with some kind of dream. And Carl and Ellie actually did a lot of things right. First of all, they 1) had their dream; and they 2) knew what that dream was (sometimes the hardest step). They 3) seemed to be good, honest, hard-working people who 4) don't have any obvious vices (no real drinking, gambling, etc to speak of) that serve as the most typical and obvious dream-killers. And etc.
So using Carl and Ellie as our case study, 1) having a dream; 2) knowing what the dream is; 3) having good intentions, being a good person overall, working hard, etc, and 4) not doing anything majorly, obviously dumb...isn't enough. You could still do all of these things and still wind up staring down a lonely un-Pixaresque black abyss of regret.
In fact...if one were to toy with a slightly conspiratorial mindset, that individual wouldn't have to wander too far to wonder if life itself can even, in some way, seem to conspire to make us forget. Maybe it forces us - under a constant threat to our security in some form or another - to get caught up in the day-to-day errands of all the "to-dos" that are immediate (and feel urgent, whether or not they actually are) - so that we forget about the things that may seem more abstract, remote, far-off. And that, unfortunately, is where our "dreams," or the promise of real fulfillment, or a "life without regrets," if there is such a thing, lives.
So if this case-study of Carl and Ellie is a guide, the act of "forgetting," is itself a mighty enemy. So is distraction. And procrastination.
And so, if these are the problems, the Answer lies in countering these with reminders, with determination, and the discipline to keep the long-term in mind even when the long-term is in our face.
The Solution, then, as much as possible, is to wise up before you're too old to enjoy it. But after all, who can blame someone for fixing a flat tire? Who can blame someone for fixing their roof when a tree falls through it? Who can blame someone for fixing a broken leg? There are always very good, very practical, very sensible reasons for addressing all of these with the good, practical, sensible solution. And yet, the net result of these can still be failure. Which means that apparently, sometimes, if you want to live your dreams, you have to be unreasonable. Sometimes you have to, leave a flat tire flat, or let a leaking roof with a tree through it leak.
But then...a whole new problem: you wind up as Charles F. Mutz.
Let's resume our story.
Carl, faced with a bleak abyss of failure and the possibility of dying loaded with guilt and regret...finally makes a radical, impractical, unreasonable move - chooses life - and launches his house into the sky in a search to find some kind of redemption, for both himself and Ellie. He flies his house to the waterfalls in South America where Ellie had always dreamed of going and where their salvation still seems to lie.
The house, at this point comes to represent Ellie - and even, in a way, is Ellie. Not only is the house full of all the trappings of their many years together, but Carl speaks to the house as if he's talking to Ellie herself. The house has Ellie's lively marks and personality all over it (literally), from when she painted it all kinds of colors (adding color into Carl's life, literally, as Russell does later).
Carl feels that if he can only get the house/Ellie to South America...then he will have delivered on his promise; he will have found redemption; he will have dodged a life-with-regrets and delivered Ellie to the land he where he promised to take her, his Promised Land. And then, all will be well, with both he and Ellie, again.
But this time, things will be different. Having learned one route to failure, Carl is darn determined that this time, he won't get distracted, or procrastinate, or forget. All the traps and mistakes that tripped him up before...by god, they won't trip him up this time.
Except that...life happens.
He meets Russell. Russell, with the hole in his merit-badge sash and hole in his heart, slows Carl down...but Carl tries to "do the reasonable thing" and take care of him. They pick up Dug, the talking dog - another distraction. And soon there's Kevin - yet another distraction. All of which seem to hold Carl back, slow him down, and prevent him from reaching what he truly wants and needs most.
And soon we encounter Charles F. Muntz - the great adventurer, the man who inspired the original dreams of the young Carl and Ellie, the man who is brash, bold, fearless, determined - everything, in short, that Carl wasn't. In fact, he is the exact opposite of Carl. Muntz never got distracted; he didn't procrastinate. In short, based on what we've learned so far...Muntz, in fact, should be living a life worth living, a life without regrets.
But of course, there is much to be revealed about the character of Muntz: he hasn't fallen into the trap that Carl did - of being too soft, too distracted, too undetermined; but he went completely to the other extreme. Muntz is so focused and intent on reaching his goal that he is willing to kill, literally, anything - or anyone - that gets in his way.
As Carl's adventure continues...we realize that, in a way, Carl is becoming like Muntz. He has now grown into a man who can truly take action...but he is now in danger of moving too far to the other side, and becoming so focused that he can be, deliberately or not, cruel and uncaring to anything in life that exists outside of the immediate bullseye of his target.
So herein lies the horns of the dilemma: if you have goals and dreams, but don't strive for them mightily and with great determination, you may well fall into procrastination, laziness, and distraction, until one day, it's too late and you realize you've failed; on the other hand, if you do strive for your goals and dreams mightily and with great determination, you maybe well become a single-minded, ruthless, narrow zealot who can potentially murder anything in life that gets in your way.
Carl, having spent so much of his life failing in one way, strives with all his being to move towards the other. He's mean to Russell; he's mean to Dug; and in a moment of decision (and a moment symbolic of the dilemma above, where he must choose between the house burning or saving Kevin)...Carl chooses his mission.
And Carl succeeds. Sort of. But not really.
Carl eventually forces success...and eventually, winds up with Ellie's house right there where he had hoped it would be, in Paradise Falls in South America.
He's made it. He's living the dream.
But the success is hollow. While, strictly speaking, he succeeded in his mission, he had to sacrifice some of his humanity - in the form of Russell, Dug, and Kevin - to do that. And at the moment, when he's sitting in Ellie's house on the cliff, when he seems to, in a way, have "reached" it...but still... he knows that, well...something still isn't right.
At this moment, Carl is defeated again. Having failed by being not focused enough, and then having failed again by being too focused...Carl surrenders, and take a moment to reach for what is closest to his heart. He reaches out to Ellie. He thumbs through her "Adventure Book," with all the years and moments of their lives flashing in front of him.
He flips through the pages, and as he sees a page: "this is where I'm going to put my future adventures" - and here, at this moment, he hesitates, fearful. After all...Ellie never got to live her adventures, right? He failed to give her all the adventures she dreamed about, so the pages will be empty...right?
Carl summons himself, turns the page, and...sees that the pages aren't empty after all: pictures of himself and Ellie as a young couple..as a middle-aged couple...beautiful pictures as a happy, old couple. Years and decades of time spent together, maybe sometimes doing nothing in particular, but just...being, and being together.
And at the end of the pages, when the pictures run out, Carl sees for the first time a small message that Ellie had written to him:
"Thanks for the adventure.
Now go have one of your own."
What Ellie's little message reveals to Carl, delivers him. It shows him that he had, through all of his struggles and strivings, been wrong. In fact, he hadn't let Ellie down at all. Sure, he hadn't literally taken Ellie to South America, and they hadn't lived the soaring adventures the way they'd imagined they would when they were young...but in fact, according to Ellie, he actually had given her an adventure, after all. The life they had led together, Ellie seemed to say, that were filled with moments great and small, meant as much or more to Ellie as a trip to South America could have.
As Russell had said to Carl earlier: "Sometimes, it's the boring stuff I remember most."
Ellie thanked him for the adventure he had indeed given her, and told him, in essence, to go live again.
And here, Carl received his redemption, and he is delivered back to life, made whole again.
From here forward, Carl reunites with Dug, and Russell, and Kevin. He tosses away his comfortable old habits (his old chair) and even lets go of the external trappings of Ellie (the house) as he, literally, lets go of the old house and lets it float, up and away through the air.
Ellie's house, and perhaps her soul, we soon see - although it is unseen by Carl - comes to rest, exactly in the spot on the cliff by Paradise Falls, in Paradise, at rest and at peace.
And Carl, having been delivered from his self-imposed prison of isolation and regret, is delivered into living a "life more abundantly" where he and Russell are able to have a whole new chapter of adventures, both great, and boring.
So, what did we figure out from all this?
That when it comes to chasing our dreams, we shouldn't procrastinate, or get lazy or distracted, but instead should focus and strive valiantly to make them happen? But at the same time, we shouldn't get too focused and single-minded that we miss or maim the very life we're aiming at? That, if we're going to launch our house with millions of balloons, we should always check the porch first, for Wilderness Explorers and loveable talking dogs? That we shouldn't get caught wearing the Cone of Shame?
Well, unfortunately, we probably didn't discover any easy answers - no catchy slogans, nothing we can really turn into a bumper-sticker philosophy, nothing we can make into a top-of-the-charts bestselling self-help book.
But maybe we did figure out a few things about having regrets, and maybe a few things we can do to avoid them. And maybe we did figure out that if you're wanting to live a life of adventure, or of living your dreams, or of living a life without regrets, or anything like that...well, it's probably not a bad idea to start now, and try to include both the great adventure and the great boredom, and not totally exclude either one.
And if you want to spend a good hour or two with someone you think is pretty cool, well...you probably won't regret taking a little time to just sit down...and get Up.