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Why the Beginning of ‘Up’ Still Devastates Us, 10 Years Later

Why the Beginning of ‘Up’ Still Devastates Us, 10 Years Later

It’s true: The sound of heartbreak doesn’t need any words at all. The dialogue-less opening montage in Up is visual proof, and it had most viewers crying from the start. The five-minute recap of curmudgeonly Carl and firebrand Ellie’s relationship is only a small fraction of the film, but it’s central to its main message: Grief can be a catalyst to a greater purpose.

The montage begins with Carl and Ellie’s wedding—her family is ecstatic, his is reserved—an indicator of how she will bring out his adventurous, fun side. As they start their life as husband and wife, a beautiful story of love and excitement begins. They buy their first home and begin saving money for their dream adventure to Paradise Falls, but their savings are continually redirected to emergency expenses until, in their later years, Ellie dies and we find Carl reflecting in regret on the adventure they never took together. Carl isolates himself in his own home, dwelling on everything missing in his life without Ellie.

This heart-wrenching sequence brings us from joy to despair in a matter of minutes, but its elements are critical to setting up the rest of the movie.

The scene’s lack of dialogue shows that love and loss need to be felt more than communicated. So much of our emotions are experienced in moments when nothing is said, and if we were to reflect on the most impactful times of our lives, most of them would probably find their most profound meaning in the silence of processing – sitting in the stillness of pain or awe or joy of a moment in time.

What’s more, the opening of Up shows us that adventure is the very thing that ties love together. When Carl loses Ellie, he loses his life’s meaning. Ellie made Carl’s job at the balloon stand an adventure in itself, and without her bringing life to those mundane parts of his world, he’s lost. In Up, and in life, adventures don’t always go as planned. No plan can comfort us in light of death, which is why we must grieve in a way that moves us forward rather than propels us back.

One way to move forward is to seek out other people, and the Up montage displays why we must fight against the instinct of social withdrawal in our grief. Carl resorts to shyness and isolation when Ellie dies, but in isolation, we convince ourselves no one understands what we are going through. The only way to fight despair is through and in relationships (in this case, that means befriending a hyperactive boy scout).

Understanding Carl’s pain helps us follow his journey of healing. Russell, our Khaki Scout pal, represents brightness and joy in Carl’s life—much like Ellie did—and he brings out the older man’s adventurous side again, though Up does not jump straight into flying houses and talking dogs following the heartbreaking montage.

Up gives Carl time to acknowledge his pain, but it doesn’t let him submit to pain’s trajectory for his life. Processing pain is essential to healing—we shouldn’t forget the memories shared with our lost loved ones—but we are to look forward and invest our emotional energy in a way that pays honor to whom we are grieving.

God gives us community and relationships. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Without the nudge from a friend, Carl would have stayed isolated in his pain and would have never experienced the greater purpose of exploration and excitement set out for him (that also would have been a lame movie—plus, who doesn’t love an adventure that starts with a house being carried away by balloons).

Even Jesus grieved. He wept over the loss of Lazarus. He showed us grieving is necessary and natural, and He used His pain for a greater purpose. In that case, His purpose was to raise Lazarus from the dead and present a model of hope springing from seemingly ultimate tragedy. 

God calls us in our suffering to turn our pain into opportunities to reflect His grace and love. Ultimate suffering is the basis of our faith—Jesus dying on the cross—but as we know, He rose again. The pain He endured on the cross breeds the grace and love we experience every day in faith. If we remain in sadness, we will never know God’s adventure for our lives. There is more beyond our hardships and pain and we must choose to move forward and seek God in our journey of healing.

Up provides a subtle lift in light of somber truths. It is as much heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, and its gorgeous opening montage sets the trajectory for the whole story. Even a  decade later, the message persists: No matter what hardship you may be going through, it can only go up from here. 

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