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Inciting Event: Shortly after meeting the young boy scout Russell—who will drive the personal side of the plot—grumpy, lonely old man Carl sees a construction worker run over the mailbox he had painted with his deceased wife. Incensed, Carl loses his temper and hits the man over the head with his cane. As a result, he is summoned to court, forced to sell his house, and ordered to move to Shady Oaks Retirement Home the next day.

Two things of note here:

  1. Because of the lengthy (and wonderful) prologue section showing Carl’s relationship with his wife, the rest of the First Act is slightly crammed, and the timing of the Inciting Event is a little late. It works out fine, but it’s worth noting.
  2. When we finally “settle” with Carl in the main part of the story, we discover he is literally surrounded by the main conflict: his house is the only one in the construction zone, because he has refused to sell to the faceless businessman. In other words, the conflict is already nicely in medias res. But note how Carl doesn’t actually brush the main conflict, which will drive the story’s plot, until he gives the businessman an opening to engage him. At that point, Carl still doesn’t want anything to do with the conflict; he firmly and adamantly rejects it. But he has no choice after that. He’s being dragged into it against his will.

First Plot Point: Carl unleashes a horde of helium balloons from his chimney and uses them to rip the house from its foundation and go floating out of the city. Shortly after, he discovers Russell clinging to his porch railing. Reluctantly, he allows the boy inside—and now all the pieces are in place for the “adventure world” of the Second Act. They finally land in that world several minutes later when the house crashes on a South American plateau, not far from Carl’s lifelong destination: Paradise Falls.

First Pinch Point: The “pinch” is extremely subtle. The audience is shown a pack of angry dogs, who are searching for a mysterious animal in the jungle around Carl and Russell. The turn in the plot comes when that animal ends up being a huge “snipe” bird, who promptly adopts Russell (and vice versa), despite Carl’s increasingly ineffective protests. Now, Carl is firmly enmeshed with a human antagonist—although he doesn’t yet know it.

Midpoint: In a lovely Moment of Truth, Carl learns about Russell’s “daddy issues.” The next morning, the dogs capture them and take them to their master—who turns out to be Carl’s disgraced childhood hero, explorer Charles Muntz. This is a good Midpoint revelation: it’s surprising (but still well foreshadowed) and completely changes the landscape of the story.

Second Pinch Point: Muntz proves to be insanely jealous of his right to the bird he has been hunting all these years. When he learns the bird is hiding atop Carl’s house, he attacks them. Carl and Russell barely escape. Although we’ve already gotten the sense that there’s something ominous about Muntz, this is a nice example of how to save the actual revelations for the pinch point, where the new clues should be introduced. It’s startling, and it turns the plot—which is what is most important.

Third Plot Point: Muntz and his dogs catch up. They capture the bird—who is trying to return to her babies—and light Carl’s house on fire. Carl has a meltdown and alienates Russell—and Dug the talking dog who “loves” Carl anyway. Carl’s house symbolizes his dead wife, so the threat to it is the perfect low point for this movie. But Carl’s character arc dictates he is moving away from the past (his wife) and onto a new adventure (his relationship with Russell), so in alienating Russell, he also endangers his future.

Climax: After finding a note from his wife, encouraging him to go on new adventures, Carl gets his head on straight (note how the character arc is basically complete just prior to the Climax). He goes after Russell, who had run off to save the bird.

Climactic Moment: After knocking Muntz to his death and gaining control of the dog pack via Dug, Carl saves Russell and the bird.

Resolution: Back home, Carl pins Russell with the “Ellie badge” and buys him ice cream, symbolizing his burgeoning new adventure as a father figure in Russell’s life.

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