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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT



Director: Pete Doctor
Producers: John Lasseter, Jonas Rivera
Screenwriter: Bob Peterson
Cast: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2009


Carl Fredricksen, a shy 8 year-old boy , and Ellie, an outgoing and rather eccentric girl, meet and discover they share the same dream of someday being explorers. Their hero is a daring adventurer named Charles Muntz, who explores a plateau in Venezuela and brings back the bones of fantastic creatures previously unknown to man. When his discoveries are accused of being faked, he gets enraged and flies off to South America, vowing to bring back living creatures to prove his claims. Hearing about this, Ellie asks Carl to promise her to have a real adventure and move the ramshackle old house, in which they often play, to Paradise Falls in South America.

The two children grow up, have a courtship, marry, buy the old house, turn it into their dream home, are happy together, and grow old. Carl makes a living as a toy balloon vendor and Ellie as a zookeeper. Unable to have children, they save their loose change in a gallon jug for the trip to Paradise Falls . But financial obligations get in the way: flat tires, home repairs, and medical bills. Just as they seem to finally be able to take their trip, Ellie dies of old age, leaving the grieving Carl behind. He becomes a recluse and talks to the absent Ellie. As the years pass, the city grows with construction around Carl's house, but the 78-year-old man refuses to move. After a tussle with a construction worker over Carl's broken mailbox, the court orders the old man to move into Shady Oaks Retirement Home .

Carl comes up with a scheme to keep his promise to Elli . Having worked all his life as a balloon man, he has the equipment on hand to create a makeshift airship using 10,000 helium-filled balloons, which lift his house off its foundations and fly to Paradise Falls . What he wasn't counting on was an inadvertent stowaway, Russell, a dutiful Wilderness Explorer Scout trying to earn his final merit badge for "Assisting the Elderly". The boy had been sent on a snipe hunt by Carl the day before to get him out of the way.

After a storm throws them off course, Russell steers the house with the help of his GPS navigator, and they find themselves on the opposite side of the valley from Paradise Falls . With their body weight providing ballast allowing Carl and Russell to pull the floating house, the two begin to walk across, hoping to reach the falls while there is still enough helium in the balloons to keep the house afloat. During the journey, Russell finds a colorful tropical bird, which he names Kevin, not realizing that the bird is actually female.

They later discover Charles Muntz. In order to restore his reputation, he had explored the terrain for many decades trying to bring back a large species of bird, which turns out to be Kevin's species. Carl is initially thrilled to meet his hero, but when he realizes that Muntz is after Kevin and would kill remorselessly in order to capture her alive, Carl rescues the meanwhile injured bird from Muntz.

While Carl and Russell try to assist Kevin to reunite with her chicks, Muntz sets Carl's house on fire. Because Carl chooses saving his house over joining Russell to help Kevin, Muntz is able to quickly capture the bird and fly off in his airship. Though Carl is finally able to successfully position the house on the ground overlooking Paradise Falls per Ellie's wish, he has lost Russell's favor and trust.

When the old man settles down in his house, he finds Ellie's scrapbook and discovers notes and mementos of her life with Carl. In a final note she thanks her husband for the adventure of their marriage and encourages him to go on an adventure of his own. Invigorated by Ellie's last wish, he lightens the weight of his house by dumping all his furniture and possessions, allowing him to chase after Muntz and help Russell save Kevin. After some fighting, Carl manages to trick Muntz to go inside the house while saving Russell and Kevin. The house drifts off into the clouds -- a loss he gracefully accepts as being for the best.

Now Carl returns Kevin to her chicks and Russell back to the city. When Russell's father snubs his son's Senior Explorer ceremony, Carl fulfills that role himself to proudly present Russell with his final badge, the grape soda badge that Ellie presented to Carl when they first met.

Afterward, Carl, reinvigorated in both spirit and body from his adventure, becomes a cheerfully active community volunteer and develops a strong father-like relationship with Russell and develops friendships with the other Wilderness Explorers Scouts.

Cinema Alchemy

Leslie, a young mother, brought her five-year old son Luke to therapy because he had nightmares and threw temper tantrums for about two months. She had already tried behavioral modification techniques for the temper tantrums unsuccessfully. I alternated between seeing Luke for play therapy and sand tray work, seeing Leslie to discuss parenting issues, and meeting with both of them together.

During a joint session, I asked the boy whether he has a favorite movie. He spontaneously told me about Up. Leslie added that he expressed a desire to watch this film again and again. At the same time, I learned that Luke doesn't know his father because he had left Leslie before Luke was born. Leslie's dad, who had lived with them, took on a father role before mother and son had relocated from another state a couple of months ago. Luke was very attached to his grandpa. Right before they moved, the grandfather had been angry with his grandson for a prank that the boy had played on him. They rarely were able to talk on the phone because grandpa suffered from a hearing loss.

During our next individual session, I asked Luke to choose figures from my sand tray figure collection and "play" something that he remembered from the movie. He picked the figures of an old man and a young boy. I noticed that Luke primarily focused on the sequence of the film in which Carl chooses saving his house over supporting Russell to help Kevin . In spite of his young age, my client was able to tell me how bad Russell felt in this scene.

Luke's response made me wonder whether the boy might believe that he is responsible for the fact that grandpa is not in his daily life any more. Therefore I asked Luke whether he thinks that it was Russell's fault that Carl didn't help him at first. He responded with, "not really". I told him that he was exactly right and that it's not his fault either that his grandpa doesn't live with them any more. Luke looked at me as if he didn't believe what I said. When I asked him whether he missed his grandpa, he nodded with a sad look on his face.

During the subsequent session with Leslie, I told her about Luke's responses and encouraged her to keep telling him that he is not responsible for the separation from his grandfather. She agreed to encourage Luke's grandfather let her son know that he is not angry at him any more, to buy a hearing aid that allows him to talk to his grandson on the phone, and to plan a visit.

After a while, they were able to arrange such a visit as well as set up phone calls on a regular basis. When I asked her son to "play" Up again, he focused on the last part of the story, the "happy end". Not much later, his nightmares and temper tantrums disappeared.

Theoretical Contemplations

Because young children are usually not able to talk about conflicts or other problems directly, using film characters gives them an opportunity to work through unresolved psychological material. Instead of direct communication, a film offers understanding through readily grasped images. It serves as a metaphor and therefore represents more accurately feelings and ideas that a child had trouble putting into words. Therefore movies are useful as an adjunct to traditional therapeutic methods when working with young clients.

Many children want to repeatedly watch the same movie. They become focused on certain characters because they are playing out significant concerns or developmental tasks, such as figuring out how to overcome the fear of a challenging situation.

Guidelines for Work with Children

• First determine the child's abilities. Choose movies according to the child's developmental capacities and the treatment plan.

• Young children's developmental limitations can reduce the effectiveness of assigning movies between sessions because of the time lapse between their viewing of the film at home and the discussion in session. This is different when a discussion follows immediately after a movie clip is shown in session, or when families watch movies together at home in the context of family therapy. The desire for repetition and recurrent focus on a particular film can prompt children to come to therapy ready to play out or to describe the movie they have been watching.

•  When children don't talk about their responses to a movie, puppets, figures, and drawings can be used to recreate scenes that are relevant for the child. The characters in these scenes can represent family members, care takers, teachers or friends.


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy