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Developmental Theories in Docter’s “Up” Movie


Development and growth, including not only physical but also cognitive and socio-emotional progress, is an inseparable part of human life. In movies, which are supposed to artistically reflect the challenges that individuals experience at certain points in their lives, the portrayal of certain developmental stages and the progress made is not only necessary but inevitable. The specified characteristic is particularly true for movies such as “Up,” where the protagonists’ struggles, as well as one of the major character arcs, are tied very closely to their age and the relevant challenges that it implies.

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Theories: Review

In order to approach the movie and analyze the development of its characters properly, several developmental theories will be required. Specifically, the framework offered by Piaget allows identifying the main stages of childhood development, namely, the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational ones (Young, 2019). The described stages signify the transfer to a new mode of perceiving and exploring the environment in which an individual lives, as well as the people with which one interacts (Young, 2019).

4According to Piaget, the sensorimotor stage suggests cognizing the world based on the five key senses and the informational input that they provide. In turn, the preoperational stage begins at the point when a child starts gaining language skills, whereas the concrete operational stage suggests the use of logical thinking. Finally, the transition to the formal operational stage implies gaining the ability to think in abstract concepts (Young, 2019). Applying the specified theoretical framework allows understanding the motivations and needs of a child.

In turn, the theory offered by Erikson provides a glimpse at the psychosocial development of an individual throughout the course of his or her life. Specifically, the theory offered by Erikson suggests that an individual undergoes a psychosocial crisis each time when a particular age is reached. These include Trust vs. Mistrust (infant – 1.5 years), Autonomy vs. Doubt (1.5-3 years), Initiative vs. Guilt (3-5), Industry vs. Inferiority (5-13), Identity vs. Role Confusion (13-21), Intimacy vs. Isolation (23-39), Generativity vs. Stagnation (40-65), and Integrity vs. Despair (65 and older). As a result of the specified struggles, one is expected to develop a respective virtue (hope, will, purpose, competency, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom, accordingly) (Young, 2019).

The described approach allows placing the process of development into a sociocultural context, which, in turn, points to the opportunity to assist one in overcoming key age-related challenges.

Movie Analysis

Physical Development

In the movie under analysis, two protagonists of different ages are featured, which allows integrating two theories into the assessment. Carl Fredricksen is a senior citizen, supposedly in his late 70s, whereas Russell is a nine-year-old boy. Therefore, in their physical development, the characters are strikingly different, yet both are portrayed in a very realistic way as far as their physical progress is concerned. Namely, Carl is shown as having difficulty moving, primarily, by showing him using a walker and making each pace with slight difficulty. In turn, Russell represents the exact opposite physical state, being quite bouncy, often running, and being overall very lively.

The described portrayal is quite realistic as it pertains to the observed developmental stages, namely, those of Piaget’s concrete operational stage (Russell) and Erikson’s “Integrity vs. Despair” one (Carl). Likewise, the brain development of the two is depicted in a very accurate manner, Carl being quite forgetful and slow, and Russell showing high levels of inquisitiveness and focusing on the outside world and its exploration. In fact, Russell features complete absence of egocentric attitudes, which could technically align with the concrete operational stage, yet seems to be a characteristic of a more mature person, which slightly reduces the credibility of Russell’s portrayal.

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Cognitive Development

In turn, the cognitive development of the leading characters is represented in a rather basic yet quite convincing way. Carl has issues with his memory and the ability to process information, which can be seen in his struggle to grasp specific situations, such as the emergence of Dug and the revelation of Muntz’s secret. In turn, Russell with his curiosity and quick thinking also reflects the appropriate stage of cognitive development, when the transition toward abstract thinking is observed in children: “Adventure is out there!” (Rivera & Doctor, 2009).

Socio-Emotive Development

Finally, the socio-emotive development of Russell and Carl is demonstrated quite well in the movie. Namely, Carl’s willingness to alienate himself from the rest of the community indicates his inclination toward despair in his socio-emotive progress, as Erikson’s taxonomy suggests: “You don’t talk very much” (Rivera & Doctor, 2009). In turn, Russell also meets t5he criteria of the Industry vs. Inferiority stage, even though his progress might seem slightly less obvious. Namely, Russell’s need for a father figure in his life, specifically, a father, who would be proud of him, implies a struggle of Industry vs. Inferiority and the willingness to achieve Competency. In turn, the latter is represented by an approval and support of a parental figure, which Russell finally gets at the end of the movie as Carl attends his scout ceremony.


Portraying both the concrete operational and the Integrity vs. Despair developmental stages as crucial points in its protagonists’ lives, “Up” helps to understand the struggles of both aging people and young children. Moreover, even though the setting in which both characters are placed is barely realistic, the struggles that they face are connected to their age and, therefore, make both of them very relatable. As a result, young audiences watching it can learn both to appreciate the needs and character specifics of aging people, while also developing a proper understanding of their own emotional progress. Despite the presence of several minor inaccuracies concerning the portrayal of aging people, “Up” does a perfect job at representing the related stages of development from physical, cognitive, and socio-emotive aspects.


Rivera, J., & Doctor, P. (2009). Up. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Young, G. (2019). Causality and development: Neo-Eriksonian perspectives. Springer.

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