Plot Young Carl Fredricksen meets a wild-spirited fellow adventurer, Ellie. Together they dream of visiting Paradise Falls in South America, where their favourite adventurer, Charles Muntz, discovered a rare skeleton. 70 happy years pass by, though Carl and Ellie never make their trip. Ellie dies, leaving Carl alone in their home, surrounded by demolition and construction workers. He is visited by Asian-American Russell, an 8-year-old ‘Wilderness Explorer’, seeking his Assisting the Elderly badge. Carl fills his home with helium balloons, and starts to fly to Paradise Falls. He hears a knock on the door, and to his surprise finds Russell. They crash-land in the mountains of South America. As they try to navigate the house to Paradise Falls by foot, they encounter a rare bird, which Russell names ‘Kevin’. They also encounter Doug, one of Muntz’s talking dogs, who leads the pair to Muntz himself. Muntz and his dogs prepare dinner for Carl and Russell on his blimp. Muntz is determined to capture Kevin for research. Carl and Russell escape, pursued by Muntz’s dogs. Muntz succeeds in capturing Kevin, locking her in a cage. Russell embarks on a rescue mission. Meanwhile, Carl lands his house where he and Ellie dreamed, at the top of Paradise Falls, then helps his friends by using the remaining balloons to float up to the blimp. A battle ensues between Carl and Muntz, and both their houses fall from the blimp. Kevin is free, and Doug, Russell and Carl return home, in time for Russell’s Wilderness Explorer badge award ceremony, where Carl presents Russell with the greatest honour, the ‘Ellie Badge’.
Conflict of interest Produced by Pixar Animation Studios, and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, Up (2009) is a critically acclaimed and financially successful computer-animated film. Up was released at a very important time for both Disney and Pixar, being one of the first films produced after their merger in 2006.
After the success of their first computer-animated feature film Toy Story in 1995, Disney and Pixar agreed in 1997 to jointly produce five more movies over the next ten years. Produced by Pixar and released and distributed by Disney, these were A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004). Time Magazine wrote: “Disney and Pixar had a tight relationship” and that the partnership was “hugely profitable for both sides, generating over $3 billion in box office revenues over 12 years” (Fonda 1). However, when the agreement came to an end in 2004, Pixar’s Chief Executive, Steve Jobs, announced that Pixar would be seeking a new distribution partner, refusing to agree to a new deal with Michael Elsner, Disney’s Chief Executive. Jobs was critical of Disney’s creative and financial practices, and accused the company of “trying to squeeze the last penny out of hit franchises, regardless of quality” (Fonda 1). However, Elsner was replaced by Bob Iger and merger talks reopened. And on January 25th, 2006, a distribution partnership was agreed, and Walt Disney Pictures successfully bought Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4bn.
The merger led to considerable change for Pixar. Barthelemy (46) notes how “the pace of production was increased (seven films [Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Cars 2 (2011), and Brave (2012)] were announced for the period 2008–2013)”. This increased Pixar’s average film production from one film in two years, to one per year. There was also increased pressure to produce profitable films. Barthelemy (46) explains that “production costs had become so high (requiring $600m in worldwide box office takings to break even) that each film had to be a ‘blockbuster’”; there was also an expectation that each film would open up the potential for a franchise.
There were speculations that Pixar’s merger with a multi-million-dollar profit company would affect its style and content. During the final year of discussions, Weinman speculated: “the question remains, whether Pixar can maintain its old-school animation culture after becoming part of a modern corporate merger” (51). Cars, WALL-E, and Up were thus hugely important films for Pixar, as they sought to retain their classic style and storylines, while achieving higher profits.
Up director, Pete Docter, and producer, Jonas Rivera, had started working at Pixar in 1990 and 1994 respectively. Docter had previously worked on Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc and WALL-E, which were all critically acclaimed and profitable. Docter began writing Up in 2004, when the distribution merger was first refused by Jobs. After the 2006 merger, Docter and Rivera would have had to reassess their creative ideas for Up, given Disney’s tighter production time scale and the ‘blockbuster’ requirement. They were successful and Up was a hit, and Pixar’s second highest grossing film after Finding Nemo, with a worldwide box office gross of $731.5m and a total spend of around $233m. Importantly, Up also received critical acclaim, as well as Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, two Golden Globes and two BAFTAs. It was also chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, the first animated, and first 3D film, to do so.
Up therefore supports Barnes’ claim that “[i]n a subtle but important shift, Pixar has matured, allowing its strategic thinking to evolve inside a sprawling corporation”. The initial fears of losing its style and brand identity under Disney proved unfounded. Pixar continued to produce increasingly financially successful films (all mentioned above), as well as Monster’s University (2013), Inside Out (2015), and The Good Dinosaur (2015). Toy Story 3 overtook Finding Nemo as Pixar’s highest grossing film, generating $1bn in ticket sales. Interestingly, Docter and Rivera describe how Up drew creative inspiration from classic Disney films including Dumbo (1941) and Peter Pan (1953), and for them, constituted “a partial love letter to the Disney films of the past” (Desowitz).
A revolution against modernisation Docter’s key inspiration for Up was the idea of escaping from everyday life into a world of adventure and excitement. Using 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen as the protagonist was an unusual choice, and Docter admitted that flying a house to South America using balloons is a “bizarre concept” (Mottram). In an interview with Desowitz, Docter explained: “by the end of the day there are way too many people and way too many meetings. I just want to go and hide in a corner”. Thus, the visually beautiful idea for a floating house was created as a haven to hide away from everyday stress.
As noted, Disney’s Dumbo (1941) and Peter Pan (1953) feature similar themes to Up, notably flying, freedom, and youth. Peter Pan flies to Neverland, where he can live as a child, believe in magic, and escape the responsibilities of growing up. For Dumbo, an elephant child, his discovery of using his oversized ears to fly represents a new freedom and purpose. The themes of youth, freedom, and purpose reappear in Up. Even though Carl is a grumpy elderly man, flying enables him to find the same happiness and purpose as Dumbo and Peter Pan.
It could also be argued that Up features themes inspired by the merger itself: namely, corporatism, redevelopment and modernisation. Up opens with a moving ten-minute montage of Carl and Ellie: we see them meet when they were 8-years-old, sharing a passion for exploration and adventure, and begin to grow old together. Quickly, the perfect fairy-tale takes an unexpected turn, and the audience are introduced to present-day Carl, bitter, childless and alone in their small house and garden, surrounded by building work and redevelopment, their house (and lives) forming “an anachronism in this booming hyper-modern neighbourhood” (Meinel). Both Carl and the house look out of place. Docter explains that the house was intended to look like a doll’s house: ‘we wanted a handmade kind of feel [to make it] feel warm and cosy and comfortable and small’ (Desowitz), in order to create the ultimate juxtaposition with the ongoing corporate modernisation.
Carl refuses to cooperate with the redevelopment: he tells a builder “Tell your boss you can have our house […] when I’m dead!”. ‘The Boss’ is nameless, symbolic of large corporations. He is also faceless (we never see a close-up) and angular, in contrast to the cartoonish rotund Russell, and the curved square of Carl. These corporate figures are imposing, representing the power of money and business, along with the social difference and difference in ideals between them and Carl. Halberstam (27) writes that “the Pixavolt films offer the child an animated world of triumph for the little guys, a revolution against the business world”. So within the first twenty minutes of Up, prompted by his potential future at Shady Oaks retirement home, Carl ties thousands of balloons to his house, and flies away from the property development, skyscrapers and office buildings. Despite living in a rapidly modernising hi-tech city, eight-year-old Russell, an eager Wilderness Explorer, is determined to escape to a more basic life, making campfires, camping, and helping the elderly; desires which could also be viewed as a revolt against modernisation and the accelerating industrial world.
Resisting the romantic ideal offered by the film of a flight from modernity, Meinel (78) argues that Carl’s escape from the city can be read as a pursuit of imperialistic fantasies, inspired by explorer Charles Muntz. Carl and Ellie’s lifelong dream to live at the top of Paradise Falls in Venezuela has been described by some critics as referencing colonisation and conquest. Peter Decherney (101) observes that, since the 1920s, “the rapidly expanding Hollywood hegemony seemed both a harbinger of total economic and cultural imperialism, to assert Hollywood’s superiority as the dominant film industry in the world”. Due to the colonial history of America, themes of colonisation and imperialism appear in many contemporary films such as diverse as Jurassic Park (1993), King Kong (2005) and Avatar (2009). Like these films (which show the disastrous consequences of colonialism), Meinel (78) claims that “as an empire-critical text Up highlights the repercussions of imperial fantasies for the imperial dreamer and envisions an alternative communal experience”. Indeed, Carl and Ellie have no desire to establish power in Venezuela, they merely wish to live happily together.
Carl’s mission to fly his house to Paradise Falls could also be viewed as his pursuit of the ‘American Dream’: a retired helium balloon salesman who wants to achieve his ultimate goal of living in ‘exotic’ Venezuela. Once again, Pixar could be seen as offering a critique. Carl achieves his goal with the help of Russell, but remains isolated and lonely. After an exhilarating adventure full of entertaining mishaps and obstacles, Carl sits in his armchair at the top of Paradise Falls “surrounded by the emptiness and dullness of the house, and to the silence of a muted soundtrack, a high-angle camera shot captures the dreariness of his life” (Meinar 76). Carl then discovers that Ellie has filled their ‘Adventure Book’ with photos and memories, implying that the adventure was not about being at Paradise Falls, but growing old and enjoying life with Carl. Docter sums it up: “what [Carl] realises is that he actually has the greatest adventure, which was the wonderful life he had with his wife” (Desowitz). Carl is thus released from his imperial fantasy, as he realises the real importance of community and relationships.
Masculinity and the nuclear family In 2008, Gillam and Wooden (2) claimed that “Pixar consistently promotes a new model of masculinity”, as throughout their films “each [male] character travels through a significant homosocial relationship and ultimately matures into an acceptance of his more traditionally ‘feminine’ aspects”. In Up Carl has to overcome the loss of Ellie and reintegrate into society, and must acknowledge his flaws. The ‘homosocial’ relationship which enables Carl to mature is that with young Russell, as unexpected a companion as Carl is protagonist. Indirectly, through their adventure, Russell teaches Carl the value of companionship and community, and enables Carl to overcome his bitter loneliness, thereby illustrating Gillam and Wooden’s (2) suggestion of showing emotion as a predominantly feminine trait. However, in 2014 Gillam and Wooden re-evaluated their opinions. Their revised view was that Pixar films show limited representations of masculinity and that “Pixar’s male protagonists, whether human, animal, insect, car, or toy, become stifled and forced to suppress their creativity, ambition, or innate talents in order to conform to society’s prescribed standards” (Schmickrath 808). So, how does Up released in 2009 fit in relation to Gillam and Wooden’s two views?
Pixar’s decision to have a bitter, elderly man, Carl, and an enthusiastic and overweight eight-year-old Asian American boy, Russell, as their protagonists is an unusual one. Pixar are rejecting stereotypical hegemonic masculine representations of strength, power, and heroic status, as they did in A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. Carl and Russell appear to be deliberately crafted to represent polar opposites of hegemonic masculinity – both in subverting the typical ‘hero’, and being opposites of each other. In an IGN Entertainment interview, John Lasseter cited ‘simplexity’, a term coined by art director Ricky Nierva to mean that everything is based on simple shapes: “Carl is shaped like a box, which represents the past”, whereas Russell, “the young, enthusiastic Wilderness Explorer and sidekick, [is] very round, denoting the future” (Desowitz). Russell’s shape has much more freedom and fluidity, connoting potential and the possibility of change.
Both Carl and Russell are, however, incomplete people, searching for something which they believe will make them happy. For Carl, it is his adventure to Paradise Falls; for Russell, it is the admiration of his father, which he believes he will gain from collecting his Wilderness Explorer badge. Throughout Up, Carl and Russell become a new family unit, as they satisfy each other’s emotional needs, and, as Meinel writes, Up “‘transgresses the fantasy of (biological) familial bliss. This community is not tied together by heterosexual romance, nor by normative hierarchies of race, age, nationality, or species”. He refers to Up’s final shot: Russell, Carl, and Doug counting cars and enjoying an ice cream. In their socially transgressive relationship, Russell encourages Carl to open himself up to care about others again, along with fulfilling his desire for children which was never possible with Ellie. In turn, Carl satisfies Russell’s desire for paternal admiration. The importance of this “non-hetero-normative, non-biological, and trans-racial” (Meinel 71) relationship is represented through Carl giving Russell the highest honour he can bestow, the ‘Ellie badge’. In this mutually-satisfying relationship, it could be argued that Pixar have challenged stereotypical ideals of masculinity, and the heteronormative idea of a ‘normal’ family. As Meinel (71) writes, “this queer model of family and kinship incorporates gender-bending identities and the celebration of single parenthood and old age”.
Although it can be argued that Carl and Russell successfully accept a number of ‘feminine’ characteristics, Pixar films, and Up in particular, do feature fewer female than male characters, and do so in a limited way. In Up, there are only two female characters, Ellie and Kevin the bird. (Kevin is a single mother, again challenging the ideals of a nuclear family, but is mistaken for a boy.) Ellie dies within the first ten minutes of Up, and we only see her on screen once after the first montage (in the form of a photo album), giving her less than ten minutes of total screen time. In a second montage of her life, we do see a wild-haired, toothy girl with a passion for adventure, who encourages Carl’s imagination and helps him overcome his shyness. And Carl addresses Ellie frequently with lines like “we’re on our way Ellie”, thus allowing Ellie to be represented indirectly. As such, Ellie is one of the most important characters in Up. Without her, Carl wouldn’t be motivated to escape and fulfil his dreams. However, it can also be argued that Ellie is a ‘functional’ character, used simply to further the narrative and give Carl a goal.
Carl also speaks to the house as if it is Ellie, and certain objects are obviously reminiscent of her, including the glass money jar, her tall armchair and the photo album. We could therefore say that throughout Up, Ellie is represented by the house, with Carl using the house to fill the hole of Ellie’s presence. Notably ‘Ellie’ and Kevin are left at Paradise Falls, whereas Carl, Russell and Doug return home. Of course, Carl’s leaving the house is symbolic of his shift from his emotional loss, along with the importance of the non-heteronormative connection formed between Carl, Russell and Doug. However, Meinel (79) argues that this geographical separation of male and female characters also reinforces imperialistic notions (see above), as “the United States is eventually home to the male characters and South America to the female characters”, suggesting a gendering of mobility. Kevin is left (‘stuck’) in Venezuela to fulfil her motherly duties as she now has a family, a storyline which feels over-obvious for the only living female character in the film. So, the film mainly fits Gillam and Wooden’s more positive account of Pixar’s films, while containing some elements that indicate their revised, and more conditional view, is perhaps merited.
Since the male relationship-driven narrative in Up, Pixar have released Brave (2012), and Inside Out (2015, also directed by Docter), which both feature strong female protagonists, Merida and Riley respectively. Although Up may not challenge gender roles as much as it could have, or as these later films do, the focus on the relationship between a grumpy old man and a young Asian-American boy represented new and exciting grounds for Pixar in their newly renewed distribution agreement with Disney, and certainly challenged dominant modern societal views on masculinity and heteronormativity.
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Written by Emily Clare Pinfield-Sunderland (2017), Queen Mary, University of London
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