I liked Pixar's UP — and it had a fat co-star!

(Spoiler warning!)

1) We paid the extra couple of bucks to watch in 3-D. The 3-D was so well-done, so utterly natural and looked so good that we all stopped noticing it after the first fifteen minutes. Not really worth the money.

2) Why is everyone saying this film is such a weepy? Yes, right at the start of the film (in the film’s best sequence), the main character meets a girl, falls in love, gets married, has a long and happy lifetime with his love, and then she dies once they’re both in old age. We should all have misery like that.

Because I had heard so many “bring a hanky” comments, I really expected a major character (maybe the dog?) to die at the end of the film. This probably improved the film for me, since I actually thought a major character might die.

3) The bad: Even for Pixar, the lack of female characters in this movie is extraordinary; of two important female characters, one is the protagonist’s wife who dies in the first fifteen minutes, the other is a bird named Kevin. Why is Pixar unable to imagine a story with a female lead? Needless to say, it fails the Bechdel Test.

4) The good: The main character is elderly, which makes UP the only children’s flick I can think of to feature an old protagonist.

5) The even better: The secondary protagonist, Russell, is a fat little boy — and there isn’t a single joke about his size, anywhere in the film.1 A positive, non-buffoon fat character with no fat jokes — That’s pretty much illegal in a children’s movie, isn’t it?

Heather MacAllister once said:

Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.

6) In addition, Russell is a positive, non-stereotypical Asian character, and the actor who did Russell’s voice, Jordon Nagai (who was seven years old when they cast the part), is also Asian-American. In a more reasonable world the race of actors doing the voices in animated films wouldn’t matter at all; but with major live-action movies casting white actors to play characters that were originally Asian (as in “21″ and “The Last Airbender”), it’s nice to see Pixar go the other way.

7) And by the way, good story, good animation, and lots of great visuals. The dog characters were pretty consistently funny, as well.

  1. He does have trouble climbing a rope, but the way they depicted that didn’t emphasize his fat. []
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59 Responses to I liked Pixar's UP — and it had a fat co-star!

  1. 1
    Robert says:

    Spoilers.

    #1 and #3 relate. You didn’t think it was a weepy because you (possibly because you’re a hippie manhating liberal) missed the emotional centrum of the film – the missing father/son. Carl and his wife couldn’t have children (that’s half the weepy in the intro sequence, the other half being her ironic illness and death just as they could finally afford their adventure) so Carl has no son. (No daughter either, but this is a film about masculinity so it’s boy-centric.) Russell has no father; the movie is scrupulous about not blaming anyone in particular for this, but it’s clear he feels damaged by the loss of male role models and is desperate for male validation – thus, his extreme drive to succeed in his scouting organization and his somewhat obnoxious behavior.

    The main weepy moment in the film is Carl’s realization of how much is missing from Russell’s life – and when he makes that rare and difficult emotive shift to empathise with another human, he also realizes how much was missing from his life despite the happiness he found with his wife. Both these men have truncated families, creating emotional wounds that they don’t even know they have. They’ve both had the emotional experience of bonding with a woman – Carl with Ellie, Russell with his mother – but have not bonded with their son or their father in the same way. Carl realizes it, and in his moment of pain the audience realizes it as well.

    So there’s a whole conservative dads-are-critical backstory that you’re probably blind to. On the plus side, the resolution of the situation is highly progressive – Carl recognizes that biology is not central to fatherhood and steps up, taking on the role of Russell’s missing dad and symbolically adopting him as he and Ellie’s son by awarding him Ellie’s grape-soda bottlecap medal. So, yay!

    All of which is a longwinded way of saying that your #3 is to be expected; the movie can’t pass the Bechdel test because it isn’t really about women, it’s about men.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    I saw the movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. Rather than revisit the points made above (which I am pretty much in agreement with), it was nice to see a Scout star in a movie without the object of making Scouting look ridiculous/useless/uncool.

  3. 3
    tariqata says:

    I loved UP.

    On the topic of female characters: I have to agree with Robert, although I’d go a bit further. The movie wasn’t just about men; it was about the relationship between Carl and Russell. I think that their relationships to the women in their lives (particularly Carl’s relationship to Ellie) are important to how they come to relate to each other, but I don’t think that there was room in the movie for many other characters. And even though Ellie was a sort of shadowy presence in most of the movie, I appreciated the fact that it was really her bravery and sense of adventure that propelled Carl into his own journey. (I suppose that might not get through to young children though?)

    The one thing that irritated me was that the alpha dog repeatedly spoke in a high, shrill voice when its collar was damaged.

    And just in response to the footnote: I figure that most North American kids, regardless of their weight/size, couldn’t climb a rope if life depended on it. I sure never could!

  4. 4
    Amanda Marcotte says:

    Bullshit, Robert. The movie was weepy because Ellie’s ghost hung over it. Everyone teared up every time we were reminded that Carl lost his beloved wife. He was literally and unsubtly tied to her memory.

  5. 5
    Michele says:

    I havenot seen the movie but felt that a comment needed to be made. As we are all quite aware, it’s perfectly acceptable to be fat if you are MALE.

  6. 6
    Priss says:

    More movies than not are about men having adventures and are “buddy pictures” about male relationships. Disney has adopted a pattern where not only are the female characters likely to be dead, but in some of the “princess” stories with a central young female character, she loses her voice, thus freeing up dialog space for the colorful supporting roles, (thinking about their “Beauty and the Beast” which I saw a stage version of recently.)

    Can anyone imagine UP made with a widow and her adopted daughter going off to live in the jungle and dealing successfully with local villains? If Disney made it, the story would center on their wacky neighbors, while one languished in a coma, and the other gargled in a vain attempt to cure laryngitis.

  7. 7
    Danny says:

    5) The even better: The secondary protagonist, Russell, is a fat little boy — and there isn’t a single joke about his size, anywhere in the film.1 A positive, non-buffoon fat character with no fat jokes — That’s pretty much illegal in a children’s movie, isn’t it?

    A a fat male character that wasn’t stupid muscle, a dumb jock, comic relief, or a nerd with bad hygiene? I find this very hard to believe. I must go see this movie.

    Speaking of weepy moments did anyone read about this? Its about a young girl who wanted to see “Up” but was so sick from terminal cancer she was unable to go to the theater to see it.

    I havenot seen the movie but felt that a comment needed to be made. As we are all quite aware, it’s perfectly acceptable to be fat if you are MALE.
    Wrong. Fatphobia is a problem for men just as it is for women. In some ways not as bad, in some ways worse.

    Mandolin may I ask what you mean by “They also have to be fatter than women to start triggering negative effects.”? Are you talking about health issues or in relation to a male/female couple a fat guy is not an issue unless he is larger than the woman he is with or something else?

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    We’re sad for Carl because he lost his wife, and sad for Ellie that she died, but as Amp notes, they had a long and good life together despite the sorrow of not being able to start the family they wanted. Ellie is an important character, but the movie isn’t about her tragedy, it’s about Carl and Russell’s.

    Edited to Add: Jesus, Danny, that’s a tearjerker.

  9. 9
    Mandolin says:

    Michele — men suffer from fatphobia, too, just in different ways (sometimes less virulent ones). They also have to be fatter than women to start triggering negative effects. Fatphobia still has a significant negative impact on men, though, and you shouldn’t erase that.

  10. 10
    Jason L. says:

    Am I the only one who went through most of the movie not realizing that Russell was Asian? It was only when I saw his mother in the audience at the end that I realized he was. I guess it’s a credit to Pixar, then, that they didn’t give him exaggerated stereotypical Asian eyes, which perhaps I have unconsciously relied on in cartoons to identify a character as Asian. Of course, it’s possible his father is white, and so Russell was intended as hapa. This brings up another bonus for the movie: interracial families–either Russell’s parents or he and his adoptive father (Carl).

  11. 11
    RonF says:

    Am I the only one who went through most of the movie not realizing that Russell was Asian?

    No. I also didn’t realize this.

  12. 12
    Simple Truth says:

    I really loved this movie…with the exception of the dogs flying airplanes. (Yeah “dogfight”….I get it.) That was a little too silly for me to buy into and took me out of the movie. I thought it was great that Russell was seen as…just a kid doing kid things rather than being THE fat kid or THE Asian kid. Ellie’s death had me sobbing in the theatre. I’d recommend this movie to anyone without hesitation. It would still be nice to have more female characters in Pixar movies, but I think this one wanted to tell a different story and it worked out well.

  13. 13
    Dianne says:

    All of which is a longwinded way of saying that your #3 is to be expected; the movie can’t pass the Bechdel test because it isn’t really about women, it’s about men.

    Most movies that are about women pass the Om movie measure (have at least two male characters who talk to each other about something other than a woman.) In fact, I can only think of one movie that passes the MMM but not its converse (Triplets of Belleville, which is, ironically, not really about women but about a man and the main character’s devotion to him-as a son not a lover, but still it’s clear that her life revolves around him.)

    So I don’t think that the implicit statement that Up doesn’t pass the MMM because it just happens to be about men/masculinity, as though there are dozens of movies out there about women that don’t have any male characters is really valid. It doesn’t have any female characters because women are seen as more peripheral to society than men and it is easier for a director to simply cut them out if they are not the “point” of the picture-whereas a film without men would be practically unthinkable.

  14. 14
    Robert says:

    I meant that the entire focus of the film is the relationship between these two males. There are females intimately involved in the story, but Kevin can’t talk and Ellie is already dead and we don’t see Russell’s mother until the very end. There are no conversations between women in the film because it’s not a film where women have any conversations. I think there’s a difference between a film like this (or say, “Master and Commander”, which was similarly male-oriented) where the lack of female vocal participation is simply a structural byproduct of making that kind of movie, versus a film like “The Proposal” where there are tons of scenes where women talk, and yet for some reason talk only about men.

    They fail the MMM for very different reasons, IOW, and those reasons tell us very different things about the filmmakers.

  15. 15
    Kai Jones says:

    I’m with Robert, except it’s worse: they did, indeed, blame somebody for the absent father. They blamed the new wife. I distinctly remember Russell making a remark about the new wife not liking his dad spending time with him.

  16. 16
    Robert says:

    Oh yeah, he did say that, didn’t he? That had slipped my mind.

    Oh, and, thirding the no-idea-he-was-Asian thing, and seconding the reservations about the “dog”-fighting scene. But that one is like saying that Selma Hayek has ugly toes; even if it’s true, nobody cares because the other wonderfulness is too overwhelming.

  17. 17
    Elusis says:

    I loved “Up” for many of the reasons articulated here.

    I did not love the rather un-subtle message at the end: apparently Scouting badges puff into dust or something if women touch them, because if you have a father, even a non-biological father figure, he can pin your badge on you, but your mother has to languish sadly in the audience while you stand, alone and tragic, on the stage with tears in your eyes. Moms: useless! Who needs ‘em?

    But “fat Asian kid is a hero and is never once mocked for being fat or Asian” absolutely made my week.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    Robert, I did get the bit about the substitute father figure, but it didn’t make me weepy. But now that you mention it, I can see how that could be tear-jerky for some folks.

    Just to clarify, I don’t have any objection to this particular movie having almost no female characters and failing the Bechdel test. That’s only objectionable because of the context of Pixar’s long record of never, ever having female protagonists.

  19. 19
    Jason L. says:

    I did not love the rather un-subtle message at the end: apparently Scouting badges puff into dust or something if women touch them, because if you have a father, even a non-biological father figure, he can pin your badge on you, but your mother has to languish sadly in the audience while you stand, alone and tragic, on the stage with tears in your eyes. Moms: useless! Who needs ‘em?

    A similar message appeared earlier: when Russell lamented his not being able to set up a tent, Carl asked why he didn’t ask his father for help. You think that Carl of all people would be intimately aware of the potential for women to have this kind of practical knowledge and interest, given his relationship with Ellie. So I find it rather puzzling that it didn’t occur to the writers that a mother could help a child with setting up a tent.

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    Mandolin may I ask what you mean by “They also have to be fatter than women to start triggering negative effects.”? Are you talking about health issues or in relation to a male/female couple a fat guy is not an issue unless he is larger than the woman he is with or something else?

    My guess is that Mandolin was thinking of things like this.

  21. 21
    RonF says:

    Interestingly, at every Scouting function I’ve ever been at where a parent was involved in pinning on an award, it was the mother and not the father who did so.

    In Cub Scouts you hand the award to the parent at the ceremony, both due to the nature of the Cub Scout program and because the kids are 10 years old or younger and you don’t want the award to get lost. If one parent is present, it’s almost always Mom. If both parents are present it’ll be Mom that sticks out her hand for the award. Make of that what you will.

    In Boy Scouts – which based on his uniform and the terminology he uses is what Russell is – the only time I’ve seen parents involved in the award ceremony is during an Eagle Court of Honor. I’ve been to a quite a few by now and universally it’s Mom who pins the Eagle Medal on her son. Dad hands the new Eagle his Eagle Certificate, and the new Eagle pins the Eagle Dad pin on Dad, the Eagle Mom pin on Mom, and one or more Eagle Mentor pins on whoever he thinks is worthwhile.

    Maybe in that scene Pixar was trying to emphasize the change in the relationship between Russell and Carl.

  22. 22
    PG says:

    “You think that Carl of all people would be intimately aware of the potential for women to have this kind of practical knowledge and interest, given his relationship with Ellie. So I find it rather puzzling that it didn’t occur to the writers that a mother could help a child with setting up a tent.”

    I thought this was more about Carl’s traditionalism. Remember, he wigs out when he thinks Russell might be referring to his mother by her first name. I would be wary of attributing to the writer what likely is meant to reinforce Carl’s living in the past rather than the present.

  23. 23
    RonF says:

    You think that Carl of all people would be intimately aware of the potential for women to have this kind of practical knowledge and interest, given his relationship with Ellie. So I find it rather puzzling that it didn’t occur to the writers that a mother could help a child with setting up a tent.

    Potential? God knows that I can rattle off the names of half a dozen women who can put up a tent as quickly as I can – and I can get a tent up pretty quick. However, nearly every single one of them has been a Scouter (although that’s not always where they got that knowledge in the first place). Based on my observations over my 17 years as a Scouter I’ll tell you that the odds of a non-Scouter mother knowing how to put up a tent are much, much lower than the odds of a non-Scouter father knowing how. When someone tells me (as I have often been told when inviting a parent to come on a Scout campout) “My idea of roughing it is room service” you can bet it’s not a male talking.

    Having said that; let’s not forget that Carl is elderly and that based on the technology and timelines shown this movie would have taken place during or before the present day. While it’s not PC for you and I to make this assumption it’s well within character for an elderly man to do so, especially what looks to be no later than now. The issue is not what would occur to the writers; it’s what would occur to Carl.

  24. 24
    RonF says:

    I thought this was more about Carl’s traditionalism. Remember, he wigs out when he thinks Russell might be referring to his mother by her first name.

    Traditionalism? Seems to me that’s common courtesy. I have known a few kids who refer to their parents by their first name, but it’s not particularly a common practice.

  25. 25
    PG says:

    RonF,

    There are degrees of traditionalism. In my ethnic community, even adult children refer to their parents as “Mom” or “Dad,” but my husband, even though he considers himself a traditionalist in many ways, has referred to his parents by their first names for as long as I’ve known him. I’d figure that the next step away from traditionalism, if I am at one extreme and my husband is representative of the American norm, would be for someone to refer to his parents by their first names even before he himself is an adult.

  26. 26
    chingona says:

    I saw this movie with my son and my father a few weeks ago, and we all really liked it. Though Ellie does die early in the movie, I really liked the way she was presented as a child, much tougher than Carl, the one whose dream motivates them both. I thought she was a good female character, if not a protagonist. Agreed that her spirit is there throughout the movie. Without that opening sequence, the movie loses much of its emotional heft. I didn’t actually weep, but I definitely was choked up.

    Up did lead to a rather difficult discussion with my son (who is three and a half) a few weeks after the movie … What happened to Ellie? She died. Why? Well, she got old, and when you get old eventually your body stops working and you die. Are you going to die? Yes. A long time from now. Am I going to die? A very, very long time from now, so long from now that we can’t even imagine it. But I don’t want to die.

  27. 27
    chingona says:

    PG,

    I don’t think your husband is the American norm. I don’t have any friends, from the most liberal to the most conservative, who both have a good relationship with their parents and call them by their first name. I’m not saying your husband is insulting his parents, but it’s a bit unusual for anyone to call their parents by their first name.

  28. I haven’t seen the movie, thought this discussion is making me want to. I just wanted to put in here that my son, who is 10, has been calling me Richard since he was about 3. When he talks about me to his friends, though, he refers to me as “my dad,” but then when he talks to me in front of his friends, he calls me Richard. It becomes a little more complicated when you take his bilingualism into account, because when he speaks Persian, he almost always calls me either “baba” (dad) or “baba Richard.” Once, when he was 4, his mother asked him why he called me Richard and not Dad, and he looked at her like it was a ridiculous question. “Maman,” he said, “it’s because I am speaking English.”

  29. 29
    RonF says:

    PG, I’m sure you’ve referred to it before, but what ethnicity is that?

  30. 30
    RonF says:

    When I walked out of that movie the first thing I said to my wife is “That’s not just a kids’ movie.” I’d recommend it for any age.

  31. 31
    RonF says:

    In passing; there are at least a few merit badges on Russell’s sash that look like actual BSA merit badges, with the only difference being the colors. I recognize Environmental Science, Scholarship and Athletics right off the bat. The BSA takes a dim view of such things and generally vigorously protects it’s trademarks. I wonder if anybody at Irving (the BSA’s national office) has seen this movie and taken a close look. I didn’t notice it while I was watching the film, but it’s pretty clear in the above still.

  32. 32
    tariqata says:

    I’m not sure that this is what PG meant, but given Carl’s traditionalism/living-in-the-past, he might very well not have much experience with kids living with divorced parents/blended families. I don’t know that it’s the norm, but I do think it’s more common for children to refer to step-parents by their first names (at least that’s the case in the families I’ve known) than as Mom or Dad. That doesn’t seem to raise as many eyebrows as calling one’s biological parents by their first names, in my experience.

  33. 33
    Maco says:

    I did not love the rather un-subtle message at the end: apparently Scouting badges puff into dust or something if women touch them, because if you have a father, even a non-biological father figure, he can pin your badge on you, but your mother has to languish sadly in the audience while you stand, alone and tragic, on the stage with tears in your eyes. Moms: useless! Who needs ‘em?

    I think that accusation is a little harsh in this case. If you were to make a mother-daughter movie it wouldn’t take much of a male presense to obscure the theme would it? Well, this movie is about fathers and sons. We pass the lineup of scouts, we see a boy and his dad, a boy and his dad, a boy and his dad, Russell and – ‘gasp’ no dad! The conspicuousness of the father’s absense tells us immediately what Russell’s sadness is about, and that could have been overlooked if moms (particularly Russell’s mom) were present. It’s a tradeoff you sometimes have to live with if you want to bring an audience to a specific emotional point using only point five seconds of screen time.

  34. 34
    PG says:

    tariqata,

    I did mean that Carl probably doesn’t have experience with kids who have divorced parents (hence his assumption that Russell must be referring to his biological mother), but I had been under the impression that it was fairly common for adult Americans to refer to their parents, especially when speaking of them to a non-sibling (e.g. to a spouse or a friend), by their first names.

  35. 35
    Mandolin says:

    Well, this movie is about fathers and sons.

    And there’s no context at all of Pixar making movies with absent females, and no literary tradition of absenting (or killing) mothers as the first step in coming of age novels. Nope. It all exists in a void. And this void-existing film is about fathers and sons.

  36. 36
    PG says:

    Mandolin,

    While I agree with you about the cultural context, as a matter of fact it’s Russell’s actual biological father who has to be made absent in order for this movie to have a point.

  37. 37
    Dianne says:

    They fail the MMM for very different reasons, IOW, and those reasons tell us very different things about the filmmakers.

    This is an intriguing statement and if it wouldn’t be too excessive a thread derailment and/or waste of your time, would you elaborate? Please?

  38. 38
    Jeff Fecke says:

    One thing that’s important to remember about the Bechdel Test is that it is not a measure of quality of a film, but a measure of how poorly Hollywood treats female characters in general. In a vacuum, Up‘s failure to pass is defensible — after all, there really are only four human characters with any significant amount of screen time; add in the canine and avian characters, and we get maybe up to seven or eight. It is in many ways a small film, in the best sense of the word.

    The problem, of course, is that Up doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and given Pixar’s general level of fail vis a vis female characters, that’s something that can be criticized, and should. I am hopeful that The Bear and the Bow will rectify that, but we won’t know until 2011.

  39. 39
    RonF says:

    PG:

    Well, I’m 56 and my mother is 84, and I’ve never called her anything but “Mom” or “Ma”, nor did I ever call my father anything but “Dad”. Nor have I heard any of my friends refer to their parents (I’m not talking step-parents or in-laws here) as anything but “Mom” or “Dad” or “my mother” or “my father”. Now, “people I know” certainly != “all Americans”. But I ask this; what is the basis for your impression?

  40. I’m not sure why “no idea he was Asian” is supposed to be a good thing. It’s not like he’s diseased. I mean, it’s good that the movie didn’t make a point of shoving it in our faces, but the way people are mentioning it, it comes off as “why, he was portrayed just like a person!” which I can’t imagine is what people here actually mean.

  41. 41
    Jeff Fecke says:

    I’m not sure why “no idea he was Asian” is supposed to be a good thing.[...]the way people are mentioning it, it comes off as “why, he was portrayed just like a person!”

    Actually, the fact that he was portrayed as a person was a victory. He wasn’t a walking stereotype, he wasn’t wise beyond his years, and thank the ceiling cat, but his features were simply there, not overdramitized or caricatured. Given the history of portrayal of non-white characters in western animation, that was a huge leap forward. Depressing? Yes. But true.

  42. 42
    Robert says:

    This is an intriguing statement and if it wouldn’t be too excessive a thread derailment and/or waste of your time, would you elaborate? Please?

    Well, Amp has to judge if it’s a thread derail, but it seems pretty contiguous to the OP, so sure. He can always lash me with a wet noodle later.

    Sometimes the racial, gender, religious, whatever, identity of the characters in a story is extremely critical to the artistic message the author is trying to create. Other times it’s not as important, but is still part of the story. And, less often than you might think, sometimes it’s completely irrelevant and the story would be exactly the same no matter the group identities of the characters. More often, SOME of the group identities are irrelevant or invisible, while others are key. For example, Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” would be the exact same story if the protagonist is a black kid or a Mexican kid or a Jewish kid or a white kid; that’s just not important. It is important that the protagonist is a boy, in that particular story, because Harlan is riffing in part on the relationship between boys and dogs. (Now, I happen to think that’s crap, and that girls and dogs have pretty much the exact same relationship – but it was Harlan’s story, and he didn’t think so, so he wins.)

    All stories exclude. A story is by definition a shard of a much larger reality, either an actually existing reality if you set your story in this world, or an author-created reality. It’s possible to create an implicit reality in very few words – the classic example being the heart-wrenching Hemingway ultrashort story, whose text in its entirety is “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Usually creators blather on a bit more, of course, but regardless of how much copy or film you waste, you can never show more than a little bit of a universe. So exclusion is just part of the game.

    What I was getting at in my comment was that this exclusion can be wielded in a number of different ways and for different artistic reasons. “Master and Commander” (the movie) is an example of this. It deals with the officers and men of a British warship in the age of sail; ok, obviously there aren’t going to be a whole lot of women in this story. Yet, the creators of the film have a wide range of options for handling this. Although the *events* of the film don’t contain many females, the men in the M&C universe all have relationships with women: wives, sweethearts, friends, sisters, daughters, lovers, mothers, etc. I haven’t read the books, but I would guess that in the books these relationships receive some attention, even if not much, if only to round out the characters and show their home lives. The film being much more constrained, that kind of expository material was left out so that the film could be better at what the creators wanted it to be: an adventure film about manly men sailing the ocean and kicking the crap out of the French.

    So you can create a story that leaves out [X] for any number of reasons. You might think [X] wouldn’t add much to the story and so you focus on other things. [X] might add something to the story, but be too complicated or expensive to depict. The invisibility of [X] might actually be a plot point; c.f. “Fatherland” where there are no Jewish characters. Or you might have a personal grudge against [X]. Or, most commonly, I think, your society and culture’s view of [X] will inform your treatment of [X] and – even as a supposedly autonomous creator – your work will passively reflect what you’ve been taught and you won’t even think about [X] as a discrete subject.

    The point is that these artistic choices can definitely show up a bias on the part of the creator. Nobody thinks that the movies of the B&W era in which blacks, if shown at all, were shown almost exclusively as servants or clowns, made that choice because Warner Brothers was convinced that black man = minstrel was the right artistic vision. But other times, the exclusion really is a byproduct of the creator making a choice in her art. The people who made M&C didn’t hate women (that we know of), they were just making a story that happened to be about men.

    It’s an entirely legitimate cultural or political critique to notice “gee, there are an awful lot of movies/books/whatever that ‘just happen’ to be about men, aren’t there?” – which I think is the underlying point Bechdel was making with the MMM – but artistically, it’s still going to happen that creators choose things to focus on, to the exclusion of other things, even after we reach utopia and all sing kumbayah by the fire.

    So that’s what I was trying to say, rather condensedly. Hope this clarifies.

  43. Robert:

    So you can create a story that leaves out [X] for any number of reasons. You might think [X] wouldn’t add much to the story and so you focus on other things. [X] might add something to the story, but be too complicated or expensive to depict. The invisibility of [X] might actually be a plot point; c.f. “Fatherland” where there are no Jewish characters. Or you might have a personal grudge against [X]. Or, most commonly, I think, your society and culture’s view of [X] will inform your treatment of [X] and – even as a supposedly autonomous creator – your work will passively reflect what you’ve been taught and you won’t even think about [X] as a discrete subject.

    I write characters who are white (and Jewish, and male, and straight and cis for that matter) because I am all those things and the people I know are most of those things; even if I were to create a prtagonist who doesn’t fall into one or more of those categories it would be told, not shown, simply because I lack the experience and intimate undeerstanding to show it—how do you write a Native American or gay character in a setting in which white and straight is the unmarked state, especially without reducing the character to a racial or sexual identity? Actually, sexual orientation is probably the easiest: show the character interacting with his or her partner and certain options for sexual orientation will be eliminated. If it’s not part of the story I don’t always have something in mind for those characteristics, but wouldn’t a reader then assume whatever unmarked is unless told otherwise?

    So I have to go out of my way to portray a character who’s different from me, because I don’t know where white male Jewish straight cis experiences end and more universal experiences begin (though I assume all sentient beings fall in love, or at least if they don’t it’s an individual thing, not a reflection of membership or nonmembership in a cohesive group), and therefore even if I say a character is [X] (where I myself am not), it may not act [X].

    Relatedly, I think the mincing gay man and the neurotic Jew will be in movies for a while: any other way to show Jewishness or male homosexuality requires more work on the part of the filmmakers, particularly if they don’t want the movie to come off as preachy.

  44. 44
    Ampersand says:

    He can always lash me with a wet noodle later.

    Kinky!

    how do you write a Native American or gay character in a setting in which white and straight is the unmarked state, especially without reducing the character to a racial or sexual identity?

    With all due respect, it’s called “research.”

  45. 45
    Elusis says:

    Robert -

    You could tell this story, and make the same points and even hit the same grace notes, without treating Russell’s mom as a useless adjunct. Utterly marginalizing women is only one way of accomplishing the goal of telling a story about sons and fathers. It’s the most common way, to be sure, but that does not make it the only way.

  46. 46
    PG says:

    Elusis,

    It seems a bit unfair to claim that Russell’s mom is being treated as a “useless adjunct.” She clearly is keeping her child healthy, well-fed, clothed and sheltered, with enough self-confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable knocking on strangers’ doors and striving for significant accomplishments. It’s pretty clear that Russell’s dad isn’t contributing to Russell’s being an essentially well-adjusted child. Russell doesn’t show up at Carl’s door as a beggar, but as a boy who believes that his role is to help others. Props to the mom.

  47. 47
    Ampersand says:

    Yeah, it strikes me as an odd thing about “UP.” It clearly is drawing on the current cultural panic about “fatherless America,” but at the same time… Russell is clearly a terrific kid. He’s smart, good-natured, helpful, and overall very cheerful, even though his father’s absence clearly makes him sad. This is pretty far from the “fatherless kids are doomed to be criminals and twisted neurotics!” mood that I sometimes see in the “fatherless American” doomcrying.

    In the movie, it’s wonderful and heartwarming that Russell and Carl both gave each other a relationship they needed. But Russell without Carl was hardly a tragic figure.

  48. 48
    Robert says:

    Elusis, what PG and Ampersand said. Also, it seems inaccurate to say that Up! utterly marginalizes women. Russell’s mom isn’t a major character, but she clearly is a heck of a good mom (the plot requirements of the film to have Russell go wandering off to South America with some elderly lunatic aside). Ellie is a major character in life and even in death. Kevin provides an animal-world parallel to some of the human storytelling as well.

    “Not woman-centric” != “no women need apply”.

  49. 49
    PG says:

    Amp,

    I think the movie is to some extent endorsing the conservative message of “Boys need a father-figure.” However, unlike most of the conservatives spouting that message, the movie is aware that there are lots of boys who seem to be great kids without fathers, so it doesn’t pose Russell as being utterly destroyed by his father’s absence, merely a bit sad and wistful about it, and ready to latch onto Carl as a substitute once Carl is willing to accept Russell.

    I recently read a chick lit novel where a teenage girl has both her biological parents (who are good, kind, loving, etc.) but still finds something that she is missing in an aunt who is willing to be honest with the teenager in a way that her parents (who still think of her as a little girl) are not. I think it is not a bad message to say that we need lots of different people to fill roles in our lives, even when we are getting all our basic needs met within the nuclear family. I actually find the tendency in modern American culture to see the nuclear family as the be-all and end-all somewhat troubling. It was nice for me when I was a kid to kind of be my grandmother’s favorite (she shared my bedroom) during a time when my little sister was often sick and needed more of my mother’s attention, and my father was generally absent due to work.

    I can imagine a scenario in which even if Russell’s father had been around, if he’d been as overworked as my dad, he still wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that Russell is looking for (someone to teach him to put up a tent — NOT something my dad would know; someone who can be certain of being able to attend his awards ceremony — not necessarily an option if you’re the sole owner of a small business). I had that in a cultural sense with a family friend who mentored me: my parents weren’t interested in or knowledgeable about Western culture, so this family friend directed my exposure outside the classroom to literature, theater, etc. He was the greatest intellectual influence on my life until I went to college. (And I can also imagine a movie about my life that people would watch and walk away from shaking their heads over how the old white man had been portrayed as superior to the brown parents — nope, not superior, just providing something they didn’t.)

  50. 50
    Maco says:

    Amp: But Russell without Carl was hardly a tragic figure.

    He was desperately tragic. At the time Russell met Carl he was optimistic that his filling his merit belt would win his father’s approval. Without Carl, Russell would have helped someone cross the street, got his final badge, and got it pinned by Wetlodge 47 troop leader.

    It’s only an opinion, but I assume Carl and Russell’s lives are meant to mirror one another. Without Russell, Carl would have set down on one of the most sterile and unwelcoming pieces of acreage I’ve ever seen and I suspect he’d have died there, so it seems to fit the narrative to assume Russell without Carl would have ended up in a similarly bleak place, emotionally.

  51. 51
    Elusis says:

    I agree that, in general, “Up” nicely avoids the whole “children of divorce are irreparably damaged” meme (which, as a child of divorce and a family therapist, I get my dander up about). My strong reaction in this case was particularly to the badge scene, because what twisted logic was it that relegated Mom to the audience while Russell had to stand alone on the stage? Even with Mom behind him, Russell could have looked forlornly for his absent dad, or gotten a phone call that said Dad wasn’t coming, to set up both his sadness, and his elation when Carl joins them.

    But to bar Mom from the stage entirely was a really bizarre message with more than a whiff of misogyny, as it basically communicated “Poor Russell; he has no one to celebrate with him!” Which is the point where I was like: “Yes he does; SHE’S SITTING RIGHT THERE!” What mother would sit in the audience and leave her son alone while all the other kids were flanked by a parent?

  52. 52
    Robert says:

    My strong reaction in this case was particularly to the badge scene, because what twisted logic was it that relegated Mom to the audience while Russell had to stand alone on the stage?

    The logic where Russell asks his mom if his friend can pin the medal on him this time, one assumes.

    What mother would sit in the audience and leave her son alone while all the other kids were flanked by a parent?

    That impression is set up by the cinematography of the shot, where Carl isn’t in the frame; he’s clumping slowly towards Russell. We’re intended to have a moment of “oh the poor kid” but Russell doesn’t have it – he knows he isn’t up there alone, he has a friend now.

  53. 53
    Amy says:

    The thing that really bugged me was that none of the *dogs* seemed to be female. Logically, if dude’s been breeding dogs down there for sixty years (definitely implied by number of dogs plus none of the dogs seem old) then there must be some females around somewhere, no? But I don’t even recall any of the voices in the big crowd-of-dogs scenes being female, let alone any of the lead four. That seems less like a “this is a movie about fathers and sons” thing and more like a “all characters are male by default” thing.

  54. 54
    Charles S says:

    Amy,

    Since the dogs’ voices aren’t inherent to the dogs, they are programmed into the collars, my in-fiction interpretation is that whats-his-name wanted all his dogs to be manly men, so he programmed male voices into their collars. But yes, that doesn’t excuse the writers, who created this oddity and then never mentioned it, presumably because they felt that female dogs among the pack would be a distraction (or one of the many other illegitimate reasons for disappearing female characters).

  55. 55
    Robert says:

    Since Muntz was the only person on the tepui, where would he get a female voice for a female dog’s speech box? I don’t remember whether the voices the dogs had bore any resemblance to his, but practically speaking he’d be the only available speaker.

  56. I’m not sure research is the answer, but I’m reluctant to elaborate here, because I’d like to err on the side of not wandering (farther) off the topic at hand.

  57. 57
    Rosa says:

    Did the dog pack strike anyone else as a giant copout? Like they were put in place of the native servants because taking out racist caricatures left a big hole in the plot?

    It was like…okay, we’re going to have some homage to pulp adventure stories, they have to go somewhere exotic and “unexplored” (what, no people at all? That’s an awfully colonial view) and the bad guy has to have minions or he’s just a sad old man.

    But, minions…how do we do the minions? We really want the Temple of Doom-style screaming horde and the slapstick falling minion jokes…wow, using old stories without being racist is really hard, every time i draw these Generic South American Villagers they look kind of …I know. DOGS! We will have the minions be dogs and our exotic locale can be ENTIRELY AMERICAN AND ENGLISH SPEAKING!

  58. 58
    Gloria says:

    The even better: The secondary protagonist, Russell, is a fat little boy — and there isn’t a single joke about his size, anywhere in the film.1 A positive, non-buffoon fat character with no fat jokes — That’s pretty much illegal in a children’s movie, isn’t it?

    And I’d say it’s illegal in non-children movies as well. Decades ago, we had titans like Charles Laughton, who wouldn’t surrender to this nonsense, and would fight to get parts worthy of his talent. True, he played a great deal of villains, but the characters he plays in films like “Ruggles of Red Gap”, “rembrandt”, “This Land is Mine” or “Witness for the prosecution”, to name a few titles of his career, show that, back then, a fat actor could not only play lead parts, but get away with the audience’s attention whenever he was onscreen.

    It was later actors like Peter Ustinov who surrendered to the “fat man to be regarded as comic sidekick” cliché, or Roy Kinnear in “The Hill”, who submitted to the equally dislikeable “fat man as a pathetic asshole” cliché

  59. 59
    Marty says:

    I loved most of the move, but as a separated father I found the final badge scene rather uncomfortable and a little insulting. Obviously I appreciated the underlying theme that “boys need male role models” running through the movie. But the final badge scene twists this theme.

    Russell chooses to replace his father with Carl, with his mothers obvious approval.

    Essentially it changed the theme to “Boys require father figures, but any male will do, and fathers themselves are disposable and easily replaced.”
    It would have been a much more satisfying ending if Russell’s father had turned up to give him his merit badge, then Carl had given him the grape soda badge. Followed by images in the closing credits of Carl teaching Russels father how to be a better dad.
    e.g. Russell and his dad putting up a tent, while Carl instructs them.