[Note: This was written with Carmen Lugo-Lugo, and Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo]
photo credit: Steve Rhodes
In May 2009, Pixar released Up, its tenth animated feature. It premiered as the top grossing film the week of its release, and has netted more than $226 million in its first four weeks alone. Beyond the box office, popular reception has been far from critical, as high profile film critics have offered reviews that might be described as positive, glowing, and celebratory.
Even in the blogosphere where we might anticipate a bit more reflection, acritical responses and ringing endorsements have ruled the day, raining praise upon Up for everything from its uplifting message of enlightenment and the scientific puzzles it posesto the kindness of the studio that produced it. Moreover, At first blush, it might appear that Up also confirms that the United States, as discernible in its popular cultural forms, has indeed entered an era after or beyond the difficulties of race, gender, and sexuality. After all, it features no princess in need of rescue or prince charming to slay the dragon; it contains none of the uncomfortable images of racial and ethnic difference so prominent (in retrospect) in some of the classics-such as the crows in Dumbo, King Louie in the Jungle Book, or the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp. However, such an analysis of Up would be a misreading of the film itself and of animated cinema over the past two decades-an argument we briefly rehearse here and elaborate in our forthcoming book Animating Difference. Moreover, as discuss in our forthcoming book, we advocate multiplying the white racial frame, which helps illuminate popular culture, as in the recent consideration of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but which we believe should more fully foreground the centrality of race, gender, and sexuality-what we dub white racial (hetero)sexist frames.
Up focuses on the life of Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner). Although set in the present, the past weighs on the narrative, particularly Carl’s love for his childhood sweetheart and wife Ellie, whose death leaves him alone and isolated in a quickly changing world, truncating their shared dreams of traveling to Paradise Falls in South America (modeled after Angel Falls in Venezuela) to shed the burdens of modern life. The turning of the movie is Carl’s struggle to retain his autonomy, property, and memory of Ellie from the forces of development encroaching upon him. Resisting a court order compelling him to be institutionalized, he engineers his escape by attaching thousands of balloons to his house, which literally lift him, and inadvertently a young scout, named Russell, who has stowed-away, up. After crash landing near Paradise Falls, the odd couple set out to the explore the environs, encountering a legendary tropical bird that Russell names Kevin, who with the assistance of a talking dog they also encounter in the new land, the pair struggle to save from an unscrupulous explorer, idolized by Carl as a youth. In the end the adventure, driven by the force of heterosexual love, rejuvenates Carl who changes from crotchety shut-in to community volunteer, becoming Russell’s surrogate father in the process.
Up can be seen as a touching story and artistic triumph to be sure. But more importantly, the film underscores the ways in which animated films use difference without appealing to stereotypes to express prevailing understandings about human possibilities, social relationships, and cultural categories.
Nearly a half-century after the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism, it centers on the adventures of two males (a boy and a man) transformed through the raceless, homosocial bond forged in the wild making the “right choices” as individuals, thus “doing the right thing,” in this case, defending the defenseless. This is extremely important, given that Russell (the child) is Asian, yet his race is rendered invisible during the adventure. Russell’s values, imparted to him by US society, his family, and the Boy Scouts are similar to those of Carl. Russell tells us he is basically fatherless, and seems to have a void his (Asian) mother cannot fill. The child is looking for a father and finds one in Carl’s individualistic white masculinity. This story of white masculinity burdened with special obligations and tested in a hostile environment beset by evil reiterates the facts of whiteness and the race of masculinity.
The setting of Up further underscores this racialized and gendered morality play: the threats of urban development and technology and the changes associated with them (integration, big government) provide an allegory and grounding for white male resentment, expressed daily on talk radio, cable news, and internet chat rooms, while encouraging a kind of nostalgia for simpler times in which individual action mattered and entities like the Boy Scouts groomed young white men for their duties in life. Thus, Russell may not be white, but the institutions he belongs to (like the Boy Scout), and his interactions with White men (like Carl, and the unscrupulous explorer) are teaching him how to become an honorary straight white man. Moreover, Paradise Falls anchors not only Carl’s and Ellie’s dreams, but a geography of difference in which exoticism, escape, and opportunity are projected onto a place in the South, surprisingly absent of indigenous people and surprisingly easy to get to and claim for yourself.
Hence, the ideal space of imperial fantasy is open to the discovery of and in need of protection by (white) adventurers of the North. Finally, heterosexual romance and a failed quest for family propel Up, for it is desire for difference as much as attraction and commitment that bind Carl and Ellie to one another and compel Carl to repulse the force impinging on him as a white man by casting off the constraints of modernity and the chaos of change.