Up is a Racist Downer

[Note: This was written with Carmen Lugo-Lugo, and Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo]

Pixar's Up in 3D at the Castro May 29 - June 17Creative Commons License 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.


  1. Kristen Lavelle

    I’m so glad you wrote this piece. I just saw Up in 3D last night, and, while my partner and I both enjoyed the movie, I had this nagging feeling afterward that I couldn’t fully explain. Something felt very wrong. What was very clear to me was how white male centric the film was, due to the only female character dying early in the film and Russell’s “Asianness” being, as you point out, invisible. Even the pack of speaking dogs all have male voices, except when the pack leader’s collar short-circuits and gives him a very high-pitched voice, which elicits uncontrollable laughter from everyone and immediately strips him of all authority.

    What passes for socially progressive and forward thinking in the USA is usually far from it, and filmmakers can be a little full of it. The movie Crash is a good example. I was disgusted watching the Academy Awards the year it won best film. Everybody in the joint took the opportunity to congratulate themselves for being a part of the wondrous Hollywood machine that time and again pushes the envelope and challenges mainstream society to be better. That’s what I call b.s.

    I tend to mistrust any American film, but especially those made for kids. The mainstream messages of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and male dominance they are fed are so powerful and ubiquitous, I can’t imagine how I will deal with parenthood someday. (I have found some of Miyazaki’s anime to be much better, featuring Japanese girls as true protagonists – Spirited Away is my favorite.)

  2. Elizabeth

    If Russell’s Asianness had been highlighted, you would have faulted the movie for emphasizing racial difference. I thought the movie achieved something significant in PRESENTING viewers with a non-white protagonist, and yet NOT making the fact of his race centrally important to the story. Race was clearly not meant to be a central theme in the movie – which is, of course, completely acceptable – so if it had been concerned with constantly reminding viewers of Russell’s race, or congratulating itself for having a non-white protagonist, it would have taken away from the actual goals of the story, and achieved nothing.

    I agree that the movie exoticizes and idealizes Paradise Falls – however, unless I’ve overlooked it, your analysis completely ignores the character of the Muntz, the white male explorer. Why is this? I wondered if perhaps the negative portrayal of this character might be seen as a comment on imperialism. I suspect that you’ll disagree, but even if it is not a comment on imperialism, certainly the character says SOMETHING… Please let me know how Muntz fits into your analysis of the movie.

  3. Dave Paul

    Amazing post. You have captured all my sentiments about the film. I have actually gotten into several arguments with my friends about this, but you confirm my beliefs. Thank you.

  4. Dave Paul

    Kristine Lavelle,

    I agree with your points, and I felt the exact same way about Crash. Just like this film, I encountered staunch criticism from my family and friends for my dislike of Crash, and the way it was treated by the academy.

    Also, Miyazaki is a much better substitute for children’s films.

  5. Rich Author

    Thanks for the comments.

    Cecilieaux, neither I nor more co-authors (to my kowledge have ever written about health care in Canada), but would curious about what makes our analysis “tenuous.”

    Kristine, for me, one of the inspiration to begin writing about animated films (an pop culture more generally) was the contradictions between my efforts to raise empowered daughters and how it proposed to socialize them. I too enjoying Miyazaki as an alternative vision of gender, narrative, and wonder.

    And agreed, Dave and Kristine, Crash is a dreadful movie, only made worse by unthinking adulation, which I gather derives from its focus on race in way that universalizes racial misrecognition. Indeed, for me, it reduces racism to anger, contempt, and fear, suggesting we’re all racist now.

    Finally, Elizabeth you raise two interesting points. One, thanks for bringing in Muntz. From my viewing, your quite right he does represent a critique, but a rather limited one. Overt and ugly forms of imperialism and environmental exploitation are rendered bad while the privileges of consuming the exotic (without difficult questions like conquest and privilege) remain unquestioned, if not celebrated. Second, the trick that Up performs with Russell is precisely to insert and erase difference. I surly would critique Russell if he were represented as Asian (American) through familiar stereotypes and Orientalist cliches. I would, however, welcome a rendering of difference that recognized and respected the differences it made for the character in a humane and grounded fashion.

  6. Carmen

    Elizabeth, we are not criticizing the fact that nothing was made out of Russell’s Asianness, but the fact that it was used to line him with and indoctrinate him in Whiteness. As for Muntz, yes, he is an embodiment of imperialism, but so is Carl. Going to South America to prove a bird exists and taking up residence there for decades, is as much an imperial project as taking your house there and placing it next to Paradise Falls, as if it was your god-given right. The fact that one was portrayed as bad imperialism and the other as romantic imperialism does not change the fact that both ARE forms of imperialism. But only one makes us feel a fuzzy feeling inside.

  7. I think this post speaks to many issues glossed over in the media and also in conversations that people have about the movie. I must admit, I enjoyed the movie. Though not really a kid’s movie, it was well done as a cartoon. With that said, and as you point out, it had its glaring faults. What I wrote about in my post was how race makes a rather scripted appearance in the voice of the dogs via Delroy Lindo, a black actor. He is the only actor in the dog pack and he is also the Rottweiler which is, itself, racialized: http://socialsciencelite.blogspot.com/2009/06/thoughts-on-pixars-up-race-makes.html.

    A few questions:

    The gender aspect of the movie. The role of the mother in the movie I thought spoke more to the gendered homophilic organizations like the boy scouts rather than her lack of ability to raise a son. Given that there is a parallel in the Girls Scout, what do you make of the interesting dynamic between Russell and his parental situation?

    With respect to Russell’s race, I agree that there is a form of erasure present. But what do we make of it not being part of the advertising (and in some way part of the larger part of the movie) the same way as the new princess movie from Disney? Russell is very interesting being, what I think, Asian American which is, as far as I know, something novel in movies of this kind. Yet, no hoopla over it. I took it as a positive–not focusing on Russell’s race in the advertising not necessarily, as you point out, in the movie–but would love to hear your take.

  8. distance88

    I haven’t seen the movie , but I was wondering if someone could give an example of how the film makers could have presented Russell’s ethnicity in a better/fairer way (in the context of the storyline)? Or is it more an issue of the storyline itself which comes across as ethnocentric?

  9. Kristen

    It’s important to clarify that Russell is not the protagonist – he is the sidekick to Carl, the adventurous elderly white man. Russell is a fat and needy kid, and Carl comes out very clearly as the hero of this film, saving the rare Venezuelan mama bird from the bad guy and stepping in as Russell’s father figure.
    There is nothing special or cutting edge about Russell being Asian. This is American film makers’ preferred mode of incorporating non-white-male characters, in supporting, subordinate roles. For good reading on this, check out Hernan Vera & Andrew Gordon’s book Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness.

  10. siss

    Just curious, what would be considered a “model” movie? Im very curious. I want to know the storyline, characters and their themes, and the different races and genders that would make up a film to make EVERYONE happy.

  11. Rich Author

    A nice clarification and a good resource, Kristen. Something Up should encourage is a deeper reflection on whiteness, especially as gien shape in Hollywood cinema. The Vera and Gordon text is most helpful in this regard.
    Given how little appreciated race remains either in the minds of those making movies or those consuming them, I would argue it is premature, simplistic and perhaps too large a project to enumerate a list of fixes. Moreover, while some measure of the dissatisfaction with cinematic representations derive from how they make people feel, I think it misreads film, race, and society to limit the horizon to happiness and hinders efforts to fight racism. Linking sentiments to structure–history, context, and power–are crucial if we are to make sense of the signifying practices central to animated narratives like Up.

  12. C. Richard King Author

    Anthony, Thanks for your blog and your post on our reading of Up. Your analysis was on point and it spoke a broader issue in animated film, using voice to convey racial difference–think Donkey in the Shrek movies or the Amigos in Happy Feet. So, yeah, good observation. In terms of gender, I think I would advocate a both/and reading both about the mother and homosocial bonds, for scouting formed as an imperial and white organization designed to make men in an increasingly feminized cultural context that threatened to emasculate boys/men. The silence about Russell is odd and points to differences in racial politics. What do you think about The Princess and the Frog?

  13. Ben

    You people (yes, I said it, you mindless, hyper-PC, eager-to-be sensitive idiots), are unbelievable. All of your comments seem eager to take offense, eager to prove that even a societal pillar such as Disney is racist through and through. I have news that may be surprising if it can penetrate the fumes generated by the engines of social meta-cognition that evidently power your will to outrage. Do you know what it is to happy? Carefree perhaps?
    The problem with your comments is that they consider everything that is not critical of the dominant culture (in particular whiteness) as something that is directly offensive to your perception of correct culture (that which is not white). This on its own is extremely problematic as it regards all cultures as being part of a dialectic, and as Hegel established (and you have here proven) is that when two others meet, one must try to negate and consume the other. You speak of Carl’s “individualistic white masculinity” as an ideal that is constantly perpetuated to the detriment of all non-white, non-masculine people out there. However, in a typical display by irony-free zones such as yourselves, you fail to realize that Carl is not an ideal but an eccentricity, a misfit even if he is a misfit in a white world. Carl is not idealized; he is caressed into being by his Asian-American cohort (who is an offensive figure partly because his lack of a father and ineffective mother reflect poorly on the parenting skills of Asians? Are you serious? Have you watched other movies?).
    This kind of thinking is corrosive and, quite frankly, deeply offensive. In its overeagerness to anesthetize and apologize, it attacks life itself from a position that is outside of life. What it takes offense in establishes by way of contrast stereotypes that cannot exist without a root of racist thinking and a profound sense of shame at the self that harbors those thoughts. Perhaps instead of trying to reign in and whitewash such language and threats like all insecure propaganda institutions seek to do, it would be better to deal with your own racism in a more honest, head-on kind of way. All that you are doing now is existing in bad faith, trying to become an ideal because you are scared of what you are and ultimately harming everybody as a consequence. The first step in getting rid of racism is admitting that you are indeed racist, that you hold pre-conceived notions of others, that you are in no way what you wished you were when it comes to dealing with the other but at least you are honest and willing to learn and change. Please, please, for the good of all, change your violent ways.

  14. I loved UP but I left the movie troubled that once again, Pixar had created a movie with no strong female characters (and in this case, not a single one that had a voice that I can remember, save Kevin the bird) and I winced at the exotic salvificness cast upon Paradise Falls (even the name, eek). Yes, these are definite problems I had with the movie that cut my enjoyment of it and tarnished the good things that it did do. I was amazed, for example, that the movie showed how U.S. society infantilizes and alienates the elderly; I was amazed that it showed a child from a family (I assume) with divorced parents, which is not something I usually see in a so-called family movie.

    While I can agree with a lot of what you’ve said, I wonder exactly how much of Russell’s race would have to be performed in order for you to cast him as “sufficiently Asian” and for him to not be “whitewashed” as a character. That strikes me as an essentialist viewpoint, as if it assumes that are certain benchmarks that must be hit for us to recognize Russell’s race appropriately, when the truth is we all live out our race/ethnicity in a variety of ways, depending on our contexts and communities. And some of those ways may look like Russell’s.

    The real problem, I would say, isn’t so much of how Russell’s race was presented, but that there is no evidence that the filmmakers gave much thought to that complexity when they created the character (I think I read that they based him on one of the filmmakers, so I dunno, maybe they did), or indeed any thought to their own contexts in the creation of the film. That is to say, the varieties of the Asian American experience is one thing, to have one of those experiences interpreted and presented by white America is another.

  15. Rosalind

    Response to Ben-

    Ben you posit the questions:

    “Do you know what it is to happy? Carefree perhaps?”

    I want to disassociate critical thinking from whether a person can be happy or carefree. In actuality, these critical thinkers such as C. Richard King, Carmen Lugo-Lugo, Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo, Kristen Lavelle, and the many other folks leaving comments are examining power, in this case, how it’s operates through gender and race in the movie Up.

    Foucault asserts, “Power is not a negative force but a productive one; that power is always there; that where there is power, there is resistance” (p. 386).

    He continues,
    “So we are not trapped. We are always in this kind of situation. It means that we always have possibilities, there are always possibilities of changing the situation. We cannot jump outside the situation, and there is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So, what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free (p. 386).”

    I urge posters like Ben to steer clear of making assumptions about the posters who are unapologetically identifying and analyzing power and power relations. It’s an exercise in freedom, and personally, it makes me quite happy.

  16. C. Richard King Author

    Ben, I am really not sure what is violent in our post. I would note from the start you prefer to set up binaries, pit classes of people against one another, and target those who do not share your worldview. As Rosalind [a subsequent poster] says, being critical and being happy are not mutually exclusive, nor are enjoying films (I have seen and liked very many) and noting the ways in which they reinforce racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies and oppressive structures. Part of the point of thinking critically about Up is to remind ourselves that WE are in this together: the stories we tell, the things we value, the lessons we teach matter and, as commentaries throughout this blog remind us, the white racial frame (or as I would prefer white racial (hetero)sexist frames) can no longer be our shared lens for assessing significance, because we are not all white, male, or heterosexual, nor, if we take in the sweep of USA history, both good and bad, have we ever been. Disney is a great example of the power of normative framing and its limitations. Embraced for decades as a societal pillar, it has all the while offered characters, plots, and products that have celebrated whiteness and championed heterosexuality, while debasing people of color and women. From the false femininity offered through its various princess pictures to its portrayal of Asians, African Americans, and Native Americans, Disney has been anything but a productive member of society, unless one measures productive as the efficiency with which particular narratives manufacture consent. Disney and similar popular projections of difference have always encouraged a kind of righteous splitting between us and them, or the identification and demonization of, as you phrase it Ben, “you people.” And that is where the bad faith and the violence dwell, in the capacity to vilify, to cut out, to condemn, even as the smiling images project happily ever afters. In my reflections on race and popular culture, I constantly remain attentive to living life (in all of its complexities, joys, and sorrows) and reflecting on what makes such a life possible and what such a life might mean to others. I have learned as a straight white man in a racist and (hetero)sexist world the importance of acknowledging my position, listening to others, understanding our history, and struggling with the inequalities associated with each. I do have fears, but they have far less to do with who I am in a racist society and far more to do with the retrenchments and resentments of white power today.

  17. Joe

    Ben, one key to deep understanding on US racism is to listen to those who rarely are listened to, in this society. Listen to the folks who post here, many of color, who are uncomfortable with Disney movie racism, as they rarely get voiced in this country. Disney has billion dollar voices, but the critics do not. Criticism of racism is often liberating, as is protest. Remember the civil rights movement, which freed us all.

  18. Kristen

    Re. Barbara:
    I think I see what you’re saying, and it’s an interesting point for discussion: Put chopsticks in Russell’s hand and we say it’s too stereotypical; do nothing to highlight his “Asianness” and we say his ethnicity is invisible/whitewashed. But I think the real problem with essentialism comes from the filmmakers, not from the critics— I take myself to be an observant person who also studies race, and I had to be told after the movie that Russell was Asian. Maybe that was my bad and I blinked just when the animator’s camera panned to show his mother, but I can’t imagine I’m the only one who took him for a pudgy white kid. So now I’m just pondering, but maybe if I were more accustomed to being shown Asian American characters in non-essentialized ways, I might be better at recognizing them.
    And I think a major issue is that we rarely see Asian American leading characters, and hardly ever (ever?) in complex, non-stereotypical ways. I don’t care to get too deep into the characterization of Russell, because he was not the protagonist. He was a supporting character – portrayed with a bit of complexity – but served the ultimate purpose of helping us to identify and empathize not with him, but with the leading man.

  19. distance88

    RE: Asian/Asian-American main characters
    As a recent example, I think TV’s (ABC–Disney-owned, no less) Lost has done a pretty good job (by the entertainment industry’s and prime-time TV’s standards) in presenting complex, non-stereotypical Asian characters in Sun (played by Korean actress Yunjin Kim) and Jin (played by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim).

    While it would be hard to argue that they are the leading characters, they are definitely ‘main characters’ essential to the story. They are presented in a way in which their ethnicity is neither white-washed, commodified, or stereotypical. I think it is notable to point out that this show has featured more non-English/Korean dialog than any other American show in television history–and I feel pretty safe saying that without hyperbole.

    It does remain to be seen, however, whether this is the exception to the rule or the start of a trend.

  20. rosmar

    The woman at the award ceremony isn’t Russell’s mom–Russel made that clear earlier, when Carl, in shock, asked “You call your mother by her first name?” (Note: that is a paraphrase, since I’m going by memory here.) I assumed Russell’s mom was dead.

  21. Rosalind

    To Rosmar:

    I got this from the Internet Movie Database:

    What happened to Russell’s mom?

    The woman we see at the end of the film at Russell’s ceremony is his mom. Phyllis may be his stepmom or the person his dad is seeing, or a maid or some hired help that works for Russell’s father.

  22. Kristen

    I saw District 9 last week, and I was curious to know what others thought of its racial implications. I saw it on the suggestion from a friend that the film was supposedly “about racism” – or so said some glowing reviews online. I was skeptical nonetheless, but completely unprepared to be subjected to the most horrifically racist images I’ve seen in a movie in recent years. I was literally sickened (and not just by the grotesque violence) and have never fought so hard the urge to walk out of a theater.

  23. Richard King Author


    I had high hopes for this movie but agree that it is a terribly unsettling movie. The great praise evidenced in reviews (as you note and nicely summarized here: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/district_9/) make one wonder how the white racial frame both shapes reception of this film and blunts the critical potential of science fiction as a genre (Dereick Bell and Octavia Butler come immediately to mind). Thanks for your comment.

  24. Kristen

    Richard, Thanks for the links.
    I took a moment to look over the few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and only a couple of them cited the racial component as the reason for their dislike of the film. The overwhelming praise and the lack of critical race analysis of District 9 reminds me of the laudatory reception Crash received for supposedly “dealing with racism honestly.” (I won’t go into the depth of my criticism for Crash here; it is indeed deep.)
    Some components of the Racialicious review you linked mirrored my thoughts about District 9, but I was put off by the way the writer broke it down into: “This part was racist, this part wasn’t, this part may not have been.” It seems to me that when you do that, you’re not addressing the larger impact a film can have by facilitating myriad interpretations and associations among viewers. I agree with you bringing in the white racial frame concept to describe this, both on the level of the viewer and the filmmaker’s vision.

  25. Kristen

    I would love to see a book on Crash. When I first read that statement, I thought, “a whole book?” but I’m thinking now it’s definitely a possibility – an analysis not only of the film but of the US mainstream, Academy, and worldwide responses. (Hey, keep me posted on that!)
    Even if I wanted to, I would find it impossible to show such a grotesque film as District 9 in class. But kudos to you for considering it. It’s definitely a movie in need of some critical analysis.

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