Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Up: Fantastic or Delusional?

Up: Fantastic or Delusional?

DANGER: This article is full of spoilers.

My public library had a free (and legal?) screening of Disney's Up this afternoon. Despite my big talk about hating the movie industry in general and Disney in particular, I went to see the film.

Don't get me wrong. Disney is still my enemy. They and their big media friends are winning a battle to extend copyright indefinitely, effectively killing the public domain. For that alone I should be principled enough to boycott their product. But I am a sheeple, and I am as swayed by the Pixar mystique as anybody else. Pixar are the good guys, right? Well, no, but I had been giving them a free pass anyways: I fondly remember being blown away by The Incredibles, sitting in a packed lecture hall and feeling the aura of a hundred jaws dropping simultaneously. Plus Debian releases are named after Toy Story characters. How bad could Pixar be?

After watching Up, I am withdrawing the free pass. The movie was polished, and at times I enjoyed myself. But I found myself feeling uneasy as I watched it. Afterwards, the more I thought about the context of the film the more I got squicked out.

There's no question that the animation is beautiful; the animators have learned their craft well. In computer animation, it is cheap for foreground characters to maintain their positions while the background changes dramatically, resulting in amazing scene transitions. You wouldn't think rendering swishing curtains is hard, but from what I understand it's a real problem to make that motion look natural, and the animators do a great job. Pixar has also figured out how smart it is to stay on the Claymation side of the uncanny valley.

Yeah, I laughed. There were enough pop-culture references (ripped off from other people's intellectual property, natch) to keep me entertained -- the Star Wars riff, the dogs playing poker, the roadrunner/coyote chase near the beginning of the film.

And yeah, I appreciate that having an old man and a fat kid be the protagonists of an action movie is neat, especially since the film wasn't packed with fat kid jokes. Lots of people are going to give the film a free pass for that alone. But I'm not one of them. There are a lot of disturbing aspects to this film.

Some of the children at the library screening were terrified; the movie was probably too intense for them. But I would go farther: I think the film is not appropriate for children at all, and that it is not appropriate for many adults either. In this clunky entry I am going to try to express my misgivings.

Internal Consistency

Admittedly, my ability to suspend disbelief is weak. Nonetheless, I fully accept that Up is intended to be a fantastic film, in the sense that it takes place in a fantasy world. I am not of the school that films have to be dour and realistic. I like fiction, and I like fantasy, and I think imagination is vitally important to our well-being.

Accordingly, I'm fine with the nonsense premise of the film. Of course you can't float a house with helium balloons. That's fine. I am okay with the convenient storm (and Russell the fat kid's navigation skills) that permit the house to end up right in the vicinity of Paradise Falls.

But I am not okay when Up breaks its own rules. At the beginning of the film Carl the old man can't get down the stairs without a power-seat. He needs his cane to sit on his porch. But as soon as the plot makes it convenient, he's running after garden hoses, dragging a house (and Russell) with his bare hands, and scaling the ladders of a zeppelin. Then whenever the film needs a laugh he gets frail again.

I am almost willing to accept this as the price of having an old protagonist, but there are messages here that bug me. The first is that aging is false: if you are lonely and unhappy you are frail, but as soon as you have a GRAND ADVENTURE to live for you suddenly get the body of a 20 year old action hero. As somebody whose body is breaking down at an alarming rate, I find that disrespectful. Similarly, Charles Muntz the evil explorer must be at least 10 (and probably 20) years older than the main character, and he's even more sprightly than Fredricksen.

Another lesson that bugs me is the idea that old people are only allowed to have adventures if they can scale zeppelins.

Then there is the amazing discontinuity between consequence-laden and consequence-free actions. Fredricksen conks somebody on the head while defending his property, and as a result he goes to court, loses his house and is consigned to an old folks home. But then he crushes a van, knocks over antennas, and lets a man fall to his death, and there are no consequences at all.

Henchdogs get shot out of the sky and run off tall cliffs, but it's okay because they have parachutes and/or fall into the water. But the antagonist gets no such mercies. Clutching a small handful of balloons, Charles Muntz definitively falls to his death. Yay, I guess.

The nice golden retriever Dug gets bitten and thrown around by Alpha the scary dog, but he doesn't sustain lasting injuries. Meanwhile, Kevin the bird gets bitten by the same dog on the leg, and she is hobbled -- until it's time for her to instantly get better so she can take care of her kids. It's the usual Hollywood logic: you don't need consequences unless they drive the plot forward, and nothing really really bad is allowed to happen to the bad guys.

The Henchdogs

I liked the henchdogs. I thought the talking-collar thing was a neat plot device. I mostly liked the thought processes of the dogs. I am totally willing to accept the absurdity of dogs preparing dinner and tying up prisoners without opposable thumbs. Certainly, the Pixar story staff had to walk a tightrope: the dogs had to go from being bad guys to good guys to bad guys to good guys in the course of one movie. Furthermore, Hollywood logic says that dogs are never allowed to die, so even when they are falling off cliffs they aren't allowed to suffer. That's a hard trick, and even though I wouldn't trust those dogs in my zeppelin I think the story staff did a reasonable job.

But there are other aspects of the henchdogs that really bugged me. The most obvious is the breedism. The main "bad guy" dogs are all stereotyped "scary" breeds: a doberman pinscher, bulldog, and a rottweiler. Meanwhile, the good dog who turns traitor to befriend the kid is a golden retriever, of course! Given municipal efforts to wipe out "scary" breeds in cities (and given the golden retriever's status as a "good" dog), the messaging rubs me the wrong way. In addition, two of the three scary dogs are black because black is scarier.

Then there is the issue of Alpha the doberman's voice encoder. Giving the ringleader a high and squeaky voice was awesome. If that voice had been treated as normal throughout the movie, Pixar would have scored a win. But "fixing" the voice to a stereotypical deep growl later ruined the effect, and then using the high squeaky voice as a cause for ridicule towards the end of the movie was totally uncool. It just reinforces the idea that it is fine to make fun of those who who don't match up to expectations, and there are a lot of suffering schoolkids who don't need that lesson reinforced. In my mind, this lesson negates the lack of fat kid jokes in the movie. Why would it have been such a crime for the strong, badass alpha dog to have a high voice?

While we're on the topic, did you notice the lack of female dog voices? I did not hear a single one in the dozens of dog voices. Certainly none of those dog voices were prominent. Would it have killed Pixar to make one of the fighter pilots a token tough girl dog?

Female Representation

Oy. This is a tricky one. I acknowledge and appreciate some of the gender reversals in the film. It's cool that the nurses were male and the cop female. I guess it is cool that Ellie supposedly had a job (even though I did not figure that out until reading about the movie after the fact). But overall the female representation in this film is weak and troubling.

In addition to the dearth of female henchdogs, I think only three female characters had lines in the whole film -- the beatific Ellie, the cop, and Russell's mom. Of course, Russell's mom doesn't actually say anything. She just claps for Russell instead of being on stage with him. Why? I don't know why. I guess women aren't allowed on stage during Boy Scout ceremonies.

Amazingly, even though no two female characters have a conversation in the movie, the film still manages to fail Bechdel's rule. Russell mentions "Phyllis", whose only contribution to the film is to tell Russell to stop bothering his dad.

That, of course, does not get into the idolatry of the Fredricksen's dead wife, who is full of spunk and energy when she is a kid, and then grows up to be a dutiful wife whose main role is to go on picnics and tie neckties for her husband before she gets old and dies. Naturally, her scrapbook of adventures all center around her husband. (I don't remember the exact details. I hope I am wrong about that. Maybe there was a picture of the wife hanging out with her friends?)

This is the same tired message we get a lot from Disney: young unmarried girls can have personalities and adventures, but once they marry they are supposed to sit around and dote on their husbands. I have a hard time feeling charitable about this.

Grown-Up Fairy Tales

So I know that all the grownups loved the montage where the Fredricksens live out their lives together. Certainly it was masterful storytelling. Wasn't it sad that they kept putting their dreams on hold? Weren't they happy together? Wasn't it so tragic that they could not have babies? Wasn't it excellent that they got past their tragedy and lived their lives anyways?

Bah. It's sweet Disney pap that perpetuates a dangerous fairy tale: that there is "The One" you meet, and that regardless of the challenges and sadness of life, you'll get through if you hold hands and go on picnics. We see that Carl and Ellie have a successful marriage because they met as kids and grew old together. And of course you never see any conflict between the couple -- even when making the decision to use the Paradise Falls funds to fix a car tire. That's because people in good marriages never fight, right? They just soldier on and face life's challenges together. The young husband doesn't even get in trouble when he leaves his handprint on the mailbox. Of course he doesn't.

Maybe it's because I am single, but I am under the distinct impression that relationships are HARD. I get that this is a kid's movie, and that there are hints of the family dysfunction in Russell's family. But this montage (and the overall theme of the story) reinforces this stupid, dangerous myth of what "a good relationship" is all about.

The problem is that we grow up believing that this escapist fantasy is real, and we never learn how relationships really work. Then high school kids fall in love and feel all this pressure to live "happily ever after" with their first loves. Then adults feel like failures in their relationships because they have fights instead of soldiering through life's challenges holding hands. Not all the blame goes to Pixar and Disney. But certainly Pixar and Disney propagate this myth.

What makes me angry is that mainstream culture never teaches us about how to deal with the hard bits properly. We don't learn how to fight fair in school, even though these are teachable skills. We certainly don't learn these things from movies. Then we get into relationships and cause all sorts of suffering until somebody like Dan Savage or theferrett slap us in the face and tell us how stupid and delusional we are being. I don't think those delusions are genetic. I think they are cultural, and that movies like Up propagate them.

The montage could have hinted that at some point the happily married couple faced some interpersonal hardship, and that they still got through and continued to love each other. I think the montage would have been more effective had it done so. But it didn't.

Nature and Pollution

I was more disturbed by the cavalier exploitation of nature than anything else in the movie. The turning point for me was the when Kevin the bird swallowed a balloon from the house, and then spit it out. This is one of the movie's running gags: Kevin (and her kids) swallow human objects; their outlines appear in Kevin's throat, and she spits them out coated with saliva. How hilarious! Apparently, kids love this effect, and it has shown up in Disney movies before -- the ballet dancer ostriches in Fantasia do the same thing, except that they eat fruit and not walking canes. But something shifted for me when Kevin ate a balloon, because lots of birds eat balloons and other plastic detritus. Then their digestive systems get clogged up and they die. There are pictures floating around of dead seabirds with bellies full of plastic. It is not nice at all.

I'm not trying to argue that we should be humourless and eliminate all animal sight gags from movies because some (a lot) of seabirds eat plastic and die. But I am arguing that Up fails to acknowledge that birds eating garbage is an actual problem. This is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise: the way Up celebrates casual and thoughtless exploitation of nature for the sake of entertainment.

The casual aspect of this claim is easy to demonstrate. Evil explorer Charles Muntz has many beautiful museum pieces in his zeppelin, which he "holds back" from science for his own entertainment. But then the movie has no qualms about smashing these valuable artifacts for the purpose of a fight scene. On a more ecological note, we see Russell crashing into ancient geological formations, smashing them to bits with no compunctions and no consequences.

Even more revealing is the scene where Fredricksen needs to get his house aloft to save Russell. To do so, he dumps all of his house's ballast -- the furniture, the kitchen appliances, and most of his possessions. It is intended to be a grand metaphor. Look at him letting go of material possessions! Look at him simplifying his life! Too bad that in the process he leaves a huge pile of junk right beside the unspoiled Paradise Falls. At the end of the movie we learn that the house has miraculously landed right where it took off. We see the house and the falls, but where is the pile of junk? It has vanished!

When people go camping in real life, they are always shocked at the amount of garbage they find lying around. There are no "unspoiled wildernesses" any more. People have been to a lot of places on earth, and where ever they travel they leave their garbage behind -- their candy wrappers and water bottles and used condoms and who knows what else. I am sure the writers of Up did not intend to celebrate the casual despoilment of nature, but that is exactly what they did. This is doubly hypocritical because of another beloved Pixar movie: Wall-E. I have not seen that movie (yet?), but I know that the basic premise is that fat, overmaterialistic people have filled the earth with their trash, and that it is poor Wall-E's job to clean up the mess. In Up, we see exactly who left those messes -- not fat unlikable people, but heroic old men who "let go" of their pasts and possessions to save their friends. There's an important connection to be made here, and Up misses it completely.

And why is parking your house right next to a waterfall such a noble goal, anyways? It doesn't sound any worse than capturing a live bird specimen. Would Carl have failed Ellie had he parked his house three days away from the falls instead of right beside them? There's something about the suburbanite fairy-tale going on here, and I don't like it one bit.

Then there is the usual Disney sterility. There is virtually no wildlife depicted at lush Paradise Falls: just the birds and a swarm of bees (and a bunch of skeletons in the zeppelin museum, I guess). The kid and the old guy get tired, but they aren't being eaten alive by bugs. Their only real threat comes from domesticated dogs, which is an interesting casting decision. I know that the movie pays lip service to the idea that the jungle is not like what Russell read in his survival manuals (and I give the movie credit for that) but the overall message is that Paradise Falls is just scenery that can be used at will.

As a final wet blanket to this tree-hugging tirade, the mawkish sentimentality that is expressed for Kevin's well being makes me sick. We don't treat our food animals with such mawkish sentimentality. Real scientists don't harbour such sentimentality; they capture and kill specimens at will. In real life we really don't care about animals unless they are our pets, and those who do care about the well-being of animals are the laughingstocks of society (hello PETA!). But in kids movies (and many grownup movies) we send exactly the opposite message -- because the way we treat animals and nature is ugly. We cannot bear to witness the ugliness of our actions in general, and we doubly can't bear that ugliness at kids movies. So we propagate these whitewashed myths while living off the avails of our horrifying practices.

The Disney Formula

One thing that struck me about Up is just how formulaic it is. It has:

Somewhere at Disney there is a template for writing kids movies, and Up adheres to that template pretty closely.

This disappoints me. The Incredibles was formulaic too, but it was self-aware enough to play with and poke fun at its tropes. Up is oblivious to its formula. A few elements were inventive and playful, but for the most part it is just another Disney movie. That's a big letdown, and a big reason why I'm no longer willing to give Pixar a free pass.

Who Cares?

It's just a movie, right?

Well, yes. It is just a movie, and I am embarrassed that I have spent so much time and so many words typing out a clunky entry about mass culture. The fact that you stopped reading this long ago is a relief, because at least you had the good sense to cut your losses and move on to more relevant web distractions.

In fact, by writing this entry I am contributing to the problem. Because even though Up is "just a movie", many of us burned up a lot of attention anticipating it, watching it, discussing it and absorbing its messages. You don't need to believe in corporate brainwashing to understand that we cannot help but be influenced by the topics that fill up our attention spans. Every moment we pay attention to music and music and video games is a moment we are ignoring something else that matters. We need some distraction in our lives, but as with fast food I think our culture consumes too much distraction and skimps on healthy reality. Just look at the spate of Avatar reviews clogging the blogosphere right now.

I think that Up contains lots of messages. Some are explicit and some are deeply embedded in our culture. All through my childhood popular culture lied to me. It told me stories -- animals are cute, nature is harmonious, most people are basically happy, we are basically good -- that were deeply misguided. I had neither the life experience nor the book learning to understand these messages in context, so the values of mass culture became my values. Then when I learned that I had been lied to, I felt betrayed and became bitter.

Now I believe that we as a civilization are in deep, deep trouble: that we are so caught up in delusion and lies that we don't seriously believe there are any problems. Every so often somebody breaks through the delusion, and then we freak out and panic before throwing our hands up in despair and letting the next distraction wash over us. These movies are seductive, and it's not as if I am immune to their charms -- you will find me sitting through free screenings of whatever else I am told I really really need to watch in order for my life to be complete. But this stuff is poison.

Blah. That's enough. Sorry for vomitting all over a movie you liked.