Monday, June 29, 2009

Narrative, Metaphor, Gender and Identity Construction in Pixar's 'Up'

NOTE: This post contains potential spoilers about the movie 'Up'. No major secrets are revealed, but themes are discussed and analyzed below. Read at your own risk.

Last night I went and saw Pixar's latest, Up, in 3D at the Daly City CineMark theater. I had read quite a lot about this movie beforehand, including Roger Ebert's movie review, an open letter from Linda Holmes at NPR, and a fascinating 650+ comment thread about Pixar's lead-character gender bias problem, (via Metafilter). I also had the pleasure of spending one of my recent weekly Spanish lessons reciting and then paraphrasing a Spanish newspaper's review and interview with the director of the film. And so with all that, and as a huge fan of Pixar's previous work, I was very intrigued and excited to see this!

Pixar does a wonderful job of conveying a complex narrative visually. As with much of their work, you get much more than just one. Up delivers the classic 'Coming of Age' story, hitting all the recognizable and relatable plot points – i.e., naivety and wonder in hero worship, standing up for what you believe in, going against the pack, accepting life's disappointments, letting go of your childhood idols and ideals (and in one particular case, physically battling them). Up also dabbles in divorce narratives, love and loss narratives, and of course, the adventure and treasure-seeking narratives. What is so interesting about these elements is how Up tells its tale. It's shockingly realistic, because these different narratives aren't relegated to individual characters, genders, age-groups, or even species! For example, just as much as Russell journeys along the coming of age storyline, so do the elderly Carl and even the dog, Doug. Our adventurer is Ellie, a young little girl, who, while not being foremost, is indeed first, and remains the inspiration and lodestar for Carl throughout the film.

Even more than these atypical representations, is the way that Pixar then weaves the narratives. Everybody is at different stages of the same story, and their actions force the hands of others. For example, it is only because Carl is deep in his misery and fixation on the past that he lashes out at Russell, who is at the turning point in his own journey, a little further down the road than his young elder. Carl's harsh words are the kick in the pants for Russell, filling him with indignation and oompf he needs to go tackle the world on his own. This frees up Carl to take inventory of his house, where he winds up making an important discovery, leading him to the next stage of the big adventure. There things aren't accidents, nor are they simply convenient plot elements. Which is exactly why well-written-but-visually-artificial characters can come to embody something more real and relatable than the seemingly real thing.

Conceptual metaphor plays a crucially big role in this film as well. It drives the 3D experience and reinforces the narrative structure. However, even this too is toyed with. The most obvious conceptual metaphor, GOOD IS UP, can be flipped on its head when its trumped by EMOTIONAL STABILITY IS CONTACT WITH THE GROUND. It's all relative, to each character and to his or her particular stage of development. This is why OBLIGATIONS ARE POSSESSIONS, except when they are PROPERTIES. Or why POSSESSING IS HOLDING, but not when that requires letting go. There's also the very 3-dimensionally represented complimentary metaphors, FREEDOM IS OPEN SPACE and FREEDOM IS MOBILITY. Which takes on a certain illogic and irony when you're an old man walking caneless along a vast, open space...with a floating house weighing you down.

Shapes, directions, colors and movements all take on both relative and fixed meanings, if that can be said. Carl's square features at once represent reliability and stubborness. Russell's convey his youth, as well as his youthful naivety. The symbolism seems natural and obvious (dare I say circular?), except when you realize each and every angle or curve was very likely a deliberate choice, designed to heighten and reinforce our experience. Why then does the most coveted and hard to find object of the antagonist's desire happen to be the most brightly colored (and therefore easiest to spot in a monochrome environment), yet perpetually elusive? How does a house provide shelter from a storm, when you aren't actually inside it? How do we balance the role of underdog vs. alpha dog, when the world tells us we can't be both?

Which leads me of one of the biggest riddles of the film...why the gender bias, Pixar? I went into this knowing that 11 out of your 11 films have a male lead. I suppose this is ok, because our princess is coming, right? (Bear and the Bow, 2011) Seriously, though, I know you can knock it out of the park already. Ellen Parsons (of Incredibles fame) was wonderfully complex and delightful; Dory (from Finding Nemo) is funny and EQ-smart and picks up all the slack; and of course, Ellie (of Up) is a total peach, not to mention the underlying motivation and inspiration for Carl.

I admit, I went into this one with my eyes and ears hyper-tuned for all things gendered. Maybe that's not an entirely fair approach, but I will say that I give them the benefit of the doubt, for all the reasons stated above having to do with their legacy of fine craftsmanship. So I was relieved to find only a few things that seemed unnecessarily biased. However, they could be deemed statistically significant, depending on your perspective.

The most obvious gender assigment were the trio of vicious dogs, all male. I don't believe that it would have made a difference to have one of them be female, but I can sort of see why they are cast as they are, being the dark triad of creation by their narcissistic, machiavellian inventor. But I do have a problem with the bit where the alpha dog has a chronic voicebox wiring problem, inviting ridicule and loss of credibility as the alpha male with a voice like a girl. There is really no need to write this element into the script, and thereby setting up the correlation between power and low, stereotypically male voice (which is also interesting to note that the alpha dog's actual, corrected voice is REALLY deep).

The other gender problem I notice is the overall lack of female character presence contrasted with the roles available to the females who are present, totalling a whopping two. Ellie is the obvious half of the female population of Up, but...SPOILER!...she dies within the first 10 minutes. As wonderful as she is, she only lives on in Carl's memory, and can have no agency whatsoever. The other character, a flightless bird named Kevin, is hunted and helpless as she struggles to protect her newborn chicks. She's voiceless, and somewhat blatantly a brightly plummaged MacGuffin. She does have personality however, and she likes chocolate. There's a point where one has to just stop reading into things. Besides, there's plenty of great, positive and healthy gender role and identity construction elements to focus on.

Which is probably a good place to switch gears and point out some other interesting things I noticed about the film, not entirely linguistic, but hey...
  • The design of the 3D glasses were no accident. We are all the leads in our own adventure narratives anyway, aren't we? And doesn't a 3D movie break the fourth wall by definition?
  • I had my ears ready for some dogwhistles, and I did happily find at least one candidate; pro-canine, although non-canonical. More of a parlor trick pun than anything. ;)
  • Watching a 3D film takes a few minutes of mental calibration. We are very used to 2D, where we have freedom to focus on any corner of the screen or detail that we wish. With the 3D experience, our focus is guided every step of the way. If you try to fight it, you might be in for a world of nauseaus. So, don't. Relax, and enjoy the show.

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