Levity, Fantasy, and Symbolic Imagery (or: Up, up, up, on a rainbow of love).

Disney/Pixar’s new release Up is garnering great box office and critical praised, the majority of which is well deserved.  The question these days seems not to be “will Pixar make a worthwhile film?” but “can they top the last one?”  And I use the word “top” intentionally.

The folks behind Up are wise in the ways of visual storytelling, and the film is full of wonderful visual moments.  In fact, it’s practically a primer for understanding symbolic imagery.  The most noticeable is of course the house of memories, floating below colorful balloons.  It doesn’t take much to see the equation drawn between Carl dragging the house and Carl carrying the memory for and grief over his late wife.  This is then reinforced by the picture of Ellie hanging on the wall of the house, their special chairs, the knicknacks, and the mailbox.

Of course it makes sense plotwise to have the house float with balloons because Carl is a balloon man by occupation.  Logically, he would therefore know about them, and have access to them.  Sure. (This is almost too logical.  Why can’t Carl be a garbage man who gets the idea from something on TV?)  The balloons are symbolic of Carl’s love for Ellie, which keeps the house of memory afloat on its journey.  Balloons are synonymous with childhood and levity (see The Red Balloon for example.  Child befriended by balloon.  Wonderful.) and are used symbolically to show optimism (and the disappointment when it is popped in countless Wile E. Coyote cartoons).  The house is a memory of the home, the relationship.  The balloons are the love that “kept it afloat.”  Carl dragging his house around the jungle, despite the difficulty and inconvenience of the task, is a beautiful and enduring symbol of grief, and his “letting go” of the house to watch it float away into the clouds (read: heavens) is one of the best moments in the film.

The delightful Russell (one of the most realistic animated children in recent memory.  Who hasn’t walked out of the theater thinking “I know that kid,” or “I am/was that kid.”  On a side note, what does this say about absentee fatherhood in our society?) meets and names Kevin, the exotic and elusive, highly colorful bird of Paradise Falls.  That Kevin is colorful and sleeps on top of the house is fitting.  That Carl must choose between his promise regarding the house, and his promise regarding Kevin further equates them.  Kevin is of course symbolic of Carl’s relationship and love for Russell.

Love as colorful, elusive to those who seek too hard, buoyant, able to weather storms, and protective is a lovely metaphor.   Love lives at Paradise Falls.  (Side note: Paradise Falls is in South America.  I know this is a fantasy film, but the vilification of America, land of skyscrapers, and South America as an exotic paradise is rather short sighted.  After Wall-e I was more confident the Pixar team was aware of the state of affairs in the rainforest.  It is implicit, but the “other world” is a paradise only marred by a hermit American.  Not exactly a realistic depiction of South America.   The ideology presented here seems to define America as a place that can be redeemed, but is problematic, which I think is quite accurate.  South America is defined as an exotic place without native peoples to which Americans  take their junk, fight their battles, and leave their memories.  I’ve not had that vacation yet. . .  The problem I have is the idea of making a real place a metaphoric one.  It is ideological, and will shape young viewer’s impressions of what “South America” looks like.)

These layers of meaning make the film sophisticated and enjoyable for all ages.  They also in a sense “teach” younger viewers how to gain meaning from imagery.  Reinforcing this is Pixar’s continued development of non-dialog sequences, which force viewers to understand story by visual indicators alone.  Wall-e was masterful in this, and Up’s now infamous opening sequence (which has made everyone: parent, child, and hard-bitten critic alike, break down in tears) is a short, near-silent film in itself.  The endowment of different objects and acts sets up expectations for all viewers that become easy to guess.  I waited for and expected the bottle cap on Russell’s sash. (Bottle cap = belonging, a relationship).   Satisfying, sure. Predictable, of course.

But Jen, you say, it’s a kids movie.  It sure is. However, Pixar films, like most quality animated films, are designed for “family” audiences, and that means people of all ages.  Up wants to be a fantasy film.  There are incredible fantastic elements (a house being towed by a garden hose.  What was holding that hose wheel to the house, the same titanium screws they use on Space Shuttles?).  And these fantastical elements are made to look realistic.  Pixar continues to refine and perfect making CGI people look real.  The dirt and aging on objects is one example, but the best is probably the wonderfully “aged” photographs and the newsreel at the beginning.  The newsreel cut between being framed within the frame, and filling the whole screen (early on this aligns our POV with Carl, who is watching the newsreel).  These factors all contribute to making Up a realistic animated film.  Realistic fantasy is strange ground to tread.  The rules of what can happen in fantasy and what happens in real life need to be clarified, and they were not clearly delineated in Up.   The film is not self-reflexive, because obvious attempts are made to make it look more like real life.  The tension between fantasy and reality did not drive the story or the characters, it was toted along by a supernatural garden hose.

Predictability and a muddying of reality and fantasy might be dismissed in a film made “just for kids” but that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not sure it ever did.  Barney or the Wiggles are “just for kids” (and when I have children, I pray they’re not for mine. . .) but Pixar and Disney films are “just for families.”  The “for kids” excuse doesn’t cut it.

And even if they are “for kids” is that an excuse to not make the most of the storytelling?  The story is told so well in many ways, but there are flaws, and I would be remiss if I did not point out one more.  Annallee Ward’s book Mouse Morality makes a point of deciphering the ideology of a span of Disney films.  Consistently, Ward finds portrayals of women in Disney films as physically unrealistic.  In order to be loved by a man in a Disney film, a heroine must be very slender, will small hands.  It helps if she is short and has gigantic eyes.  I liked the character Ellie very much, especially her one tooth in the opening shots.  But why couldn’t she have big rough hands from working on her house and washing windows?  Carl can be a big, squareheaded man.  Ellie cannot be overweight, even in old age.  The continuing double standard has had lasting effects on the psyche of countless girls.  It’s easy to dismiss unless you’ve seen the effects.  Girls want to be Disney princesses, not Princess Fionas.  They need more Fionas.

All this being said, I’ll probably see Up again.  Pixar has and doubtless will continue to produce quality work worthy of discussion.  But did I like it better than Wall-e? The tree-hugger in me says no.


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
This entry was posted in Color Metaphors, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Levity, Fantasy, and Symbolic Imagery (or: Up, up, up, on a rainbow of love).

  1. Wally Metts says:

    Katie and I haven’t seen this yet, but our adult kids are big fans.

    Here is an interesting article on the princess theme from the Wall Street Journal:


    • jenletherer says:

      Thanks for the link, Wally. I actually had a discussion this weekend with a woman involved with education regarding human trafficking about the “princess” issue. She pointed out that in Old Testament it is recorded that God did not want to give the Israelites a king. The idea of making everyone a princess is a real stretch to scripture.

      Hope you and Katie enjoy it!

  2. paul patton says:

    Jen, well done; certainly sufficient to prod me to see it.

    but, i must avoid the extrav expectations syndrome, which plagued me in experiencing wall-e.

    what a road. p

  3. indyted says:

    Jen, do you have any thoughts on the story within the story of Doug, the good hearted underdog (pun intended), who ends up on top in the end? Is this the light-hearted play-within-a-play purely for comic effect only or does it serve some other function, as well?

    • jenletherer says:

      My reading is this: That Doug reinforces the idea of the sidelined individual finding their worth. He’s part of a gang of “misfits.” Carl was a misfit, who found belonging with Ellie. Russell is a misfit who finds belonging with Carl. Doug naturally fits into this group.

      Misfits in film are often imbued with special talents or qualities (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, et al.) which show why being different makes you special, unique, and worthwhile. It’s an ideology that many American films make use of. The contrast to this is the horror film, in which the other. The misfit, the Frankenstein or, in Tim Burton’s revision of the genre, the Edward Scissorhands, brings change, and is feared for their special qualities. It’s an interesting interplay.

      Other than that, Doug is, in my estimation, good use of a supporting character. He advances the plot, reinforces the theme mentioned above (everyone is worthwhile, everyone ought to be loved), and is well used comic relief. My only other thought was this: The “Squirrel!” bit was so funny the first time that I laughed embarrassingly loud. The second time was still kind of funny, but by the time the dogs flying airplanes milked the joke, it was past dead.

      Thanks for the question!

  4. Jason Vates says:

    Fiona! Didn’t she and Shrek make “animal balloons” on their walk/date? How apropos.

    I would add that the portrayal of what is “beautiful” not only affects young girls, but young boys as well. AND what it means to be the hero. We seem to condition our children on what is attractive through media (especially considering the role of the average parent…) Is it a reflection of what we find attractive? a cycle? A distortion of gender proper? Something else?

    Can a woman be beautiful and still get her hands dirty?
    Can a man be a hero without carrying a sword?

    I’m sure Mother Theresa washed her fair share of windows, and that little man who stood before the Tienanmen tanks did carry only grocery bags. Maybe we should tell more stories like that. . .

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