Sunday, March 7, 2010

Up: Against: Why I ultimately was down on UP

Today, Pixar's UP is set to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.  I find this a downer. 

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoyed the movie "UP." (What a dumb title in the Google age, though, eh?)   It was sweet and funny and it generally kept my attention.  But about forty minutes into it, I realized something: It had NO major roles for female actors.  True, in the beginning, the most interesting character is the little girl Ellie.  But she gets killed off.  After that, it's a Boy's Club through and through.  Even the dogs are all boys.  There's not a bitch among them.  The bird, named Kevin, turns out to be female, but it's a non-speaking role in an animated film.  Sorry, ladies: no opportunities there.

A note about Young Ellie:  according to IMDB, she's played by someone named "Elie Docter."  I guess they saved money by not having any open casting call for females at all on this film?
I identify as old, not just female, however, so I was happy and grateful that director Peter Docter and Pixar's writers gave a role to an older actor.  Ed Asner is wonderful.  But let's be real:  statistically, the surviving spouse would have been the woman.  Why ignore statistics when you could write the part for, say, Estelle Parsons?  Maybe Asner needed the work, while Parsons had a gig on stage in August: Osage County, where she was brilliant, by the way. She certainly could have done a good job at crotchety and nay-saying.  Or Diane Rheem.  For once, her voice would have been exactly right.

But let's not stop with the creating and casting of Carl.  There were other important roles.  Was it necessary that the spunky and obnoxious kid be male?  If the studio was worried about hints of inappropriate sexual interest, surely an old man could be as much under suspicion with a boy as with a girl.  The scout could have been a girl scout.  They get badges as well.

I won't quarrel with the Explorer being a man, although there were some real female precedents for female daring around the supposed time of Carl and Ellie's youth:  Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham.  But if the explorer was a man, why did the surviving spouse, the child explorer, the helpful dog and the dog leader, to a man, have to be men?  (And white, except for the kid, who, like Boo in Monsters, Inc., was drawn mildly Asian.)

Pixar does not, apparently, care about on-screen equal opportunity.  And while Peter Docter and his writers and producers must have had mothers -- and maybe some had sisters and a few may have female spouses or offspring -- they seem to inhabit a world where women are utterly neglectable.  And nobody at Disney, and not Steve Jobs, finds it odd.  Odd.

I loved Monsters, Inc., too, but in thinking about it afterward, I was struck by the fact that all the main monsters and monsters' assistants were male.  Women have a long history of scaring little children.  They certainly do it in old Disney movies and the Wizard of Oz.  Yet even Roz, the company receptionist with the ultimate power, was voiced by a male actor.  True, the little girl is a little girl.  And maybe that was the problem for UP.  Pixar already had done a large older male with a little girl, so they didn't want to do it again.  And a large older female with a little boy just never occurred to anyone.   

I know there's a theory in Hollywood that boys and men have no interest in stories with female protagonists.  Why that didn't bother our ancestors when they created fairy tales, I don't know.  I guess box office was not a problem around the campfire.  And I suppose that when Disney began to make blockbuster animated movies based on fairy tales, the truth of the anti-girls theory was not yet understood.  Think about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White [and the Seven Dwarfs, OK: all male] and Beauty and the Beast (at last, second billing for a male lead): each has a female title character played by a female actor, and plenty of supporting roles, including villains, voiced by women.  Maybe only girls bought tickets for those movies?  Or maybe Docter and his friends at Pixar have a long-standing, deep-seated grudge from a childhood of being forced to care about all those interesting girls and to be frightened by all those evil women, and now they want to get even?

I have a challenge for the studio and Mr. Docter.  Write your next movie exactly the way you did Up and Monsters, Inc.:  with almost no females in sight.  But then require the storyboarders to draw all the characters, even the animals and robots, from real girls and women, and require the casting director to cast only female actors.  I promise you, you can find women's voices in every range, from squeaky coloratura to bass.  If you have to adapt the story a little, do it.  If you're really as creative and funny and brilliant as you think you are, the result will be the best movie you have ever made.  And female actors will at last find work at Pixar.   


PS  I first thought this and wrote about it to friends in the summer of 2009 right after seeing UP.  But I procrastinated in posting it on this blog.  I now see that other people wrote immediately. Here are some links. Please let me know if I should add more:
Linda Holmes, June 2009:
Packaging Girlhood,


  1. Nicely said, Roberta. I think there's a simple answer - Pixar needs female writers and directors. Their writers are, naturally, working from their own experience as men who used to be boys.

    Of course, Neil Gaiman is a man, but he wrote "Coraline" for his daughter and with her input. Now THAT was a brilliant film with a great role for a young actress. It also had a female villain and a couple of juicy female supporting roles. I liked "Up," but "Coraline" blew my mind. Maybe because I related to it more?

  2. Thanks, Wiz Knitter. I will see Coraline. Maybe you liked it because you related, but maybe it was just a better piece of work on an absolute scale.