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  • Fat and the Land:Size Stereotyping in Pixar's Up
  • Kate Flynn (bio)

In its 2009 film Up, the animation studio Pixar responds with ambivalence to anxieties around "childhood obesity." Up features two central characters. The first is Carl Fredricksen, a seventy-nine-year-old man who transports his house to Venezuela by attaching balloons to its roof. The second is Russell, a young Asian American boy who unintentionally stows away on Carl's trip. One of their few shared characteristics is that Russell is fat, and at the start of the film Carl is shown to have also been fat as a child.

In the published screenplay, however, there are no explicit references to body size. The film's two fat characters are introduced simply as "8 year old Carl Fredricksen" (Docter and Peterson 1), and "Russell, aged 8" (17), without further physical description. By contrast, Pixar's earlier screenplay Wall-E (2008) pays close attention to bodily fat, variously describing the film's most indolent characters as "overdeveloped," "large, round and soft," and "gelatinous blobs" (Stanton and Reardon 27–34). The lack of physical description in the Up screenplay becomes especially curious when we turn to Pixar's official website. On a page dedicated to character design, Pixar proposes that body shape is a key part of conveying "the essence of characters' personalities." Russell, they suggest, is "a circle, always moving and optimistic." By emphasizing his two-dimensional quality, this positive description of Russell's appearance distances itself from the revulsion of Wall-E. More problematically, however, it also distances itself from any mention of bodily fat, implying by omission that fat is too negative to be spoken of ("In Up").

It is important to clarify my own use of contentious terms. I will discuss Russell as a relatively "fat" character, not an "overweight" or "obese" one. Following Wann (18), I believe the word "fat" shows potential as a neutral adjective, despite accumulated pejorative or shaming connotations. My choice of words is furthermore strategic. I wish to focus on the sociocultural meanings of bodily [End Page 435] fat, without suggesting that size categories are absolute. To return to Pixar, their terminology also serves a purpose. The word "circle" allows Pixar to walk a line between serving audiences who are repelled by fat-phobic stereotypes and audiences who are repelled by fat. The word "circle" is neither a pejorative appellation nor a challenge to the idea that to be fat is bad. So what prompted this strategic ambiguity, when Wall-E showed far less caution?

Following Wall-E's release, Pixar received attention from the New York Post, the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, amongst other media outlets, because the film's size stereotypes were drawing complaints (Lumenick; Shipman and Mason). If people are getting fatter, as Wall-E itself alluded to, and fat people are in a position to express discontent at their representation, as the media coverage suggested, then ambiguity has certain commercial advantages. Less obviously, Up's strategic ambiguity is supported by the film's visual iconography, particularly as it pertains to the landscape, because that iconography constructs both intriguing departures from, and adherence to, size stereotypes.

Though the explicit name-calling of Wall-E is absent, Russell's characterization still echoes a long line of problematic portrayals of the "fat boy." Let us examine Pixar's claim that shape is "the essence of characters' personalities." The character of Ellie is drawn with a long, narrow body. For the duration of her short screen time, she initiates all the activity she shares with Carl. The screenplay suggests her actions are dynamic: she "steers," she "strides," and she repeatedly "pops up" in unexpected places (Docter and Peterson 6–10). By contrast, when Carl first appears as a child, his face, tummy, and limbs are rounded. While Ellie's movements are sudden and surprising, his are strenuous. He grunts as he jumps over cracks in the pavement. He "smacks" into a tree trunk (4). When trying to retrieve the balloon he has released into some attic rafters, he plummets to the ground through several floors (7). Barely five minutes into the film...


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