Is Pixar Emotionally Manipulative? Case Study: Up

Let’s address the elephant in the room. The opening scene of Up is brutal. Think back to watching that silent sequence the first time. You’re in the theater remembering how awesome WALL-E and Ratatouille were and you heard there’d be a cute talking dog in Up. Right from the flashbulb things are going great. The cutest couple ever animated gets married and Carl carries Ellie into their new home. They fix up their house together, hold hands during picnics, etc etc. Oh a cloud baby! Lots of cloud babies! Wait … why is she crying? Oh no … oh it’s okay. They’re still going to go on that adventure! Then life happens. It’s okay they’ll still go. Wow, okay they’re old now. Which is infinitely cuter. They’re still…oh wait. Oh no…she fell. No, no hospital beds please … they’ll be okay right? Right? He just got the plane tickets! They have to be okay. And … cut to Ellie’s funeral and end scene.

Okay, what just happened? Why am I crying? Why is everyone here crying? Ask anyone what movie made them cry and I’ll bet a huge chunk will name Up. Is there anything wrong with that? Back in our Toy Story 2 review we discussed the criticism that Pixar has faced for being “emotionally manipulative in a fundamentally dishonest way.” In that piece, Michael Barrier has a lot to say about Up:

In the opening montage of Up, you’re essentially being strong armed into shedding tears about Carl and Ellie … to me, it was grotesquely sentimental and a lot of people were looking for an excuse to break into tears, and obviously this was for them …There’s a sentimentality in most Pixar pictures that are very manipulative and completely unconvincing to me. They are congratulating their audience for feeling these synthetic emotions and, to me, that’s offensive.

-Michael Barrier, “Animation Expert and Historian” as quoted in an article for the Huffington Post.

Those are some strong words coming from Mr. Barrier. Maybe he’s right. I mean, last week I watched the horror movie It Follows. Before the movie I had no organic emotions. Then I watched it and was suddenly inundated with synthetic fear. A few weeks ago I watched Shawshank Redemption which left me with this unnatural feeling of happiness and hope. What are these directors after? What’s their aim?

Up Binos

The Role of Emotion and “Manipulation” in Films

Now bear with me for a minute because I am no expert on this subject like Mr. Barrier, but maybe it’s okay that movies evoke emotions in audiences. Maybe sometimes movies provide something like … I don’t know … an escape to people. Movies tell stories and Pixar tells some of the best ones out there. After the admittedly demoralizing introduction, Up reintroduces us to the now grumpy Carl Fredericksen. Carl lives alone and refuses to sell his house to new investors who have taken over the neighborhood. Then Carl hears the eager knock of Russell the Wilderness Explorer at his door. Russell offers to assist Carl in crossing the road, or the yard, or the porch. All of which Carl quickly declines.

Soon the two end up as unlikely travel companions on a mission to take Ellie (as embodied by the house) to Paradise Falls. Along the way they meet Dug (one of my favorite minor Pixar sidekicks) and Alpha (one of my favorite minor villains). Like Carl and Russell, Dug is a bit of a loner. Unlike them, his ostracism is visible in the form of the Cone of Shame.

Up Cone of Shame

Dug’s presence helps develop the relationship between Carl and Russell. The two explorers fight over “adopting” Dug and run into similar and somewhat-familiar narrative rough patches. The film executes these points perfectly and adds some new twists along the way. By the end of the film, the relationship between Carl and Russell becomes one of the strongest and most endearing in all of Pixar which is saying a lot (don’t forget about WALL-E and EVA, Sully and Boo, Woody and Andy/Buzz, Lightning McQueen and himself). The story of their relationship is the heart of Up. An old curmudgeon and a neglected child confide in each other and provide the support they both need.

Is Pixar any worse than other studios?

So is Pixar emotionally manipulative? Well, the obvious answer is yes. All films are emotionally manipulative. That is to say, all films set out to evoke emotions. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t bat an eye when Rhett tells Scarlet that he doesn’t give a damn, and we wouldn’t care whether or not “Brooks was here,” and we wouldn’t be phased when Han tells Leia that he knows. In reality we complain when films fail to cultivate any emotional depth and blast films for lack of personality.

Is Pixar somehow worse than other studios? To answer that we need to look at the films in context. Barrier makes a broader case against the studio’s overuse of “industrial processes” which he feels cheapens the films. In the above article, Barrier stresses that we’ve lost the “direct connection between the animator and the character that you have when the animator is drawing the character with a pencil on a sheet of paper, it simply doesn’t have an equivalent as far as I’m aware, or if it has an equivalent, it’s much harder to establish.” I think many would argue against that point. Even if we’ve lost the connection between animator and character (which I doubt), we have not lost the connection between character and audience. Kids love Woody like they loved Simba. They connect with Nemo like they did Mulan. Pixar’s films continue the tradition of animated films (and live action films) that came before them. Death is nothing new in the genre and Ellie’s death is no more crushing than the death of (spoiler alert) Mufasa or Bambi’s mother, or any other Disney parent.

So is Pixar manipulative? Sure. Is the studio dishonest? Absolutely not. Does Pixar’s handling of emotion point to a lack of imagination? I can’t even believe anyone would ask that. Pixar has strung together one of the most remarkable series of films in recent history. Or maybe ever. I agree with Jordan Zakarin (the author of that Huffington Post article featuring Barrier’s comments) who said that animated films like those by Pixar have “emotional pulls that exceed many live action movies at this point, vaunting them beyond fun niche category.” Finally a statement I can get behind. Pixar’s films are not only exceptional animated films but they are exceptional films in their own right. And their legacy will far outlive any criticism they receive now.

Up Ice Cream

Fun Facts:

  • Up won awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
  • The film was the second animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast was nominated in 1991 and Toy Story 3 would later be nominated in 2011.
  • According director and screenwriter Pete Docter, the film originally centered on an elderly man who wanted to “join his wife up in sky…It was almost a kind of strange suicide mission or something. And obviously that’s [a problem]. Once he gets airborne, then what? So we had to have some goal for him to achieve that he had not yet gotten. Originally, he was not going anywhere. He was just going into the sky, because he had always associated his wife with birds.” The writers started with Carl and his floating house then later added the mission to go to South American in order to give Carl a goal to achieve so the character could find fulfillment and purpose.
  • Quote from producer Jonas Rivera: “A guy ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats away to South America to go to Paradise Falls. That’s what happens, those are the plot points. But that’s not what it’s about. What is it about? It’s about adventure, it’s about life.” (Same article as above)

Rating: 10/10

Check out other Flashback/Backslide reviews in the Pixar Blogathon:

Inside Out (2015)

Toy Story (1991)

A Bug’s Life (1998)

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Finding Nemo (2003)

Cars (2006)

The Incredibles (2004)

Ratatouille (2007)

WALL-E (2008)

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Brave (2012)

Cars 2 (2011)

Monsters University (2013)

Toy Story 3 (2010)


36 thoughts on “Is Pixar Emotionally Manipulative? Case Study: Up

  1. That was a really good read. At first I was taken aback by what I was understanding to be a slamming of Pixar. And while I guess it is possible that there is contingent of people who just don’t like Pixar it’s really I think stupid to argue that they are a studio who don’t capitalize on what they have or aren’t “imaginative.” This is one of the most creative film entities I’ve ever come across. As I kept reading though the arguments opened up, and I do have to say that thinking back on the few PIxars I have seen, there is indeed some emotional manipulation going on. A lot of it is earned though, and deserved. I can think of so many other films (animated or live action) that really force the issue and don’t succeed.


    • Thanks! I edited it a bit to be more clear in the beginning. I’m not surprised that people don’t like Pixar movies. There are unlikeable things in them (and as pointed out by Lebeau, they aren’t really great for kids). But to say they lack imagination seems crazy. Even if plot elements are lifted from other places there are so many creative aspects to these films.

      Also I agree, I think Pixar earns most of their emotions. and when they don’t earn the emotion they usually don’t fake it. Like in Cars 2, there is not a lot of emotional build-up but there also is not much emotional pay-off at the end. So they usually pair the input with the output. At least as far as I can remember on the top of my head.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is actually a tough call for me. I tend to be resentful of movies that I feel are emotionally manipulative. Obviously, at some level, movies attempt to manipulate their audience. But the phrase “emotionally manipulative” is specific to movies that try to jerk tears from your eye sockets without earning them first. Patch Adams was one of the most offensive movies I have ever seen in this regard.

    I was a big fan of Up. That opening sequence is a beautiful short film. And I do feel that it earns its emotion. I’m not sure if it belongs at the beginning of a family movie or not. When we saw Up, our oldest was still young enough that she didn’t understand what was going on. So we got off easy on that one.

    The last few Pixar movies we have taken our kids to have resulted in tears. The inevitable happy endings weren’t enough to get our girls over the sadness in Brave and Inside Out. (Monsters University was okay, but it’s also empty calories). It’s actually reached the point where I am reluctant to take the kids to Pixar movies because we don’t leave the theater with smiles on our faces. I ended up comforting the kids after both Brave and Inside Out which is not the experience I had in mind when I bought the tickets.

    Add Disney into the mix and it gets even worse. Even the good Disney movies cross the line into being emotionally manipulative these days. When was the last Disney animated feature that didn’t pull the death fake-out? It’s become all too common. My kids even expect it. For me, it just feels utterly mechanical to watch Flynn Ryder/Anna/Baymax go through the motions of death and resurrection in movie after movie. And the kids don’t like it either, so I’m not sure who that’s for.


    • For sure my view is skewed by the fact that I don’t have kids and I don’t mind more adult themes in these movies. I do question how well these movies are suited for kids. In an earlier review of Finding Nemo I joked about how intense the movie is and how it doesn’t seem appropriate for kids. But these are obviously catered for children. Either way, I appreciate (as a non-parent movie fan) that these films are usually the best versions of themselves. The downside is that these kids movies aren’t great for kids anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Wow, well done. I do like this film but the third act has always bothered me. Wonderful write-up and examination into manipulation and emotion. It’s a fine line that can work well if it’s subtle but if it’s right in our faces, it fails.


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