Disney-Pixar’s Up has a special place in my heart. It’s a fun adventure film with some stunning animation and great writing, and every time I sit down to rewatch it, I find myself in love with nearly everything on the screen all over again. This wasn’t always the case, though. The story is centered on a man dealing with his wife’s death, and fridgings are an overused trope that I hate a great deal. But the more I thought about it, the less this fridging in particular bothered me. Up takes that common trope and reworks it into an important life lesson with a surprisingly positive message about dealing with the death of a loved one.
To start off, let’s just get this out of the way—Up has almost no female representation whatsoever. Its most prominent female character is a giant bird named Kevin, and its other female character, Ellie, dies within the first ten minutes of the movie. Other than a few lines spoken by her, the movie is so lacking in female representation that the voice cast is pretty much entirely male. In a world where our fiction is already dominated by male characters and women are sidelined, this is a glaring flaw of the movie. That said, while Up most certainly should and could have had more women in it, the main plotline about an older man named Carl dealing with the death of his wife Ellie and learning to move on shows younger audiences that coping with grief may not be easy, but it is certainly a necessary part of life.
This does beg the question: when is a fridging not a fridging, and should movies never be allowed to kill off its female characters? To the last question, the answer is a hardcore no. Female characters are allowed to die just as male characters are—the problem comes when women don’t get as many roles, and therefore their deaths are significantly more noticeable than a male character’s death. It’s also a problem, because often women are reduced down to their importance to a male character. Their lives and their deaths exist solely to set him on his path to herodom/vengeance.
A character is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found just to offend or insult someone, or to cause someone serious anguish. The usual victims are those who matter to the hero, specifically best buddies, love interests, and sidekicks. In some cases, the doomed character may be killed by natural forces or by a character who doesn’t have the intent to cause someone else angst—in this case, the intent comes from the writer, who wants to rouse strong emotions in another character. If the said character was killed by a villain, this guarantees to become a motivation for a Revenge plot or an immediate Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
Given this definition, yes, Ellie is fridged. Her death serves one purpose—setting the plot in motion. Carl and Ellie meet as small children, bond over their shared desire for adventure, and get married in early adulthood. Throughout their entire lives, they experience ups and downs—Ellie has a miscarriage and the two never have children, their adventure funds keep going to other expenses, and the two never make it on the trip they spent their whole lives dreaming about. Despite these setbacks, they get their dream house, work together, and live happily with one another. We see them go on picnics, sit together reading, and just enjoy one another’s company like any healthy couple in a relationship. Ellie’s death is not sudden. It’s a slow process brought on by old age.
All this happens within the first couple minutes of the movie, and the rest of Up is Carl flying their dream house down to South America, because he regrets never being able to take Ellie there when she was alive. We see him talk to the house as though he believes Ellie’s still in there somewhere, and he rejects his emotional capacity to bond with other people. Carl believes that his happiness ended with Ellie, and his adventure is done with the intent at getting back at life over her death.
This is a trope that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but the way Up goes about it works in a way that doesn’t for other stories—and in that way, Up is a very important movie. We live in a world of fridged women and men seeking vengeance for their deaths. This objectification of women is normalized. The women in question don’t even need to be developed as fully fledged people; they just need to die for the sake of a man’s pain in order to get the plot going. This is a plotline that Up simultaneous embraces and rejects. On paper, the plot is the same. A woman has died. But in practice, Up goes in a different direction.
To start, the movie doesn’t just give Ellie to Carl for Carl to love. The movie makes us fall in love with her as well. It spends time establishing her as a person, her hobbies, and her interests, and makes us root for her relationship with Carl. Carl may be the main character, but it’s Ellie’s wants that both he and the audience are invested in. By the time Ellie dies, we feel her death, the same as Carl does. In this way, Ellie is not just a prop; she’s a person we’re meant to mourn for. As the movie progresses, Up takes a further step to show that Carl’s detachment and anger at the world is misplaced. Carl manages to go on the adventure of his dreams, but he rejects the friends he makes along the way and forgets how to enjoy life. He also rejects Ellie and who she was as a person and instead focuses on what he thinks she would have wanted, and he’s clearly shown to be wrong.
Throughout her life, Ellie kept a book documenting her adventures. Carl mistakenly assumes that the book is empty because they never got to travel, and even though it’s Ellie’s most important possession, it’s not till near the end of the movie, when Carl’s at his lowest point, that we see it again. Carl gets their house to their destination, but the victory is empty, because the house doesn’t matter. When Carl opens her book and we see its contents for the first time, it’s also a first time for him. Ellie filled the book out with all the adventures she had back at home and with things she loved and enjoyed doing. On the last page, knowing she was going to die, she left him a note thanking him for those adventures and telling him to go have some more on his own.
This is a poignant part of the movie, because Ellie’s loss is once again felt, but it’s also a moment of healing and acceptance. Ellie had a good, long life, and she was happy. She didn’t need Carl to fly their house all the way to South America, and she didn’t want him to shut himself off the way that he did.
While Up may be about a fridging, it goes about its story in a much more positive way than other narratives, and given pop culture and women’s treatment in it at large, I feel as though the movie wouldn’t have had the same impact had it not been an older man dealing with the death of his wife. When our media constantly normalizes women as only important insofar as they relate to male characters and kills them off to be little more than props in a narrative, we need a movie like Up to tell us otherwise. Ellie dies, but her death is presented as a natural part of life. It’s not wrong for Carl to mourn her, but it is wrong to reduce her to an object, and it’s not healthy to hold onto her memory and wallow in grief and pain. Up succeeds here because Ellie is a person, and she didn’t exist so Carl could spend the rest of his days miserable. This is a great use of grief and healing that other movies should pay attention to.