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Infertility and Up: How Pixar Tackled Living Child-Free after Infertility

Warning: contains movie background more than movie spoilers…

It started with an emailed warning: Pixar’s new movie, Up, contains a scene that depicts either pregnancy loss or infertility. It continued with posts–both embracing Disney for sensitively portraying the inability to build a family and condemning Disney for introducing yet another topic that parents don’t wish to cover with their kids. Finally, I went to see it for myself.

And I sobbed.

Perhaps I cried because I had my period when I walked into the theater. Or I may have cried because I was anxious in knowing that my emotional buttons were going to be pushed. I was on edge through the short film that came before the main feature that showed how babies are created on clouds. But I think I cried because Pixar did such a fantastic job with the topic and it touched me so deeply, especially when you can’t help but project your own life onto the screen and lay it over Carl and Ellie’s.

The topic is tackled both in the first few minutes of the movie and then subtly throughout, in such a way that adults will pick up on the hidden messages whereas children will most likely gloss over the fact that the couple is childless. And since reading all the blog posts about it, it seems as if many have missed the fact that infertility is covered throughout–much like infertility or loss which is not neatly contained in the moment, but affects the way you see the world from that point on.

Carl and Ellie, childhood sweethearts, promise to go on adventures with one another when they’re older. After getting married, they start dreaming of their life together as they are lying together on a blanket outside, and their music-scored dreams include visions of babies.

They are shown painting a nursery and preparing for a baby and then for a brief moment, we see them in a doctor’s office, with Ellie crying into her hands and her husband rubbing her shoulders while they both face the doctor. Afterwards, we see Ellie sitting outside, her eyes closed and she projects a deep sadness that still has me crying as I write this.

Because who hasn’t sat still with the diagnosis, after all the tears are gone, and felt like there was no movement in the eye of the storm? In a film about movement–aptly named Up–she is sitting motionless. And finally, they begin moving again, planning out a life of adventure that never quite takes place as they planned, but like all the unplanned moments in life, is even better than Carl could see as it happened. It took, once again, a moment of not moving; of sitting still in a chair, to see how much adventure and happiness and joie de vivre he had in his life with Ellie–even if it wasn’t how they hoped.

Infertility keeps playing out later in the film when Carl encounters a little boy whose father doesn’t appreciate his child. It’s interesting that the people up in arms mention the opening montage, because this is the part of the movie where I thought the infertility dynamic came more into play. Who hasn’t felt bitterness in seeing a parent obviously not parenting their child when you are unable to build your family? And in the end, it comes back to a truism that anyone child-free after infertility knows quite well: there is the family you are raised with and the family you choose; and while all are familiar with fictive kin in the form of brothers or sisters, we also may form fictive kin with children.

It is easy to tell when his past is informing his present because the character literally stops moving. After the diagnosis, Ellie sits still in the chair. After he hears about how the boy’s father isn’t parenting him, Carl stops walking. When he is remembering Ellie and the life they thought they’d have, he sits. It is easy to see how often infertility subtly plays out in the film if you count the number of times the characters pause from movement, a very clever way of showing the stagnation of infertility or loss in a movie that is entirely about directional movement.

Like Punch Drunk, I disagree with the commenters on that post who think that loss or infertility has no place in a Pixar film. As DD states: “Who knew having a miscarriage was so…offensive? So…disgusting and ugly and ironically, so child- and family-UNfriendly, whereas (spoiler alert) the old man falling to his death from his dirigible after his failed attempt to cut the old hero in two with a sword was perfectly sanitary.”

Personally, I’m thankful that Pixar finally gave my children a vision of a family grappling with infertility. Our losses took place before the twins arrived, and while they know why we light a candle in the house on October 15th each year, I don’t think they understand that we’re not the only people who had trouble building our family. Unlike parental death in Finding Nemo or the idea that there are people out there who want to hurt you (in every Disney film), this was presented in such a way that families in the know will appreciate the ability to use it as a jumping board for discussion and those who have thankfully had no trouble with family building will miss this point entirely.

What was your take on Pixar’s Up?

Cross-posted with BlogHer


1 'Murgdan' { 06.14.09 at 4:39 pm }

I haven't seen this movie yet…I'll probably wait for the DVD. No worries about the spoiler, I'm just glad I was warned. I'd hate to be caught mid-movie with no tissues on hand.

2 Katie { 06.14.09 at 4:54 pm }

Thank you for your post. I didn't let myself think this through this deeply- I had more of a knee-jerk reaction when I heard the of the IF reference: I am NOT going to see that! But your thoughts helped me see the broader good of this movie, even if I can't emotionally handle it at this point in time.

3 peesticksandstones { 06.14.09 at 5:16 pm }

I cried my eyes out throughout the entire film (even during that cloud-baby short film beforehand). Thought it was just me, but even my "civilian" (non-IF) friends said they did the same.

It definitely shocked me to see the cartoon portrayal of miscarriage, but I was glad it was there. And the whole deal with the dad-less boy scout and the old man — resonated so deeply with me (in an indirect way) as an adopted kid myself somehow.

What I loved the most, though, was the lifelong love between the two — how they still were a happy family of two with such fantastic memories and shared dreams that never died. Sigh — I have never been so moved by a cartoon, but I don't think I could put myself through that embarassing cry-fest at the theater again 🙂

4 Delenn { 06.14.09 at 5:45 pm }

I saw Up the first weekend it was open, before the "warnings". And I found it touching and deeply moving, an affirmation on life and living. And I found it very sensitive to a topic that is part of life as much as anything else–what one calls "family".

Not only did I like the movie, but I later on took my husband to it (I had went with my 10 year old son). And my husband said it was one of the best Pixar movies he has ever seen (and we have seen them all).

On the other hand, if I was going through any treatments, etc. at the time I watched this movie–I think I would like to be informed.

5 Lorza { 06.14.09 at 6:42 pm }

I have not watched the movie, but this really helps form a better idea of it. I had seen a couple of posts that really slammed the flim for the infertility/loss focus. I think a lot of those reactions were from suprise.

I am going to go see it now….with tissues.

6 Kristin { 06.14.09 at 7:11 pm }

I am so eager to see this. Thanks for the review.

7 loribeth { 06.14.09 at 7:36 pm }

Wonderful post, Mel. I reviewed the movie on my blog (alert: spoilers contained!):


8 S { 06.14.09 at 7:49 pm }

Oh…I can't wait to see it! I'm proud that Pixar chose to depict real life. Hopefully it will make someone feel less alone as they deal with their own IF.

9 andhereweare { 06.14.09 at 8:28 pm }

Wonderful review, Mel. I completely missed that Carl stopped walking when he heard about the absent father — great point. And I agree, that a theme of infertility (or more broadly, life not going according to plans and desires) was prevalent throughout the story, not just in the beginning. Very non-Disneyish, I thought. I love this movie so much, and have cried on several occasions remembering it since we watched it. I can't wait to see it again.

I was also touched by the short cloud cartoon at the beginning. The moment when the beaten and bruised stork looks to another cloud and sees puppies playing with a different stork, he has the sweetest look on his face: he laughs, and smiles, and seems genuinely happy for what someone else has, despite his own painful lot in life. That spoke to me as well.

10 Mrs. Gamgee { 06.14.09 at 8:31 pm }

I am always impressed when hollywood gets something right. I haven't seen this movie yet (I'm planning to tho), but I recently watched 'Marley and Me'. The grief and sadness felt after a m/c were portrayed sensitively and beautifully. I bawled like a baby, but I was happy that they got it right.

Thanks for your post, Mel!

11 Carrie { 06.14.09 at 9:46 pm }

It is always good to know ahead. The majority of IF bloggers I've read seem to feel very touched and moved (as you did, Mel) by the care in which the subject was handled.

Like Mrs. Gamgee, I bawled during "Marley and Me" after having three miscarriages too. Something about it being on film is so heartening to me; it is much less closeted than it used to feel, I think.

Great review!

12 Clare { 06.15.09 at 4:22 am }

This sounds like a must-see film. I even cried just reading your analysis of the movie. Im glad pixar did tackle this issue and by your reckoning it sounds like they've done it with sensitivity and intelligence.

13 Callie { 06.15.09 at 6:21 am }

Somehow, I completely missed any advance warning about the subtle but powerful role infertility plays in this movie, so it was a bit of a slam to the gut when my husband and I saw it unfold on screen. I had tears streaming down my face and even my husband said he teared up – a rarity.

That being said, I think it was a realistic, kind, and insightful portrayal, and I am grateful for that. We walked out of that theater thinking differently about things, which to me is the mark of a great movie. Namely, we've gone back to the theme several times that adventure isn't something that dangles far out in front of you and has to be dramatic and big but is rather the moments you make together as a family. When you're in the midst of infertility and everything seems on hold for the elusive adventure of having children, appreciation for the now is an important reminder.

14 Barb { 06.15.09 at 6:40 am }

Very, very well written. I agree with you 100%. This movie was like some of the Disney movies of old.. not afraid to tackle actual life circumstances no matter how uncomfortable they may be and tackle them with grace and care. The most wonderful animated films have so many more levels than just a happy childrens' movie, and Pixar is not one to sit on their laurels.

By the way… two of my 30 something male friends who love robots and comics and high action cried in this movie. One of them actually SOBBED. So they definitely did their job well. I think they did a good job too with changing emotional references in the movie so that you could see there still IS joy, and humor and you didn't drag too much into the sadness, nor did they cheapen the seriousness of the situations.

The little boy and his Dad got me a lot too because I have some connection with that.

And can I say that I loooooooooooved that sweet little Asian boy? How exciting was it to see an Asian animated character in a film like that??? Sure, there was Mulan.. but that was in CHINA, so there was no choice. I was happy to see that, but to see him in a more "white people" world was really really exciting. Hub and I exclaimed how much the kid looked like one of his cousins when he was little and chubby. He even sounded some like him. Too cute.

15 Rachel { 06.15.09 at 7:13 am }

Sounds like I need to see this movie and show it to my children when they are older.

16 Chickenpig { 06.15.09 at 7:50 am }

I had no idea that Up had so much to do with IF. I had no plans to go and see it in the theater, although I was looking forward to seeing it on DVD. I will be able to appreciate the movie a little better now with the help of your insights. Tissues in hand 🙂

17 jill { 06.15.09 at 7:51 am }

I just saw it yesterday with my sister. We cried, we laughed, we were entertained, and we cried some more. It was just wonderful.

The very real fact that I may never have children remains just under the surface of my life 24/7. I loved this movie's message. The portrayal so sad, but it gave me hope in a new direction. I will be buying it and watching it again and again.

18 Eve { 06.15.09 at 8:15 am }

Definitely need to go see this movie! I appreciate that warnings…and will make sure I have plenty of Kleenex (something I was caught without when I went to see Juno a few years ago).

19 Kim { 06.15.09 at 9:28 am }

Excellent review. I took my neices, 7 & 4, before being warned about what a large part infertillity plays in to the plot. I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic being covered in a film with such a broad audience. I agree that children who are not familiar with infertility will most likely not quite pick up on it. My 7yo neice did, but I believe that is only because she is aware, on a basic level, of our fertitlity problems. She asked an appropriate question and we gave her an appropriate answer. That was that. I was grateful that such a gentle opportunity for us to talk about it was presented.

20 Rebekah { 06.15.09 at 10:52 am }

My husband saw "Up" opeining weekend and he thought it was a great film. After I told him I was going to see it with my friends he warned me about the IF issues. I'm glad he told me. Our IF stuff has been especially hard recently – I think I'm going to pass on seeing it with my friends this week…
Still, I am thrilled that Pixar is covering IF in such a touching way.

Someday when I'm feeling stronger I'll see it (at home).

21 Aisha { 06.15.09 at 12:06 pm }

I have not seen it but now I want to. Sigh. I got sad just reading the description. It's a reality that the mainstream doesn't talk about despite CDC stats staying in 2002 12% of American women suffered loss or infertility.

22 Sara { 06.15.09 at 12:39 pm }

My husband and I brought our five year old to see it, in part to get away from the fact that my period came, again, and that my father in law was in the hospital. After the montage, I was like, "Are there any OTHER nerves Pixar wants to tough on?" But that's the thing, there are real issues they are touching on — family building and aging, among others. I thought they did it well.

23 Tash { 06.15.09 at 1:16 pm }

A few weeks before we saw "Up," Bella asked me on the way to school, "How do people not have babies?" Which I took to mean, "Why do some people not have children?" So I started with choice (my aunt and uncle decided not to), and then I told her some people can't. And while there are some things today doctors can do to help, they can't help all the time.

I think in "Up" she was far more concerned by the absence of the boy's father (well, parents) than the absence of Carl's children. That and the fact that the cute dogs turned out to be bad guys. I cried through the whole movie; Bella through part of it, though she refused to leave the theatre. When I got home I asked if she thought it was too sad or too scary, and she said, "I thought it was just right."

24 KLTTX { 06.15.09 at 1:25 pm }

Thanks for this post. I LOVED this movie. There was so much that resonated with us personally. My husband and I saw it for our anniversary and a lot of people are shocked that we chose to see a cartoon for our anniversary, but I have not seen a more beautiful and moving love story in a very long time. The movie is fantasic!

25 Wombded { 06.15.09 at 4:14 pm }

Amazing. Good for Pixar. Makes you wonder who on the project lived through IF.

I'll definitely wait to watch it in the privacy of my home.

26 zorra { 06.15.09 at 7:34 pm }

Thanks for the warning. Not one of my friends (all with children) who have raved about this movie have mentioned this. i mean, i was tearing up just reading this post. I might wait a while to see this one.

27 Phoebe { 06.15.09 at 10:06 pm }

I'm glad you gave me a heads up on the IF theme in the movie, because you certainly don't get that in the trailer!

When I saw Juno, I had no idea what it was about. I just saw that it was nominated for all these Oscars, so it had to be good, right? I felt so trapped about 3 minutes into the movie. Maybe I'll wait till UP comes out on DVD so I can fall apart in the privacy of my own home if I want.

It was nice to read everyone's comments on how much meaning this animated movie has. I love animated movies, but have only found Miyazaki's (Japan's equivalent of Disney) movies "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away" to have any depth compared to the vanilla flavored Disney movies.

P.S. Can you at least separate that spoiler by one line? I was reading your post line by line, hoping I could avoid the spoiler and read the rest of it.

28 Cathy { 06.16.09 at 2:22 pm }

I just did a post on this movie as well. You're take is very interesting and you bring out some really great points that I didn't take time to appreciate.

I'll be very honest though – it spoke to me in an entirely different way. All of the sadness and sorrow they experienced was too overwhelming for me to appreciate the really great things they did together in life. My heart ached for them, then for myself and for all of the other couples I know who want so badly to hold their baby in their arms.

I had sooo hoped to fall madly in love with this film. Pixar is my favorite!

29 Lucy { 06.16.09 at 7:58 pm }

I think you do a great job of reviewing Up…and I *know* that I should be taking from it what you write about–I can agree with you there.

But from where I sit with my IF, I can't personally take away the same messages. I'm going to post a review as I try to reflect on some of these feelings, thanks to your post here.

30 nutmeg96 { 06.17.09 at 8:07 am }

I haven't seen it yet, either, but I'm looking forward to catching it on DVD. People who are upset about the IF undercurrent in the film should probably keep in mind that it's PG, which implies there might be a need for discussion, anyway.

I'm often surprised when I come across portrayals of miscarriage even in adult media. The Time Traveler's Wife and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are two books where it took me by surprise. But it is almost healing to see it laid out there, especially since it's a topic that so often people keep under wraps.

31 WannabeMommy { 06.17.09 at 5:02 pm }

I'm so glad you gave us the low-down. Otherwise, I could totally see me at the theatre with my nephew, completely unprepared, blubbering all over the place. Thank you!

32 adena { 06.19.09 at 11:25 am }

I really loved your description and assessment of this particular element of "Up." I saw it recently with my 10 year old son, and while I noted the mention of infertility (and the multiple levels of the movie, which I love about Pixar!), I didn't make the connection to Carl's "adoption" of the boy. Beautiful piece. Congrats!

33 Just Call Me Lissa { 06.22.09 at 11:25 pm }

I went to see it tonight with my sister and my niece and nephew. We (my husband and I) are at a place in our IF struggle that things could go either way: we may continue trying soon or we may just have to pack it away and move on with our lives. I thought Pixar did a wonderful job.

I hadn't done any research on the movie before seeing it tonight. I was COMPLETELY blind sided as a result. (Mostly I was looking forward to the talking dogs going "Squirrel!") So I bawled. Thankfully we were the only people in the theater.

34 Anonymous { 06.23.09 at 2:36 pm }

We went opening weekend, before there were any warnings about plot points. And I, too, felt like I'd been hit with a brick.

From the moment they showed the scene at the doctor's office, I cried. And I cried throughout most of the entire movie.

And so when people ask if I liked it, I don't lie … I tell them no. But I also tell them that 97% of people on Rotten Tomatoes love it, so it's obviously just me.

When no one else in your life has infertility issues, no one else understands why this kind of movie is just SO crushing.

35 A Mom in Jacksonville, FL { 06.24.09 at 2:04 pm }

I'm linking this wonderful post in a post I'm writing today. Thanks for your wonderful insight on this film.


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