[If you are going to see the movie Up and are the type of person who is sensitive to being told of plot elements ahead of time don’t read any further. Go see the movie, then come back, read and let me know if you agree or not.]
The appeal of Up is its simplicity and universality. There is nothing innovative or new about Up. Its strength is its subtle and artful expression of the oft-told human condition.
Beginning with the familiar shot of a young Carl watching his hero, adventurer Charles Muntz, in a newsreel, 25-feet tall on a movie screen. The hero in classic hero form vows not to return until his innocence is proven. Charles is accused of faking the fossil of a new animal species. He dedicates his life to proving the existence of the species he stumbled upon. Capturing a living specimen becomes Charles’ life ambition. It is his “White Whale.”
The familiar story continues with the young shy Carl meeting and eventually marrying his childhood friend, the more extroverted Ellie, who is also a fan of adventurer Charles Muntz. She keeps a scrapbook of her adventures with plenty of empty pages for the adventures she is yet to have. After a miscarriage (which is handled impressively in a montage of dramatic “daily scenes” without dialogue) Carl promises Ellie one day they will visit exotic Paradise Falls, Muntz’s old stomping grounds. This promise eventually becomes Carl’s “White Whale.”
The Moby Dick analogy is made obvious as both Muntz and Carl take to the skies in “air ships.” Muntz in his an awe-inspiring “Spirit of Adventure,” which I felt was more Jules Verne adaptation than Miyazaki (as noted by Roger Ebert), and Carl in his awkward but endearing little ship – his house (which I suspect was inspired as an homage to his departed Ellie). When Carl and Ellie first met, Ellie was pretending that the very same house (which at the time was decrepit and abandoned) was Muntz’s Spirit of Adventure.
That said. We need an Ishmael. Enter Russell, an unwitting crew member on Carl’s ship. Russell is the youngest character in the cast. His presence singlehandedly balances that of the two older men. A Wilderness Scout with a clichéd desire to please and an innocence strong enough to withstand the cynicism of the two older men, Russell is the Ishmael who provides children (the audience this movie was marketed towards) with access to the story.
An additional appealing feature about Russell is that he is not a clichéd red-headed, freckled American boy but a dark-haired Asian American boy. Dressed in his Wilderness Scout uniform, he reminds me of old photos of interned Japanese American children in the 1940s and 50s, dressed in Boy Scout uniforms.
The comic relief that Russell provides as a bumbling all-too-eager-to-please child is artfully tempered with the subtle revelation that he is the product of divorced parents who no longer sees his father regularly. I was taken by the way this was revealed – Not in direct dialogue but through a well worded response to a simple question.
A friend asked if I were offended as an Asian American that the sole Asian character (and he only appears to be Asian. There is no direct mention of his ethnic heritage) is portrayed as a bumbler? The implications of Russell’s “Asianness” and his portrayal as a bumbler had not occurred to me before then.
Here’s my question: Is it better to have an Asian character playing an Asian role or a character who happens to be Asian playing a significant role?
Today’s audience is the post-Jackie Chan generation. He has created an international and historic niche for himself in film by playing the bumbler. Among the differences between this decade and the score past is the availability of images and information. If not here in the US, diverse portrayals of Asians are available online to help develop a more complete picture of being Asian.
I haven’t made up my mind regarding roles. However, it does not change my mind about the movie. Up is a really well choreographed film about getting old and questioning the degree of your life’s pursuits. It asks the question: At what cost? At what cost are you willing to pay to succeed? Or perhaps better phrased: At whose expense are you willing to take to succeed?