‘Up”s lovable sidekick protagonist gets some ink

Posted by · 9:53 am · May 28th, 2009

Jordan NagaiOne of the things I briefly noted (and wish I had expanded upon) in my review of Pixar’s “Up” (releasing tomorrow) was how “pitch-perfect” child actor Jordan Nagai is as the voice of Russell, a Wilderness Explorer sidekick of sorts to Ed Asner’s disgruntled Carl Fredricksen.  Thankfully the young chap is getting a bit of press in the film’s run-up to domestic release tomorrow, like this Susan King LA Times piece featuring Nagai and “Up” director Pete Docter in tandem.

On the development of the character, as well as the casting process:

Nagai was chosen from about 500 kids who auditioned to play Russell, a typically rambunctious 8-year-old who befriends a crotchety, elderly widower named Carl (Ed Asner).

Initially, said Docter, Russell was to be more hyper. In fact, the initial concept was based on the effusive personality of animator Peter Sohn, who was the voice of Emile in “Ratatouille” and is the director of the short “Partly Cloudy,” which will be shown before “Up.”

“But Jordan [was] a little more calm and relaxed about things,” said Docter, who also directed Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” “We started to change the character, and that made him more unique and special.”

/Film’s David Chen, meanwhile, has put together a thoughtful post dissecting the fact that Disney/Pixar hasn’t made mention of Russell’s Asian-American ethnicity via advertising or, for the most part, press interviews.  As Chen notes, this flies in the face of the Disney’s hyping of the character Tiana in the upcoming “The Princess and the Frog,” who will be the studio’s first African-American princess…

Here’s a taste:

As an Asian-American, I have occasionally lamented the status (or lack thereof) of Asian-Americans in American cinema. Often, Asian-Americans actors are relegated to secondary characters, or worse, see roles ostensibly intended for them being whitewashed when they hit the big screen. That’s why I was surprised to learn that this summer, Disney/Pixar is releasing a film with an Asian-American as one of its lead characters.

This is certainly not the first time that an ethnic minority has played a lead character in a Disney/Pixar film before (See: Mulan, Pocahontas). However, it’s interesting to me that there’s been virtually no mention of Russell’s ethnicity anywhere in Pixar’s publicity materials. While Russell’s appearance in the film indicates that he might be Asian, no references are made that would indicate either way, although a brief shot of one of his relatives seems to corroborate the idea. The character also has no last name, which is unhelpful.

Chen notes a Sciwire interview wherein Docter admits Sohn’s inspiration, as he did in the Susan King piece above, as one of the few places where the character’s ethnicity has been essentially confirmed.  Chen plays with some cynical viewpoints on the reasoning behind all this tip-toeing around the subject before offering this in closing:

After some consideration, I’ve decided to take a more charitable, and maybe more hopeful viewpoint: When an Asian-American can play the lead character in a major summer tentpole release without any notice or fanfare, that’s progress.

→ 9 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

9 responses so far

  • 1 5-28-2009 at 11:08 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I had no idea that character was supposed to be Asian.

  • 2 5-28-2009 at 11:14 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Is that a joke? Asked in all honesty, because there are a few who have said the same thing. It was a bit obvious to me, though.

  • 3 5-28-2009 at 11:22 am

    red_wine said...

    He is fat so even I thought at first, that he might be American(some people were even claiming that Pixar is purposefully trying to pick on fat people 2 movies in a row). But yes now its been confirmed he’s Asian American, of Korean descent.

  • 4 5-28-2009 at 11:25 am

    Silly said...

    “The character also has no last name.”

    If he is Korean, we can narrow it down to 3: Park, Son, and Cho.

  • 5 5-28-2009 at 11:37 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    No joke

  • 6 5-28-2009 at 1:15 pm

    the world said...

    re: silly – are those all the korean baseball players you know?

    i thought it was really obvious too that he character was of asian descent. like the article mentioned, it’s no big deal anymore in hollywood.

  • 7 5-28-2009 at 4:25 pm

    Melissa said...

    No, because like he’s said there have been Asian characters before with Disney so no deal.

  • 8 5-28-2009 at 7:50 pm

    Mikheal said...

    He is NOT Korean. Russell doesn’t have a last name because he is supposed to be generically Asian-American. However, if you read Mr. Tapley’s article you would know the actor who voiced Russell is of Japanese decent.

  • 9 5-28-2009 at 11:38 pm

    JAB said...

    just saw a midnight showing here on the east coast, this movie was absolutely fantastic!