“Up’s” co-star, Jordan Nagai, plays a Wilderness Explorer who just happens to be Asian American.
LOS ANGELES – The Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring media depictions of Asian Americans, is praising Disney/Pixar for creating an Asian American boy as a co-star in their summer blockbuster film, “Up.” Nine-year-old Jordan Nagai, who is Japanese American, beat out 500 other auditioning children to star as Russell, a chubby Wilderness Explorer and wayward stowaway who tags along on septuagenarian Carl Fredricksen’s South American adventure. “Because Russell is just about the only young character in the entire movie, children will identify with him and see the film through his eyes,” Guy Aoki, founding president of MANAA, said. “The fact that he’s Asian American will help bring acceptance not only to Asian American boys, but overweight ones at that.”
The character’s design was inspired by the physical appearance of Pixar employee Peter Sohn, a Korean American director and story artist whose short film, “Partly Cloudy,” plays in theaters as the opening act for “Up.” “Children watching this movie will not see race in this story, but accept Russell as a fellow kid, which will make them more broad-minded than many of today’s adults in accepting people of color as heroes,” Aoki said. Noting that “Up” grossed $68.2 million over the weekend, making it Pixar’s third-highest opening film, Aoki says, “We hope the success of this project will lead studios to cast Asian Americans as the stars of live-action movies, because just as audiences can relate to Russell in “Up,” they’ll be able to relate to Asian American characters in live-action projects as well.” Veteran actor Aki Aleong praised Disney/Pixar for rebuking typecasting and creating a unique Asian American character and urged the Asian American community to support the movie. “Disney/Pixar could have drawn Russell as a white character, but instead, they demonstrated their commitment to diversity,” Aleong, a past MANAA President, said. “MANAA sincerely hopes that producers and film studios will follow Disney/Pixar’s lead and cast Asian Americans in non-traditional lead roles.”
With a career spanning half a decade, Aleong, 74, has witnessed first-hand the discriminatory practices Asian American actors have faced in Hollywood—and continue to face even today. Recently, MANAA condemned Sony Pictures for using mostly white actors to play real-life Asian Americans in the film “21” and Paramount Pictures for choosing white actors to portray Asian characters in next year’s “The Last Airbender.” “While other studios continue to deliberately cast whites to play Asian characters, Disney/Pixar has recognized that people of color can be heroes in feature films, too,” said Marissa Lee, spokesperson of racebending.com, a fan site protesting the casting of “The Last Airbender.” “Disney/Pixar did not define Russell’s character by overemphasizing or stereotyping his ethnicity,” Lee said. “He was courageous, determined, and kind to the people and animals he met on his adventure. While he is Asian American, what mattered most was the content of his character.”
In 1999, MANAA honored Disney for producing the Chinese-based story “Mulan” and again recognized the studio in 2006 for using a Hawaiian setting and creating an Asian Pacific American protagonist, Lilo, for “Lilo And Stitch.” Disney’s next animated feature film, “The Princess And The Frog,” also features a protagonist of color, Tiana, a New Orleans waitress-turned-princess, who is African American. “We are a country of change, and a colorblind America for all can only be realized when we portray the American scene honestly,” Aleong said. “Against the accustomed and unfounded fears of box office failure if a main character is non-white, ‘Up’ is a solid hit and now, history has been made.”