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. Even more surprising was that it was a character in a film I had already seen: Russell, the child Wilderness Explorer in Disney/Pixar’s newest film Up.
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 (Russell is voiced by Jordan Nagai, pictured right). 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.
One of the few places where it’s essentially been confirmed is in an interview that Scifiwire did with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera. When asked who they based the character of Russell off of, Docter responded:
Yeah. … [Pixar animator] Pete Sohn. He’s just such an entertaining guy that we thought, “OK, when you’re looking to create memorable characters, … if you can climb a couple stairs on your way up by basing it on someone that you know or whatever, that’s a great head start.” And he’s definitely a character.
Compare this to Disney’s upcoming film, The Princess and the Frog. Many film sites and publications (such as the Washington Post) made hay of the fact that that Tiana would be Disney’s first African-American princess. In one of Disney’s first press releases for the film (back when it was called The Frog Princess), they specifically identified her as such:
The Frog Princess will introduce the newest Disney princess, Maddy, a young African- American girl living amid the charming elegance and grandeur of the fabled French Quarter.
So what does all of this mean? Russell, who is voiced wonderfully by Nagai, is certainly a huge part of Up’s storyline. In fact, during a year when Disney/Pixar’s main summer release is a film about an geriatric man trying to float a house around the world, Russell, whose innocent and energetic demeanor helps drive the film, is probably going to be one of the main draws for kids (and I’m sure Pixar is hoping they will turn out in droves for the film). Why have Disney/Pixar chosen not to highlight the idea that he’s Asian-American?
If you choose to look at it cynically, you could say that Pixar purposefully wants to make Russell’s ethnicity ambiguous, so as to make him more relatable to more of the American target audience for Up. I thought about this possibility, but it seemed a bit incongruous given Pixar’s past track record of films with progressive themes. 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.
Discuss: What do you guys think? Did you know that Russell was an Asian-American character? More importantly, does the way Pixar is marketing his character have any implications for minority characters in film?
Disney/Pixar’s Up opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow, May 29th. David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com.