On Ed Asner’s passing, a sincere tribute from a fan of Up, where the actor immortalised one of Pixar’s most-loved septuagenarians.
Pixar’s 2009 animation feature Up spoke of something mainstream production studios weren’t considering – old age. It brought front and centre a couple in their advanced stages of life. The story stood on the shoulders of Carl Fredricksen; a male widower played by Ed Asner. Asner, along with Jordan Nagai (who played a young boy named Russell) built a strong narrative on friendship, camaraderie, and mentorship.
Director Pete Doctor’s deft lens showcased the love and togetherhood charted through Fredricksen’s lifetime. With a legacy of animation giants like Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, WALL-E and Ratatouille, Doctor was determined to showcase a wholesome, fleshed-out and relatable character profile across his film’s cast.
In Up, Carl spends his life as a balloon salesman in his almost 80s, who lives in solitude post his wife Ellie’s passing. The film begins with a flashback when Carl and Ellie were button-nosed, puppy-dog-eyed kids, running about fields of green, exploring the wilderness. As carefree as their childhood was, the Pixar film dealt with (in equal detail) the couple’s lives as septuagenarians.
Asner played a major role in bringing out Carl’s embittered world-weariness with as much aplomb as a deeply emotional and co-dependent profile. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, Asner’s Carl, and Ellie (played by Elizabeth Doctor) sit across from each other, the former in a rusty red boxed sofa chair, while the latter in a high-pinnacled elegant one. The two don’t talk but just silently read their books. Moments later, Carl’s train of thought brings him back to reality, and he finds the chair opposite him empty and a worn album of old pictures on his lap. Asner’s brilliance as a voice actor shone in such intimate scenes where even his slightest puff echoed within the tiny house that Carl alone lived in.
But acute loneliness was not what Doctor wanted to aim for in the film. The film’s quick yet deliberate move towards Russell’s storyline was proof that Asner had to channelise a completely different energy. So, Carl became Mr Fredricksen, a slouchy, grumpy always-wincing grandfather figure. But Asner’s range got exhibited with Carl’s gradual softening towards the boy till he became the loving adviser that Russell needed and craved for.
That empathy would be an obvious comfort zone for Asner was no big surprise. Apart from being an actor, he was heavily involved in charity work and was hailed for his activist efforts. A two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild, Asner had exceedingly popular roles in his prolific career that allowed him to connect with millions globally. Famously talking about his most favourite of them all, Asner Today, "My primary source of mail deals with one-syllable titles: Up and Elf."
Asner’s indispensable contribution to Up’s Oscar win for Best Animated Feature was proven by the actor’s widespread appeal that got bolstered after the film’s success.
Asner’s acting career mainly revolved around brusque characters, a prototype he carried throughout his career from his days on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and consequently Lou Grant, a separate spinoff based entirely on Asner’s character.
One of the unique features about Asner’s role in Up was its inadvertent call-back value to something like a Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino or maybe a George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life.
This wide spectrum (from an Eastwood to a Stewart) was further evidence of Asner’s control over his craft. The actor even created a record of bagging seven Emmys throughout his lifetime but was always unassuming before the lens, (not so) quietly portraying roles of men of the world with hearts of gold.
As Asner passed away in his 91st year, it was only fitting to celebrate his work in Up, one that made him likeable and relevant even among pre-teens and adolescents.