Remembering Ed Asner’s greatest film role, “Up”



Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

Most actors spend their career in film making an impact with their voice, body, face, and movements on screen. For Ed Asner, the legendary Jewish actor known widely around the world by his memorable role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a powerful yet soothing voice opened the door to audiences of all ages inside a theater. The late actor, who passed away around loved ones early Sunday morning at the age of 91, changed the entire scope of his cinematic career with one role: Carl Fredericksen.

Asner’s role in Disney Pixar’s “Up,” released back in 2009, impacted moms, dads, kids, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and especially… grandparents. You won’t find a better opening 15 minutes in a Pixar film than you will in Pete Docter’s movie, which grossed $735 million at the box office and gets a second life this week with the new animated series, “Dug Tales.” A story about a grouchy yet tender-hearted widow and retired balloon salesman who intends to make good on a promise to his late wife to fly across the world to South America. But instead of using the standard travel options of plane or bus, Carl attaches thousands of balloons to his house so it just lifts out of the ground and becomes its own form of transportation.

But he doesn’t do this alone–even if it is against his own will or intentions. Along with the aforementioned dog, Dug, Carl finds unlikely friendship in a young kid named Russell, who comes to his house first as a junior wilderness explorer yet ends up tagging along on the journey to Paradise Falls. Over the course of the two-hour film, the dog and kid thaw out the sad, hardened facade of grief off of Carl, someone who lost his heart and part of his soul when his wife, Ellie.

Twelve years later, “Up” is what most people think of when Asner’s name comes up in film, because it’s his voice that carried the film. While Christopher Plummer’s scenery-chewing villainous role hit just right and John Ratzenberg’s construction foreman (in charge of bulldozing Carl’s house for a new set of modern homes) is short yet hilarious, Asner is the one who melts your heart here.

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He gave a voice to all the older widowers in the world whose only wish is to die before their partner, something that doesn’t always go as planned. A story that started with sweetness, and moved into the grim territory of real life before finding hope in the most unlikely of places. The beginning of the film showcases Carl and Ellie’s love story, chronicling their romance from a teenage love to old sweethearts. We don’t hear much of Asner’s voice in the early going, only seeing how his character becomes so bitter and sad.

But once Russell and Dug show up, Asner’s soulful injection of heart and unexpected aloof charm kicks in and the film just doesn’t stop pleasing. Whether it’s trying to care for the kid, who shares his own pain and sadness–or the fearless hound, Dug, who just wants to play catch and please his human friends. They get into adventures together, fighting forces of greed and evil together, and come out as friends. A elderly widow and a young kid finding something in common, all made special by the lead’s voice work.

How many actors can do that? Have one significant voice work role that carries them not only to the end but into the lives of parents, their kids, and other generations down the line. “Up” won’t expire anytime soon; its grace should be felt even more now after Asner’s passing. His voice was firm yet fair, stern yet hopeful, a rare blend of wise sage mixed with worldly contempt. All of that came out in his portrayal of Carl, whose warm heart grew into stone… until he met a kid named Russell.

I think we all seek out a version of Paradise Falls when our loved ones pass, something to cauterize the emotional wound. I also think we have a little bit of Carl weariness in our souls. What Pixar does so well is create relatable yet visually stunning scenarios of those particular feelings–with this one being powered by Asner.

“Up” won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, spawning a new series of shorts, “Dug Tales,” that premieres Wednesday and includes Asner’s voice work once again as Carl. A perfect chance for you to revisit his best cinematic role and get a fresh dose of stories at the same time.

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Take or leave Asner’s political views, which often drew him unnecessary flack, but also don’t forget about his wonderful supporting turn as Santa Claus in Jon Favreau’s “Elf.” How many actors can make a line like “Buddy, we need more Christmas spirit to make the sleigh fly” stick the landing so well? Asner did. He was the grandfather that kids loved to go see; young souls doing their best to crack the cold exterior of someone who has lived and lost.

Asner made you believe in the impossible, whether it was the television show producer named Lou who looked like the sky took a dump on his head six days a week. Or the sad widow who ties balloons to his house to remember his wife and escape a life without her in it. I’ll miss his unforced sense of humor and grace, as well as a voice that made everything seem hysterical and okay at the same time. The actor made them both relatable and endearing.

If you haven’t watched “Up,” please do–and invite everyone you know. They won’t leave unsatisfied, I promise. In one role, they’ll remember everything they loved about Ed Asner.