By Christopher Campbell
Last month, a New York Times article focused on the Wall Street worries over Pixar’s Up. The film lacks commercial appeal, apparently, because it features a 78-year-old protagonist. This is no country for old men (on the big screen), claim the experts. “We doubt younger boys will be that excited by the main character,” says one analyst quoted in the piece.
Even if kids were that anti-elderly (and we don’t believe they are), we can point to many other accessible elements of the film, from talking dogs to a young co-protagonist who serves as an identifiable gateway for adolescent viewers, that allow the target demographic to enjoy the animated film in spite of the cantankerous codger at its center.
Chances are, though, the little ones will also enjoy the character of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), maybe enough for them to seek out their own elderly person to assist (whether or not its for a merit badge). We’re hoping that it additionally leads to a greater cinematic appreciation of old men. But not just because, as Alonso Duralde writes at MSNBC, we have a shortage of realistic films about old folks. Rather, primarily because we think there’s a number of other old man protagonists that young audiences would like. Meet ten of them after the jump.
Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) in Wild Strawberries (1957)
The MSNBC article labels this Ingmar Bergman work “perhaps the greatest film ever made about aging,” and we must agree. Between Isak’s dream sequences and flashbacks and his present journey, in which he collects passengers representative of steps in his life, there’s not much missing in terms of ways to portray an old man’s reflection of the good and bad of his existence. But as much as that sounds boring and depressing, it’s actually one of the more upbeat and accessible Bergman films, because as much as it deals with the inevitability of death it also presents old age ultimately as a positive step in life from which we may always look back on cherished moments from the past.
Baron Munchausen (John Neville) in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)
In Terry Gilliam’s take on the historical and legendary figure, the Baron is an old man who entertains a crowd with his famous brand of tall tales. In addition to being a great storyteller, as many old men are stereotyped to be, he’s apparently still a great adventurer and hero, if we’re to believe his stories are even somewhat based in truth. Like Fredricksen, the Baron has a young sidekick (Sarah Polley) who functions as an access point for young audiences. Also, it’s certainly no coincidence that the protagonist of Up nearly shares a name with the Baron, whose full moniker is Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Munchausen.
Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) in Umberto D. (1952)
The access point for this Vittorio De Sica classic is Umberto’s dog, Flike. While many young viewers will be bored with the first half of the old man’s sad story, and any child will be upset by Umberto’s attempts to abandon and even kill Flike, many scenes between the character and his best friend, particularly the finale, are akin to something found in a kids movie about a boy and his dog. It’s just that here there’s a poor elderly man instead of a boy.
Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ioan Fiscuteanu) in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
In some ways this Romanian film is even slower and sadder than Umberto D. And the ways in which its funnier aren’t likely to be noticed by very young viewers. But there’s definitely a charm to the dying old man that could resonate with older kids, at least enough to make them want to revisit the film when they’re older and will understand it better. Maybe we’re odd for enjoying absurd stories when we were young, but we would have loved Lazarescu if we’d seen it as a kid.
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) in The Straight Story (1999)
This is a film that young people must see, the earlier the better. Not much happens in it, just an old man driving a lawnmower cross country, but Alvin does impart a lot of wisdom that’s necessary for kids to hear (plus, a lot of it is old hat to most of us older viewers), particularly the stuff about getting along with your siblings. It’s pretty slow and has no gateway character for young viewers, but it is Rated G and has a wholesome pro-family message. Yeah, it’s not very similar to most David Lynch films.
Harry Coombes (Art Carney) in Harry and Tonto (1974)
Another old man on a cross-country trip, Harry has a friend along for the ride, his cat Tonto, which may appeal to kids in the same way Flike makes Umberto D. accessible. And if that doesn’t do it, there’s also a young hitchhiker to function as a gateway to this spirited old man. Like Up’s Carl Fredricksen, Harry is forced out of his longtime neighborhood by developers and heads out on a journey, although Harry’s is a little less focused and a whole lot less exotic.
Art Selwyn, Ben Luckett and Joe Finley (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley and Hume Cronyn) in Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon: The Return (1988)
The great thing about Cocoon is that it woos the kids with sci-fi and turns them into fans of elderly actors like Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn, which hopefully then (as it did for us) becomes a gateway for classic films like Heaven Can Wait and Lifeboat. Even for young viewers, the aliens of the film are hardly as memorable as these three characters, whose newfound vigor makes them far more entertaining than most elderly characters. The only problem may be how misleading it can be for kids. While modern drugs can allow elderly folks to have sex and otherwise appear like they’ve been swimming in a pool full of extraterrestrial eggs, no old man is dazzling his grandchildren with breakdancing skills.
John Bernard Books (John Wayne) in The Shootist (1976)
Cocoon director Ron Howard, though in his early 30s 20s here, somewhat serves as the young viewer’s access point for John Wayne’s last film (he is playing a teen, just as he was simultaneously on Happy Days). The western icon plays a dying cowboy about to take part in a final gunfight, giving him a double-edged showdown with death. As usual, though, Wayne is a likable antihero, far cooler than most old men. And like Cocoon, this could open the kids up to other great films of the past (whether starring Wayne, costar James Stewart, or both).