Review: 'More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story' pulls no punches - or kicks - in profiling the late, trail-blazing actor
"Cobra Kai" is the hottest show in town, with its third season having just recently premiered on Netflix in early January (its first two seasons aired on the already-gone YouTube Red premium service). You can draw a line from its success right back to the late actor, Pat Morita, whose portrayal as Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" (and three sequel films) earned him an Oscar-nomination and is one of the most iconic film roles of all-time.
But as the title of this new doc plainly states, there is much more to the story of Pat Morita and "More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story" is required viewing for any fan of Miyagi or "The Karate Kid." So in other words, this is a movie for everyone, and perhaps surprisingly, it doesn't pull any punches - or kicks - in its portrayal of the pioneering persona.
PIn "More Than Miyagi," we get to know about the career of Pat Morita, but also about how his life itself was indeed miraculous. Born with a spinal deformity, he was unable to walk until age 11, where he was given an experimental surgery that gave him a new lease on life. He enjoyed his new freedom for all of two years, before World War II began and he and his family was sent to a "relocation center" in Arizona...known by its more recognizable description as a "concentration camp" for Asian-Americans.
So how Pat Morita even survived his early years is inspiring in and of itself. Then, against all odds, Morita went on to achieve success as a comedian and TV personality, becoming the first Asian-American male to be nominated for an Oscar for his role in the original "The Karate Kid" in 1984.
To make it, Morita had to battle against stereotypes and typecasting, but he did so by leaning into these tropes. He gained success in the early days of TV appearing on variety shows and being known as "The Hip Nip," a derogatory term that would be unthinkable today. Morita guest-starred in several shows across the TV landscape, finally landing his first major role as the restaurant-owner Arnold on "Happy Days."
Ironically, happy days for Pat Morita were few and far between when it came to his personal life. He was a severe alcoholic, and battled many demons all the way up to his death in 2005. Married three times, his last widow, Evelyn Guerrero, gives us some real insights into Pat's personality, and his struggles. Some of his close friends appear in the film, like Tommy Chong and comedian Larry Miller, while Henry Winkler, Marion Ross, Anson Williams and Don Most are on hand with some very revealing stories about Pat's "Happy Days" period. Of course, Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Cove also appear with stories about "The Karate Kid." Archived interviews with Pat Morita himself glue everything together.
Pat was just a fun guy - and a great person - by all accounts, and this really permeates through the film. But there are a few things about the film that struck me as odd, or unfinished. The glaring example deals with Pat Morita's death, which is sort of brushed over vaguely. Yes, he had liver trouble stemming from his alcoholism, but the film never directly makes the case that this is what caused Morita's demise. Horrifically, the film eludes to the possibility that Pat may have ended his own life. It doesn't so much say this outright as it does imply it. His wife simply describes Pat telling her that he was "going off to die" and a close family member is brought to tears when thinking about Pat's final days. Did Pat in fact kill himself? It's sadly unclear and unresolved according to this film.
Secondly, the timing of this documentary seems odd given the height of popularity that "Cobra Kai" is currently experiencing. The end credit tells us that all three of Pat's children declined being a part of the documentary, which is a red flag that perhaps something about it is fishy.
With these questions hanging over it all, "More Than Miyagi" is still a story of inspiration and tragedy, and unlike many other biographies, the viewer leaves this one really knowing its subject more intimately. Morita really was a TV pioneer, and really was more than just Mr. Miyagi.
It's just a real shame that the world didn't get more Pat Morita.
Featuring: Pat Morita, Evelyn Guerrero, Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, Tommy Chong, Henry Winkler, Sean Kanan, Larry Miller, Simon Rex, James Hong, Marion Ross.
Directed by Kevin Derek ("Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids," "The Real Miyagi").
"More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story" is available on VOD on Friday, February 5th, 2021.
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