Bravo for Pixar's 'Up'

The intersection of creativity and commerce is a dangerous place, littered with the twisted wreckage and severed limbs of failed studios and wounded artists.

It's also a place where Pixar lives a charmed and comfy life, creating movies that make billions, copping Oscars and winning over the toughest of crowds.

Case in point: Pixar's "Up" made a boffo opening night debut at the Cannes Film Festival, moving an audience of notoriously hard-to-please, Hollywood-hating cinephiles to stand and applaud.

It's easy to see why. Pixar will one day make a stinker, but I'm happy to report that "Up" is not it.

"Up," in fact, is another indication that Pixar has found a way to make its idiosyncrasies and breaks with commercial formula into a kind of brand, something audiences now expect and demand.

In last year's "WALL-E," for instance, animators famously opened the movie with 20 minutes of dialogue-free action on a post-apocalyptic earth.

"Up" is a much sunnier picture, but it has its own unusual prologue - a wonderful five-minute piece of mostly wordless animation that introduces us to a man named Carl and compresses the story of his long life. He meets his childhood sweetheart, marries her, loves her through miscarriages and a childless marriage, then loses her to old age, her dream of adventure still unfulfilled, or so Carl believes. (If you take your kids, make sure you hide your face here, so they can't see what a sap you are).

So, "Up" begins as a melancholy interlude that touches on some of the harsher realities of life, then makes an abrupt turn to the comical and fantastical - it literally floats away on a balloon.

Ornery, lonely old Carl attaches a thousand balloons to his condemned house and lifts off, along with a chubby little stowaway named Russell (Jordan Nagai).

Russell is a busybody boy scout looking for his assist-the-elderly merit badge, and if he wants it, he's going to have to help Carl achieve his mad dream of drifting away on the winds to a South American jungle.

The landscape is exotic, but the narrative turns cozy and familiar - fairly standard buddy-movie fare, with Carl's icy heart gradually, grudgingly, melted by the bubbly boy.

"Up" is unusually jokey for a Pixar movie - Carl and the boy befriend a rare bird that's hunted by a lost explorer (Christopher Plummer) and his pack of dogs, and the Pixar crew find a thousand ways to make this ongoing chase narrative funny.

Somehow, they get the audience to buy into the idea that attack dogs have voice boxes that turn their barking into human language, then create a malfunction that saddles the fiercest dog with a Smurf voice.

When the laughter dies down, "Up" returns to the growing bond between the grumpy old man and the irrepressible Russell. Yes, it's schematic - Carl ends up with the son he never had, and Russell gets the father-figure he's always lacked.

But it's handled with Pixar's impeccable tact and knack for finding just the right visual touch. In this case it's a homemade badge that condenses Carl, his wife, the boy and the idea of living as adventure into something as simple as a bottle cap.

As they say in Europe: Bravo.


Up

Directed by Pete Docter. With Ed Asner, John Ratzenberger, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Delroy Lindo. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 36 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some peril and action).