up, up and away

The 100 or so Pixar Animation Studios employees had good reason to be giddy, and you could understand why they were more than a little nervous too. For more than four years, the animators, sound designers, editors and artists from every other Pixar department had plugged away on "Up" and on an early morning in April, they were finally about to see how their animated movie had turned out.

The movie itself -- Pixar's 10th animated film -- is narratively ambitious, a story about a 78-year-old widower's highly unusual road trip with a chubby young boy that, throughout its making, teetered on becoming sentimental and episodic. Although the movie is filled with comic bits, "Up" also features scenes of complex human emotion -- including the grief of a miscarriage -- that are rarely explored in family films. Parent studio Disney really needed the film to work commercially too: In earnings released last week, Disney's profit fell 46%, largely because of underperforming movies such as "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience."

To add one more level of pressure to the Pixar team, just a few days before that April screening at George Lucas' bucolic Skywalker Ranch, the Cannes Film Festival had selected "Up" to launch this week's prestigious festival, a first for an animated film.

If producer Jonas Rivera and writer-director Pete Docter, two of Pixar's earliest employees, were sweating bullets when they introduced "Up" to their Pixar colleagues, they didn't show it. "This is the first time that we've got everything together," Rivera said. Added Docter just before the house lights dimmed: "Thank you guys for making the movie."

Despite all the end-of-the-journey gratitude, "Up," which premieres in Cannes on Wednesday and arrives in theaters May 29, wasn't quite finished.

As soon as the screening ended, Docter, Rivera, composer Michael Giacchino, executive producer John Lasseter and a dozen members of Pixar's brain trust met over lunch in a Skywalker conference room to discuss what they had just seen. By the time the team finished dessert, they had decided "Up" needed a new piece of music, and the choice they made with Giacchino revealed much about the film's creative ambitions.

As "Up's" poster and trailer make clear, the film's central image is a house, tethered to thousands of balloons, soaring into the sky. When septuagenarian Carl Fredricksen's (Ed Asner) residence took flight at the Skywalker screening, Giacchino's score was big and dramatic, the kind of music that typically accompanies an action sequence.

"What we had I think works," said Docter. "But I didn't feel like we were quite capturing it." Specifically, the music wasn't magical, poetic. The house's taking off needed to play more like a mystical metaphor -- Fredricksen's trying somehow to join his late wife, Ellie, in the heavens -- and less like a prison break.

"There's something about the lyricism of the floating house that appealed to me from Day One," said Docter, a tall man whose 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, provided young Ellie's voice. With a new piece of music, the scene played closer to how he always imagined it should. "Now, it's almost like he's waltzing with Ellie as the house takes off."

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Getting personal

"Up" represents several Pixar firsts. In addition to the studio's first trip to Cannes, "Up" also marks a new move into producing and releasing a film in 3-D. It's a format that has worked well for competitor DreamWorks Animation's "Monsters vs. Aliens," and Pixar is now remaking its first two "Toy Story" films (in addition to next year's "Toy Story 3") in the immersive technology.

The film's more material departures are harder to detect. It's the first Pixar feature to have as its central character a senior citizen, and because Fredricksen is based on friends and relatives of the filmmakers, "Up" might well be considered the studio's most personal film. "I think so too," said Bob Peterson, "Up's" co-director and co-writer, who also lends his voice to one of the film's dogs. "It's an hommage to our grandparents, and that makes it personal."

Before "Up" became a movie, it was just a single image: a grouchy old man with balloons. The 40-year-old Docter, who has a writing credit on last year's Oscar-winning "Wall-E" but hasn't directed a movie since 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," then added another element: What if those balloons raised the man's house into the skies?

As visually striking as the image might be, it wasn't clear how it and the senior citizen inside the floating house fit into a larger story, which explains why "Up" took so long to make it to the screen.

"In the very first draft . . . he just wanted to join his wife up in the sky," Docter said. "It was almost a kind of strange suicide mission or something. And obviously that's [a problem]. Once he gets airborne, then what? So we had to have some goal for him to achieve that he had not yet gotten."

Added Peterson: "Originally, he was not going anywhere. He was just going into the sky, because he had always associated his wife with birds."

That didn't sound like a Pixar movie -- it sounded like a film out of the surrealism movement. So Docter, Peter- son and Rivera tried to figure out what they were really trying to communicate in their movie. "We hadn't flushed it out. We didn't really know what was going to happen or who he was going to meet," Rivera said. "But what we knew was why he was doing it -- the desire to get away."

As the story took shape, it became clear that Fredricksen felt not only a little angry but also unfulfilled. He had enjoyed a long romance with his wife, but they hadn't been able to have kids (touched on in an emotional, dialogue-free, four-minute montage of their lives), and their dreams of traveling to the distant land of Paradise Falls had died when she did. But those were episodes, not narrative. "Up" needed something more.

So now real estate developers are encroaching on Fredricksen's last remaining patch of comfort, his home, and a pesky 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai) was knocking on his door, trying to collect a help-a-senior-citizen merit badge.

Taking flight, in other words, wouldn't be such a bad idea. But even if he (along with Russell, who happened to be on Fredricksen's porch at liftoff) was finally able to get to Paradise Falls, was that it? What would they find there?

When Russell and Fredricksen land in Paradise Falls, they encounter Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a once-famous explorer Fredricksen and his wife had idolized. The exotic land is populated with strange birds and talking dogs, but the real surprise is Muntz, who has gone the way of Col. Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" and becomes "Up's" villain.

"A guy ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats away to South America to go to Paradise Falls," Rivera said. "That's what happens, those are the plot points," Rivera said. "But that's not what it's about. What is it about? It's about adventure, it's about life."

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Elderly influences

To solve that question -- What are the most important things in life? -- the "Up" filmmaking team turned to their oldest acquaintances and relatives, mining their memories for stories. The influences included the legendary Disney animator Joe Grant (who died in 2005) and Disney costume designer Alice Davis.

What the filmmakers decided was that the most meaningful trips didn't have to be in a balloon-propelled dwelling. They could be picnics in the park, watching clouds drift by, visits to an ice cream store.

"He's always thought of adventure as travel and exotic places and animals no one has ever seen," Docter said of Fredricksen. "And in the end he comes around to realize that the real adventures in life are the small things that we do with our family and friends."

"Up," for all of its novelty, was returning to some of the same simple, universal ideas that anchor all Pixar movies. Strip away the elaborate (if sometimes unconventional) narrative devices, and you begin to see relatable truths that give the movies heart. Wall-E just wants to hold hands. "Ratatouille" is about becoming the person you were born to be. The importance of family? Watch "Finding Nemo."

What "Up" was trying to say, in other words, was not so different from what has happened to Pixar itself: that growing older can be a beautiful thing.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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