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'Up' has movie director feeling on top of the world

In earlier films, the Pixar folks have made audiences care about action figures (the "Toy Story" movies), insects ("A Bug's Life"), nightmare-inducing creatures ("Monsters, Inc."), fish ("Finding Nemo"), a family of superheroes ("The Incredibles"), automobiles ("Cars"), a gourmand rodent ("Ratatouille") and robots ("WALL-E").

Pixar's latest could be its riskiest venture to date.

The state-of-the-art, digital animation house and current Disney production partner is returning this week with "Up."

It's a comedy-adventure about a septuagenarian, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), who finally takes the vacation he's been planning all of his life — in his home, which has been buoyed by thousands of balloons.

As the film's director, Pete Docter, says, "The film is based on real life."

No, really.

He and co-director/screenwriter Bob Peterson read reports about people who tried to fly chairs and other objects that had been tied to helium balloons.

"Some things you just can't make up, and those things make the best stories," Docter said.

Docter was in Salt Lake City recently to discuss the new movie. He says that he and his fellow filmmakers realized that "we really had our work cut out for us.

"Once we decided we were going to have an old man as our main character, we kind of boxed ourselves in," he said. "The idea behind each of our movies is to make something to appeal to everyone, not just one specific audience."

And besides, it's become a Pixar tradition for each subsequent production to best the one before it, Docter said.

What makes that difficult is all of the established studio benchmarks.

Four of Pixar's films — "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille" and "WALL-E" — have won Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature.

And "Finding Nemo" is still the box-office champ for the studio, having grossed $864 million worldwide in ticket sales.

"That's the big one all of us are trying to knock off," Docter said, in regards to the box-office take of "Nemo."

Another surprising thing about "Up" is that it starts so dramatically, with an opening 10-minute sequence about bereavement. Docter defies any audience member to "get through that dry-eyed."

Still, "Up" isn't too heavy, and there's a balance between humor and drama. He says the idea was to create characters who serve the story, not "ones who will sell toys."

("Besides," he said, "if we do our job right, you'll want us to make toys of our characters.")

There are a few new "bells and whistles" as well. "Up" is the first Pixar film to be shown in the Disney Digital 3-D format. (Though some theaters will show it in the traditional 2-D format as well.)

It also features the most lush, painterly backgrounds of any of the Pixar films.

"We were trying to take advantage of the 3-D format, and I hope people really notice all the work we put into the surroundings," Docter said.

Of course, he adds, "I'll just be happy if we get people laughing and crying in all the right places."

The 40-year-old animator/filmmaker, who also directed "Monsters, Inc.," says he enjoys working with voice performers.

"Up" allowed him to use old pros Asner and Christopher Plummer, as well as co-director Peterson, who provided the voice for the film's scene-stealing canine character, Dug.

"People are going to love that character. I just hope it doesn't go to Bob's head," he said, chuckling.

During his 15-year-plus tenure at Pixar, Docter has been involved in several other of its hit productions. "I've pretty much had my fingers in all of the best pies there," he said.

Docter also directed the English-language "translation" of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's fantasy "Howl's Moving Castle," which Disney-Pixar released in 2004 in the United States.

"That was every bit as fun and as terrifying as it sounds," Docter said.

"On one hand, you're getting to work with one of the real visionaries working in animation today. Yet that also means you have to make sure what you've done stays true to the spirit of Miyazaki."

Having completed "Up," Docter is not sure what his next project will be. He is involved in 3D conversion of the original "Toy Story" movies.

He is envious that a Pixar pal, "WALL-E" maker Andrew Stanton, is working on a live-action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars."

"That's another nice thing about working for Pixar, among the many," Docter said. "It gives you the opportunity to do things you've been wanting to do your entire life."

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com