Why Up isn't what you think it is

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

With elements of old-time classic films like It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, it seems as though Pixar's 3-D animated film Up was the perfect choice to be the first-ever animated movie to kick off the Festival de Cannes in its Grand Theatre Lumiere last week.

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) has been on a real whirlwind adventure with his feel-good film, which began with a field trip to South America for research, kicked off with Cannes in the South of France last Wednesday and culminated in Hollywood on Saturday with the movie's world premiere at the historic El Capitan Theater.

"Up is about a 78-year-old retired balloon salesman who ties his entire surplus stock of balloons to the roof of his house and floats off to this fantastic adventure in South America," Docter told SCI FI Wire. That character, Carl, is voiced by Ed Asner, a Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning actor of great distinction. Carl's counterpart is 8-year-old nature enthusiast and stowaway Russell, voiced by enthusiastic newcomer Jordan Nagai.

While it's not unusual for animators to do copious research on their subjects, it is somewhat out of the ordinary for a director to go to such lengths. "We went to South America," Docter said in an exclusive interview at Saturday's premiere. "There was a group of 10 of us, and we didn't get to fly a house down—we took an airplane. But it took us about three days to get the jungle, because we hiked out to the middle of nowhere to see this amazing chain of table-top mountains. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen. I didn't even know they existed. They look like a table. They just put up about a mile high from the jungle, and they are flat, nearly flat, on top. At least they are from a distance—when you get up there, it's pretty bumpy, but it's the most alien, weird landscape I have ever seen. They're really cool, and we tried to capture that for this film. The topology up there, the rock shapes, the plants and the animals, which are found nowhere else in the world, [are great]."

In addition to getting Carl and Russell's destination down pat, the filmmakers also made doubly sure they knew about dogs. Pixar has used canines in its films before, but the dogs in Up are a little different. "They are domesticated, pet dogs, but we had guys come in and talk to us about dog behavior, how they interact with each other, their physiology, anatomy and all that," Docter said.

That's not all. The movie's main mutt, Dug (voiced by Up's co-director and writer, Bob Peterson), can talk, thanks to a kid-friendly, high-tech device (a nod to The Island of Dr. Moreau). "The dogs talk because they have these technological collars which allow the thoughts of the dogs to be translated into words," Docter said. "So as opposed to the dog being able to speak like I am, and with moving their lips, they just look like regular dogs [panting, looking around], but what you hear coming out of their speakers is [a] voice, which allows us to really stay focused on 'What do dogs really care about? What do they think about?' Mostly it is food, of course, and sniffing at squirrels and things like that."

There is also a great big flightless bird named Kevin. "Kevin is a made-up creature, but again: We did a ton of research," Docter said. "We had an ostrich come to work, which is pretty cool. And also this amazing ... pheasant, which is found up in, I think, the highlands of China. It's really beautifully iridescent. So we have the iridescence of that bird in our movie, which presented some tricky technical challenges."

As far as the movie's 3-D aspects, think Monsters vs. Aliens sensibility rather than My Bloody Valentine 3-D. "The 3-D aspect of the film is a little tricky, because when I watch 3-D movies and things come out of the screen, I am suddenly aware that I'm watching 3-D," Docter explains. "So we tried to be a little more subtle with it on this one. We tried to use it for emotional reasons and to really let you get lost in the characters and immersed in this world. We have this fantastic jungle that we go down into, and so the 3-D just adds all this depth and perspective to things."

Up, already well reviewed for its Cannes debut, opens in theaters nationwide May 29.