Up: Pixar's Latest Small Wonder

There's a brief scene in the back half of Pixar's Up in which 8-year-old Russell recalls how, years before, his estranged father used to take him out for ice cream. Butter Brickle was Dad's favorite flavor, Russell's was chocolate, and the pair would sit together, slurping their melting treats and counting passing red and blue cars. "That might sound boring," says Russell, pink-cheeked with embarrassment. "But I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most." (Story continued below...)

If anything sums Pixar's modus operandi, it's loving the boring stuff. Finding salvation rather than the Devil in the details is one of the main reasons for the studio's artistic (53 combined Oscar nominations and wins) and commercial (nearly $5 billion in worldwide box-office gross) successes. Up, the studio's 10th full-length film, clocks in at a zippy 86 minutes and, like the nine before it, will rise or fall on the strength of its smallest moments.

Still, for a film of small, finely observed scenes, the hype surrounding Up is supersized. It was the first animated film ever to open the Cannes Film Festival, and dangles from its own balloon fleet of big ambitions, a big budget and big expectations. Up also marks Pixar's first foray in the currently hot market of 3-D films, and has the added pressure of following Oscar-winning Wall-E, which pulled in more than half a billion dollars worldwide.

There's external pressure, too: The business press has tarred the film for featuring an unsexy, arthritic hero, one they branded a difficult sell in subsidiary markets like those for Happy Meal toys or games.

And Up has been charged with the daunting task of hauling Disney out of a slump by those same analysts. A banner year for box-office revenues (up 14 percent) has generally bypassed the studio, which reported a 97 percent tumble in film profit for the quarter ending March 28.

Is the answer Carl Frederickson, Up's old-timer hero and the Disney-family antithesis of the studio's current megaplex stable, the blow-dried Jonas Brothers and teen queen Miley Cyrus? Yes, in part because of the inspiration the film draws from The Wizard of Oz (obvious flying-house parallels) and, according to Pixar, 1941's Dumbo. Up's Technicolor purity and deliberately unrealistic animation is a throwback to those early Dumbo days, the studio says, when you could populate a simple adventure movie with caricatured heroes and have it be as powerful (and lucrative) as a realistic film. Joe Grant, the legendary Disney character designer who drew the classic elephant and to whom Up is dedicated, was a posthumous influence on Carl's character and environs: "We went to [Grant's] house, and there were even trails where someone had walked the path for 40 years," remembers Jonas Rivera, an Up producer who started at the studio as an intern in its Toy Story phase. "It was really inspiring to us, the patina and weight of age on that house."

Like Wall-E, Up is a crazy-quilt of minutiae, almost by necessity, as its plot is Pixar's simplest. It starts with Michael Giacchino's soaring, layered score, recalling equally a sweeping pas de deux, Xavier Cugat's '30s-in-Havana rhythms and the swashbuckling brass of vintage Disney adventure. And there are plot nods to those 1960s Disney films: As Russell attempts to hold hostage a jungle bird, he snares her with outstretched sweets à la The Swiss Family Robinson. There's even a visual reprisal of a few favorite Pixar characters, including a wink at Toy Story's Mr. Potato Head via a construction worker.

Remarkably, the expectations haven't changed Pixar's wonky, director-driven focus on the teeny-tiny. "[I'd] walk into the story room and hear a half-hour argument about how Carl might sit down in a chair, or where his phone would go," Rivera says. "What we're trying to do is not just argue about the details, but find ways to create a believable, implied history." Up's details have an incredible tactile quality, from the jiggle of golden retriever Dug's glossy coat to the sweet earnesty of Russell's sewn-on scout badges. An early sequence shows Carl aging not through conventional tropes like seasons changing, but through a montage of his neckties as his wife lovingly draws up their knots. The texture and style of his ties change to reflect the decades, and the tie fibers are so closely rendered that you can almost feel their nubby weave. "We sent our shading art director … to the Fashion Institute to research fabric samples of different eras for the ties, even for Carl's suits, like the houndstooth," says Rivera.

The guiding principle is the same across all Pixar films: "Wonder and interest doesn't have to come out of pizzazz and spectacle and huge idea. … I always knew that the power came from the small, and not from the big," Wall-E director Andrew Stanton said earlier this year. "[Making Wall-E] got me thinking about, and this may sound commercial, but how good Spielberg was at making moments of the littlest things." That minor details drive major plot points doesn't happen without meticulous curation, especially in the opening, silent montages of both Wall-E and Up. "It's not letting any stone be unturned," Stanton said about Wall-E. "It wasn't a random choice to just pick this. It's a conversation, like, 'Why are we picking this, why are we using this object, why are we in this set?' And frankly, I know these are questions I know you're supposed to ask yourself as a filmmaker with any film, but there's something interesting about doing a film where—and I never see it as silent—dialogue is no longer one of the ingredients that's giving you information. All I could do is give you intention and emotion." As Up continues to remind us, sometimes that's all you need.