Thanks to Pixar, a Cannes Launch Most Uplifting

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

CANNES, France, May 13 -- For a moment there, it looked as though the house might take flight. On a windy wharf on the beach opposite the swank Carlton hotel here, a playhouse-size pastel domicile, complete with weather vane, was being tugged almost, but not quite, aloft by a huge balloon covered in hundreds of smaller, multicolored ones.

There it sat, waiting for its close-up -- the photo-op for "Up," the Disney/Pixar animated feature that broke all kinds of records when it opened the 62nd Cannes Film Festival here Wednesday night. The PG-rated film, featuring the voice of Ed Asner as a crotchety old man named Carl who sets out to sail his house to South America, is the first animated movie to open the festival, as well as the first 3-D movie and the first Disney movie. "The thing I'm looking forward to the most is seeing that great image of all these people tonight in their tuxedos and gowns with 3-D glasses," said Pixar Chief Creative Officer and "Up" executive producer John Lasseter at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Indeed, there is something refreshingly wholesome about a bunch of balloons being the focus of the paparazzi swarming the beach at an event -- the classic Cannes photo stunt -- made famous by the equally buoyant gifts of Brigitte Bardot and Pia Zadora. (The biggest "Up" star on the Croisette, the city's glittery main drag, is the graceful, still-suave Charles Aznavour, who voices Asner's character in the French version.)

"Up" possesses all the aesthetic and philosophical values that audiences have come to expect from Pixar: rich, intricately detailed visuals, un-snarky humor and a genuinely affecting story. At a press screening at the stifling, crowded Auditorium Debussy earlier Wedneday, even hardhearted journos could be heard sniffling during "Up's" more wistful moments. They could also be heard gasping with delight. ("Walt Disney always said, 'For every laugh there should be a tear,' " Lasseter noted.)

The quiet, un-starry nature of "Up" might make it the perfect fit for this year's edition of the festival. The film's mix of technical ambition and tonal modesty seems right at a time when economic woes have forced the professional showmen who come here to promote and pick up films to rein in the excess of their ballyhoo. The storied Vanity Fair party has been canceled, studios have sent fewer staffers (or none at all) and some of those yachts bobbing prettily in Cannes' charming harbor are also bobbing emptily. "It does feel a little quieter to me," said Disney publicist Dave Wong. "The lobby of the Carlton is usually packed, and you can't even walk down the Croisette. But, it may pick up."

And, as the first animated festival opener, "Up" harmonizes nicely with a program that is particularly eclectic and pluralistic. At the news conference, one German television reporter even tried to suggest that the film, which features an elderly man and a young boy doing battle with a villain and a pack of highly trained canines, was a metaphor for "a new America coming out, replacing the old one, which goes about aggressively, violently unleashing the dogs of war." To which "Up's" gangly string bean of a director, Pete Docter, cheerfully replied, "We started the film five years ago, but if you see that in the movie, help yourself!"

Political metaphors aside, it does seem significant that only two American films were selected for the coveted competition: Quentin Tarantino's World War II action adventure "Inglourious Basterds" and Ang Lee's period comedy "Taking Woodstock." (Although the American film "Up" is opening the festival, it is not in competition.)

The rest of the films, both in and out of competition, reach across a wide scope of countries, styles and genres. Some of the most highly anticipated screenings are for Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces," Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" and Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (which features Heath Ledger in his final role).

Interest is also high for films by directors who may not be household names, but who boast devoted followings, including Michael Haneke ("The White Ribbon"), Bahman Ghobadi ("No One Knows About Persian Cats") and Andrea Arnold ("Fish Tank"). For even more generic obscurity, the festival is also screening Sam Raimi's horror flick "Drag Me to Hell," which opens May 29.

Cannes isn't only a festival, it's also a film market, and there are distributors here with their wallets open, if not bursting. But with finances straitened amid a worldwide economic crisis, there will likely be no feeding frenzy, just as there might be fewer photogenic opportunists promenading provocatively up and down the Croisette, the odd group of young women wearing nothing more than black Spandex, a swatch of gold lamé and a really good suntan notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, back at the Carlton beach, Aznavour is gently leading "Up's" Jordan Nagai, who voices an 8-year-old boy who accompanies the old man on his trip, back to dry land. To the disappointment of "Up's" promoters, it looks as though the house is staying put for now.

No matter. As photographers, reporters and sundry gawkers returned to the sun, cinema and occasional spectacle that define a Wednesday afternoon in Cannes, they seemed to be floating themselves. The photo-op might not have taken literal flight, but the festival was satisfactorily launched.

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