NOTE: Spoilers follow – read at your own risk!
“Up,” the latest film debuting from Disney/Pixar in May 2009, debuted five clips from the film at New York Comic Con on Saturday. There to present the footage were the film’s director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera. Docter said that he came to “Up” after wrapping up directorial chores on “Monsters, Inc.” back in 2001. Development on “Up” has been ongoing for about four years, the pair said, and the hard work certainly shows in the footage seen at NYCC.
The film centers on protagonist Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old curmudgeon, hell-bent on spending his sunset years exploring South America. His desire for adventure stems from a promise he made his wife Ella years ago. Now a widower, Carl decides to honor the pact. He rigs up an impossibly intricate array of balloons to lift his house skyward and sail to South America. Little does he know that young Russell, a chubby wilderness explorer looking to attain his last merit badge, has accidentally hopped along for the ride.
In the first two clips, the audience was introduced to Carl and Russell. As expected, the grumpy old man wants little to do with the overeager boy scout, but he can’t exactly kick Russell off of his flying apparatus – even though he imagines doing just that in a hilarious fantasy sequence.
By the time the third clip rolls around, Carl and Russell find themselves in a jungle having been ejected from the floating house during a storm. Since they can’t get back in the house, they tie dangling garden hoses to themselves and drag the still-floating building on foot. In the jungle, they meet a beautifully animated bird that Russell calls a “snipe” based on Carl’s description – a description that is completely fabricated. The bird is an impossibly tall and awkward thing that boasts erratic movements and a penchant for playing with Russell. Carl, unsurprisingly, wants nothing to do with the creature and tries to shoo it away to little avail.
In the fourth clip, Carl and Russell meet Doug, a dog that can talk due to a highly sophisticated collar designed by his as-yet-unseen master. The collar translates Doug’s doggy thoughts, his dialogue spewing out like verbal diarrhea without a filter. While in the middle of a coherent thought, Doug will randomly shout “Squirrel!” at the sight of the furry creature, and the conversation will be completely derailed. The fourth clip also introduces a trio of similar dogs that also get caught up at the sight of squirrels. The pack’s leader is Alpha, a domineering Doberman Pinscher that speaks with a helium infused voice. Whether or not the dog actually swallowed one of Carl’s balloons remains to be seen, but his subordinate dogs indicate that Alpha’s voice is definitely out of whack. By the end of the clip, Alpha and his minions are off in pursuit of their outcast compatriot Doug, who just so happens to be hobbling along with Carl, Russell and the Snipe.
Following the clips, Docter and Rivera opened the floor to questions. A large chunk of the questions dealt with other films in Pixar’s catalogue, such as wondering about sequels to “Monsters, Inc.” and others.
“If we come up with a great idea [for a sequel] we’ll do it, and if we don’t, we won’t,” said Docter. “We’ve had a pretty cool idea for ‘Toy Story 2’ and now a really great idea for ‘Toy Story 3,’ which is coming out next year … we’ll keep things open as far as [‘Monsters, Inc.’].”
When ask how long Docter had the idea for “Up,” the director replied that it wasn’t a linear process and has taken about four and a half years since its inception.
While Pixar has no current plans to turn its attention towards traditional cel animation, both Docter and Rivera are self-avowed fans of the traditional style. “We grew up on ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Lady and the Tramp,’ and in some ways, [‘Up’] is trying to reach back to some of the feelings of those films.”
“We’re just kind of in the infancy of computer animation,” Docter said of Pixar’s craft. “It seems like we’ve got so much more, both storytelling wise and visually, to explore.”
Regarding artistic difficulties, Docter said that Carl’s physicality proved challenging. The character is less a human replica than he is a caricature given his squat shape. “[It was hard] to come up with cloth, for example, that would behave with [Carl’s] short stubby arms.”
According to Docter, the Pixar team created a “simulation program that simulates over ten thousand balloons which know where each other are, wind dynamics systems and things like that,” but that technology was still not as difficult as getting Carl’s physicality down pat.
Another questioner brought up the topic of sequels, this time for “The Incredibles.” There have been ideas kicked around, but director Brad Bird “has been busy with other things.” Unsatisfied, the fan pointed out that if Pixar has time for “Toy Story 3” they can certainly make room for an “Incredibles 2,” but Docter and Rivera didn’t indicate that a project was in development.
One fan asked why the house wasn’t already floating since it had all those balloons tucked away inside of it. Docter claimed that Carl has all of the balloons “tethered down in the backyard … and he’s loosening all the bolts overnight” on the eve of his great escape. This isn’t mentioned in the film because it’s ultimately unimportant to the story.
The final question focused on the competing emotions in “Up.” While it has plenty of comedic elements, the story is a sad one at its core about an old man honoring his deceased wife. “I think for the amount of whackiness and humor that we have in the film, it was important for me to get a grounding of emotion,” Docter said. “The emotion is what you carry around with you [after the film].”
“Up” opens in theaters on May 29, 2009.