Pixar’s proven, again and again, a miraculous ability to spin cinematic gold out of almost perversely unlikely scenarios, but the beginning of “Up,” the opening night film at this year’s Cannes, is something else entirely. A boy, Carl, watches a newsreel in a ’30s theater about larger-than-life adventurer Charles Muntz, and when making his way home, enraptured with his hero’s exploits, he encounters Ellie, a gap-toothed girl who’s taken over an abandoned house to play out her own Muntz-inspired imaginings. One minor mishap later, they’re fast friends, and from there “Up” cuts to the two, quiet Carl and exuberant Ellie, as young adults getting married. In the marvelous, wordless montage that follows, the pair have a whole life together, one with joys and disappointments and, of course, certain dreams left to gather dust. Carl sells balloons for a living and Ellie plans for children that don’t appear, and they never manage to make it to South America like they talked about, but, living together in the little house in which they first met, they’re happy. When Ellie eventually passes away, Carl bunkers down in their home, now surrounded by new construction, to wait out his remaining years.
And the adventure that follows — the movie, really — is great, a trek that ties in elements from those grounded first few minutes to things fantastical and otherwise, like a jungle landmark called Paradise Falls; a pudgy, talkative Wilderness Explorer trying to earn his “assisting the elderly” badge; dogs with collars that translate their thoughts aloud and a legendary giant bird. And there are brilliantly sequenced bits of action (something Pete Docter of “Monsters, Inc.,” sharing director credit here with Bob Peterson, seems to excel at), and Carl encounters his old idol and finds a new lease on life. But it none of it equals that sublime, bittersweet non-adventure of a start. None of it, save the moment when Carl unleashes hundreds of balloons and pulls his house up by the foundations, leaving the men who’d come to take him to the retirement home behind, a scene of giddy delight. That it’s in 3-D, the little house winding its way between modern city buildings and passing flocks of birds, is only an enhancement. 3-D’s a novelty because it’s been, for the most part, treated as such, but “Up” is without jarring made for the medium moments, and would work just fine flat. The 3-D only makes the animation a little more rich, a little more alive, but those aren’t qualities Pixar’s lacked yet.