As the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, Pixar’s Up will forever own a little piece of history. But the film’s co-director, Pete Docter, admits that he was still a little bit nervous on the eve of the black tie and red carpet premiere.

“It was scary going in,” he says over the telephone from Philadelphia. “I’d heard that there was a lot of booing over there.” (Maybe he’d been talking to fellow director Lars Von Trier).

One would have to be pretty hard-hearted to boo Up — opening next week — a typically nimble Pixar effort about a wizened old codger, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) who attempts to honour the adventurous spirit of his late wife by affixing a phalanx of helium balloons to their home and flying to South America.

While the film features numerous colourful adventure sequences, its emotional palette is surprisingly stark. An early montage tracing the arc of Carl’s marriage is unsparing in its depiction of life’s disappointments: Its hushed, heartbreaking images are about as melancholy as mainstream animation gets.

“We were inspired by Super 8 films,” says Docter about this sequence. “There’s something about (Super 8) that’s very emotional, that makes it feel like a memory. And it’s even more affecting without sound. So we tried to strip away the dialogue and the sound so that the audience could bring more of themselves to it.”

Some of Up’s best moments are all about dialogue, however — like the bits featuring a pack of dogs who have been fitted by their dastardly master with collars that translate their thoughts into speech.

“The dogs came out of a different project,” Docter admits when it’s suggested that their scenes seem imported from somewhere in deep left field. “My co-director, Bob Peterson, wrote and performed such a funny take on this idea that we just had to use it, and so we wove it into the story.” (Peterson also voices Dug, the most endearingly dim of the dogs).

“Our hope,” he continues, “was to get around anything that was cliché. There are so many films were the antagonists are these dark evil characters, and we wanted to flip that.” Docter is referring specifically to Beta, an imperious-looking Doberman whose malfunctioning collar forces him to speak in a decidedly non-alpha-dog register.

“It was great when we came up with the high-pitched thing,” he laughs. “It’s funny because he thinks he sounds like Clint Eastwood when that’s not the case.”

• For movie trailers, photos and screen times, or to buy tickets, visit www.metronews.ca/movies