Even as Pixar films continue to garner critical praise, Oscar nominations and box- office success, the movies seem to be heading in a less commercial direction. The rats from "Ratatouille" aren't what most consumers expect to see on their cereal box. The trash-collecting robot from "WALL-E" doesn't make an easy transition to cuddly stuffed animal.
That's fine with "Up" director Pete Docter, who considers 78-year-old grump Carl Fredricksen the perfect protagonist -- even if he doesn't sell a lot of action figures. Fredricksen was inspired by New Yorker cartoonist George Booth's characters and cinema's classic grumpy old men, with a get-off-my-lawn vibe that brings to mind vintage Walter Matthau.
"Those characters are a lot of fun," Docter says. "They can get away with being mean to people and you give them slack. You sort of feel that they've earned the right to slam the door in people's face. You don't hate them."
In "Up," Fredricksen seems out of place with the rest of the world. To avoid getting sent to a retirement home, he inflates thousands of helium balloons and goes on his first and last big adventure - with a young wilderness scout accidentally coming along for the ride.
Docter said the character originated from one of his old drawings: an old man with a grouchy sour face and a handful of balloons. From there, Docter and "Up" co-writer Bob Peterson crafted the story, which weaves in talking dogs, a prehistoric bird and a Charles Lindbergh-type character who travels in a giant zeppelin.
We spoke to Docter recently at Pixar in Emeryville, Calif.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for "Up"?
A: I'm not used to being an outgoing, extroverted kind of guy. I like to sit and draw by myself. By the end of "Monsters, Inc." I just wanted to get away and escape. Bob Peterson and I drew this floating house, and it seemed very appealing and poetic and interesting. We started thinking, "Who's in this house? Where is he going and where is he coming from?"
Q: Was Carl inspired by anyone in particular?
A: He's got my grandfather's shock [of] white hair. Spencer Tracy is in there a little bit. And James Whitmore had those great expressive eyebrows. ... Carl is a guy who's stuck in his house and just wants to stay put. It just felt like a square, so we kept drawing him with squares and rectangles. ...
Q: Some of the characters in "Up" have a Muppet vibe.
A: "The Muppet Show" was definitely something I watched when I was growing up. [The Muppets are] such great characters. I think in a lot of ways that was an influence on Pixar in general.
Q: In what way?
A: ... They were caricatures of people, but they had real underlying foibles. Fozzie has some sadness to him. He's a failed comic, and that's what makes him funny, of course. ... There's a sense of funny, quirky, goofball stuff, but it always comes down to character, and the whole show is running off these personalities. ...
Q: Are you making these movies for kids, or are you making them for yourselves?
A: At different times you think about different audiences. ... I think we're making movies for adults because the emotion has to be there first and foremost. The film can be about fish or toys or monsters or whatever, but it always has to have that emotional connection with us. Then you start to think, "How will kids identify with it? Will they think it's funny? Maybe we should add some slapstick here or there." So you think of it in layers. ...
Q: Pixar seems to be deliberately making films that aren't focused on marketing. Working for a big studio, is that getting harder to do?
A: We don't think about what the toy product line is going to be or whatever. [Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter and Walt Disney President Bob Iger are] very clear about this: "Your job is just to make the best movie that you can. Make a movie that I care about emotionally." Jonas Rivera, the producer, said it well: "... If you have a good time at the movie, you want to buy a souvenir." If we can just concentrate on making good movies, hopefully the rest will fall in line.
(E-mail Peter Hartlaub at phartlaub(at)sfchronicle.com.)
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