Photo: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Pixar’s Up is a small charmer with the studio’s patented brand of cunning: Shock us with an inconsolable woe (predator eats fish’s wife and kids; a trash-heap Earth is depopulated save for a robot whose idea of culture is Hello, Dolly!); then gradually introduce sentiment, riotous chases, and a rousing cliff-hanger. Works for me! If we forgive the more conventional second half of Wall-E (and not everyone does), it’s because we’re grateful; we’re unaccustomed to such devastation in mainstream animation. We’re certainly devastated by the overture to Up, which centers on a loving couple unable to conceive or to live out the spirit of adventure that brought them together as bright-eyed children—then closes with aging and terminal illness. The elderly widower protagonist, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), assaults a contractor and elicits actual blood—blood in a cartoon!—and is sentenced to sell his beloved house and finish his days in a retirement facility. When he rips said house from its moorings with the aid of an immense, tutti-frutti bouquet of helium balloons and hightails it for a South American waterfall—the dream destination of his wife—our sad hearts surge.

Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson are savvy tricksters. The first half of Up is all demented free association, with a dream logic both baffling and hilarious. The second half is outlandish but formulaic: Jules Verne melodrama with a Captain Nemo–like obsessive (Christopher Plummer at his most plangently sinister), plus talking dogs, plus a needy, fatherless adolescent. In search of a merit badge for assisting the elderly, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), a roly-poly Asian-American wilderness explorer, gets caught on the porch when the house lifts off, then irritates the old man with his chatter. We know that Fredricksen will become a surrogate dad, but Asner has perfected this growly persona: He will turn out to have a tender heart, but it will never be on his sleeve.

The look of Up is a world away from Pixar’s usual CGI intricacies—simple in a way that only artists with a genius for complexity can achieve. The characters are like wittier Cabbage Patch dolls. Has there ever been a human hero as off-putting yet accessible as Fredricksen, with his big square head and big square glasses and big round nose? The geometry is so basic, the impact so startling. Russell, his tiny eyes nestled in a blob of a face, must be the least immediately lovable of animated tykes. But he won me over. As in other Pixar films, the relative immobility of the features dries out the sentimentality and draws us in. The movement from inexpressiveness to vulnerability is inexorable.

By all means, see Up in its 3-D incarnation: The cliff drops are vertiginous, and the scores of balloons—bunched into the shape of one giant balloon—are as pluckable as grapes. The dogfight with canine pilots would have brought a salute from the late Charles M. Schulz. A mammoth, multicolored bird with an uncanny resemblance to the monster of the fifties sci-fi picture The Giant Claw sticks its beak into people’s faces and emits a flabbergasting croak: You can almost feel the air.

Complaints? Once Fredricksen’s wife, Ellie, passes away, there are no women characters—but Pixar has always been a boys’ universe. (More’s the pity: Girls like toys, too, and Coraline demonstrated the fertility of female escape fantasies.) Otherwise, the movie is practically a metaphor for Pixar’s storytelling: down, down, down; up, up, Up.

With editing software, you can now transfer films to your computer and recut them, which means someone could lop off 45 minutes of this year’s Oscar-winning foreign-language feature Departures and turn it into a half-decent movie. It has a sublime premise, full of the potential for both beauty and horror. A failed professional cellist, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), returns from Tokyo to his hometown and answers an ad for what looks like a travel agency. But in this case, “departures” means an elaborate postmortem ritual in which, before the eyes of the deceased’s family, the body is elaborately washed, made up, and “encoffined.” Daigo takes the job of assisting the brusque owner (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and quickly becomes a pariah—“unclean” even in the eyes of his chirpy, supportive little wife (Ryoko Hirosue). Yet on he stumbles. Miserable at the outset, he comes to see that the service he performs is vital, even holy—that watching a loved one encoffined provides the typically buttoned-up Japanese family with a blessed release.

The director, Yôjirô Takita, is known for juxtaposing high emotion and low comedy, and Departures suggests he could take a little off from each end—less cheap tear-jerking, fewer cheap laughs. One scene builds to a shockingly unfunny gag: Daigo works on what he thinks is a beautiful young girl and then, under the sheet, bumps up against “her” male organ. The director takes a sharp turn into bathos, as the disapproving father finally accepts his son/daughter and weeps. It’s only a matter of time before Daigo’s duck-voiced wife watches him work with tears in her eyes and understands the nobility of this “art.” We can see the climax, in which Daigo makes postmortem peace with an estranged family member, zombie-shuffling toward us for about an hour.

What’s sad is that this really is an amazing foundation: The metaphor for loss is right there onscreen. It will resonate with anyone who has ever buried a loved one and struggled to reconcile the myriad emotions—grief, anger, helplessness. Which is to say, everyone. And yet out of this premise comes glop. Departures needed a little more work in the morgue—like cutting to the bone.

Speaking of zombies, Bruce McDonald’s Wittgensteinian Canadian zombie-plague picture Pontypool doesn’t jell—its pretensions way exceed its reach—yet it’s madly suggestive, and it rekindled my affection for the genre. It’s based on a novel by Tony Burgess, but the setup is pure theater: four main characters trapped in a radio station in rural Ontario, where an egghead incarnation of Don Imus (the acid Stephen McHattie) has been exiled. From scattered news reports and calls, it emerges that mobs are inexplicably killing and eating people. Afghanistan and the Middle East have a tangential relationship to the carnage, but the virus transcends contemporary politics.Language itself seems to have broken down. Pontypool is, in all senses, brain food—and juicy

Directed by by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Buena Vista Pictures. PG.

Directed by Yôjirô Takita.
Regent Releasing. PG-13.

Directed by Bruce McDonald.
IFC Films. Unrated.