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‘Up’ flies high, but not without bumps

For any run-of-the-mill movie studio, “Up” would represent a major achievement. But this is Pixar we’re talking about — and I would unhesitatingly place “The Incredibles” and “Toy Story 2” on my list of the greatest movies ever made by anyone, anywhere, anytime — and so the standards have to be a little tougher.

As it is, “Up” is certainly a solid B-lister for Pixar; not as great as the studio’s finest, perhaps, but still better than, oh, “Cars” or “A Bug’s Life.” All of which is to say that this new adventure is better than 98 percent of most American animated features. There’s just something about Pixar movies at their best that brings out the demanding Little League dad in me when their output falls just shy of its potential.

Orphans have always played a key role in Disney movies, but this may be the first one to center around a widower — Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) has recently lost his lifelong best friend Ellie. The two met as children, sharing a love for adventure and the exploits of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who took his blimp to South America in the 1930s to find a rare animal.

Carl and Ellie’s lifelong dream was to build a house alongside the South American waterfall where Muntz was headed, but between marriage and home repair and other quotidian priorities, they instead remained inside their cozy little cottage. This backstory is told in a poignant and wordless montage that proves, as does the first half of “WALL-E,” that if anyone is going to revive the silent movie, it’s the folks at Pixar. (OK, and “Brothers Bloom” co-star Rinko Kikuchi.)

With Ellie gone — and a construction site encroaching upon the Fredricksens’ tiny plot of land — Carl daringly decides to put his entire house aloft with a mass of helium-filled balloons and aim it toward South America. After launching, he realizes that he’s not alone — neighborhood scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who’s been hanging around Carl’s in the hopes of collecting his “Assisting the Elderly” badge, winds up being an accidental stowaway.

The pair eventually lands in the jungle, roping themselves to the house and trudging through the undergrowth as the balloons lose helium with each passing second. There they encounter an unusual squawking bird whom Russell dubs “Kevin” (even after it’s determined she’s a female), a voicebox-equipped and squirrel-obsessed dog named Dug (Bob Peterson) as well as Muntz himself, who winds up being less nobly heroic than Carl had assumed.

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    Rapunzel's hair is a character all by itself in 2010's "Tangled," with Mandy Moore voicing the tower-trapped princess and Zachary Levi as daring thief Flynn Rider.

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    Steve Carell moves from "The Office" to cartoonland as Gru, a supervillain with a heart, in 2010's "Despicable Me."

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    In 2010's "Legend of the Guardians," the young owl Soren and his friends soar across the sea to find the Great Tree, home of the legendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole.

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    Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, rides Toothless the dragon in 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon." Set in the mythical world of burly Vikings and wild dragons, the action comedy tells the story of a Viking teenager who doesn’t exactly fit in with his tribe’s longstanding tradition of heroic dragon slayers.

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    In 2009's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," a scientist tries to solve world hunger only to see things go awry as food falls from the sky in abundance. Anna Faris provides the voice of Sam Sparks, left, and Bill Hader gives voice to Flint Lockwood, right.

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    Young robot Astro Boy gains the strength to embrace his destiny in this 2009 film.

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    Disney's first black princess, Tiana, kisses a frog to try and turn him into a prince, but things don't quite work out that way. Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana in this 2009 film.

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    George Clooney provides the voice of the main character in 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," about a family-man fox who plots a giant heist.

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    Comic Jim Carrey takes on the role of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge in this 2009 retelling of the Charles Dickens tale.

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    Guinea pig spies? That's the plot of 2009's "G-Force," which features the voices of Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan and Penelope Cruz as furry secret agents.

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    In 2009's "Up," which won the best animated film Oscar, Carl Fredricksen (voice of Ed Asner) ties balloons to his house to go exploring -- but a Wilderness Explorer scout comes along for the ride.

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    The canine star of a hit TV show (voiced by John Travolta) is accidentally shipped to New York City and begins a cross-country adventure to get back to his owner, Penny (voice of Miley Cyrus), in this 2008 film.

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    A cooking-obsessed French rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) gets his chance to become a famous chef in this 2008 Oscar winner.

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    'Cars' -

    Race car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) learns from some small-town vehicles that there's more to life than fame and trophies in this sweet 2008 hit.

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    Former superheroes Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are just trying to live a normal life in this 2004 Oscar winner, when suddenly, their talents are needed once again.

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    'Finding Nemo' -

    When his son Nemo (voice of Alexander Gould) wanders too far from home, it's up to Marlin (Albert Brooks) to find him with some help from some finny friends. The 2003 film took home an Oscar for best animated feature.

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    'Monsters, Inc.' -

    In this 2001 film, Sully (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) work at a power company that operates by turning the fears of children into energy. One day, a child (Mary Gibbs) follows Sully back into their world, and he finds that children aren't quite as scary as he imagined.

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    'A Bug's Life' -

    Flik (Dave Foley) in 1998's "A Bug's Life" isn't like the other ants. He doesn't want to just stand aside while the grasshoppers, led by the menacing Hopper (Kevin Spacey), take the ants' hard-earned harvest. Flik decides to employ some warriors, but mistakenly enlists a band of flea circus performers to help him join in the fight.

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    'Toy Story' -

    A toy cowboy named Woody (Tom Hanks) gets incredibly jealous when his place as top toy in a young boy’s room is usurped by Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a spaceman action figure. The 1995 hit spawned a sequel, “Toy Story 2,” in 1999 and a third film, “Toy Story 3,” is scheduled to be released on June 18, 2010.

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    'The Lion King' -

    In 1994's "The Lion King," Simba (Matthew Broderick) mistakenly believes he's responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and retreats into the jungle. Eventually, his friends help him take his place as the new king.

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    'Aladdin' -

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    'Beauty and the Beast' -

    In 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," Belle (Paige O’Hara) strikes up a strange friendship with The Beast (Robby Benson), who's really a prince living under a spell. In the end, this very odd couple finds love -- and transformation.

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    'The Little Mermaid' -

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    There have been numerous versions of "Robin Hood," but in the 1973 film, he's a crafty fox (voice of Brian Bedford) who steals from the rich and gives to the poor with the help of his pals Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) and Little John (Phil Harris).

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    "The Jungle Book" from 1967 tells the story of Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), a boy who’s been raised by wolves in the Indian jungle.

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    '101 Dalmatians' -

    The puppies of 1961's "101 Dalmatians" are in trouble. Wicked Cruella de Vil (Betty Lou Gerson) wants their cherished spotted fur, and it is up to the puppies' parents, Pongo (Rod Taylor) and Perdita (Cate Bauer), and some brave farm animals to free the caged canines.

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    'Sleeping Beauty' -

    In the 1959 fairy tale film, Princess Aurora (Mary Costa) has been cursed by the evil witch Maleficent (Eleanor Audley). Three good fairies, Flora (Verna Felton), Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) and Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen) vow to protect her. But only the love of Prince Philip (Bill Shirley) can break the spell.

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    'Lady and the Tramp' -

    After being snubbed by her owners in favor of a new baby in this 1955 film, sweet cocker spaniel Lady (Barbara Luddy) finds comfort and adventure with a mongrel named Tramp (Larry Roberts).

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    'Alice in Wonderland' -

    The 1951 film is a far cry from Tim Burton's 2010 3-D extravaganza. Alice (voice of Kathryn Beaumont) is younger and far more innocent here, and her adventures are not quite so frightening -- although the creatures she meets, including the Mad Hatter and March Hare, are still as goofy as ever.

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    'Bambi' -

    Ah yes, the 1942 film that freaked out an entire nation of kids. Innocent fawn Bambi (voice of Hardie Albright) loses his mother to a hunter's bullet, but his animal friends help him survive and thrive.

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    'Dumbo' -

    Like "Bambi," 1941's "Dumbo" also had some traumatic mother issues. The big-eared elephant's mother is locked up when she tries to protect her son, but in the end, his big ears help him fly, and the family is reunited.

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    'Pinocchio' -

    In 1940, "Pinocchio" sees a wooden marionette (voice of Dickie Jones) come to life thanks to a wish granted by the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable). Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) is supposed to keep him out of trouble, but good luck with that.

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    'Fantasia' -

    Kids expecting a traditional animated movie were no doubt a little startled by 1940's "Fantasia," set to classical music with no dialogue. Its most famous story, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," features Mickey Mouse as an aspiring magician who oversteps his limits.

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    'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' -

    The famed film was released way back in 1938. You know the story: A jealous and wicked queen (Lucille La Verne) attempts to kill her beautiful stepdaughter (Adriana Caselotti), who seeks refuge with seven dwarves. She's later is put into an everlasting sleep by a poisoned apple until a prince (Harry Stockwell) awakens her with a kiss.

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In the same way that “WALL-E” lost some of its magic when the film left Earth behind for the satellite, “Up” becomes as weighed down by gravity as its heroes do once they’re forced to drag the house around. To make matters worse, the script (by Peterson and Pete Docter, who directed) repeats the big mistake of “Ratatouille” by having the two lead characters have a contrived fight that doesn’t fit the story but does conveniently set up the big final conflict.

Ultimately, these are minor flaws. For most of its running time, “Up” is sheer delight, from the witty voice performances to Michael Giacchino’s goosebump-inducing score to a stellar running gag involving the mean dog Alpha (Peterson again) and his malfunctioning voice machine.

I suspect the image of the tiny house held aloft by thousands of multi-colored balloons will become an iconic one. Let it also be a reminder to the artists at Pixar that they’ve raised the bar very high indeed, making it all the more noticeable when they occasionally dip toward the ground.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .

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