Adding to the uneasiness: Although each Pixar film since "Toy Story 2" in 1999 has cracked the $200 million blockbuster barrier, ticket sales have been dipping after "Finding Nemo's" peak of $339.7 million — somewhat offset by the fact that global box office often has exceeded expectations.
Plus, Disney is in need of a big hit after its slump so far this year with such live-action underperformers as "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Experience." Not helping matters is the likely lingering popularity of the equally family-oriented "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which opened Friday.
But while "Up" might not pop any box-office records, analysts are expecting it to open to a healthy $60 million — similar to last summer's "WALL·E."
"The first 12 minutes or so of 'Up' are amazing," says Hollywood.com box-office specialist Paul Dergarabedian, who believes Pixar films will stand the test of time, much as Disney classics do.
He points to an early montage that silently encapsulates the stages of a marriage, which drew tears from the mostly adult-male gathering of theater operators at ShoWest earlier this year. "The whole notion that an older character doesn't have kid appeal is wrong. Carl reminds me of a grandpa, and kids love their grandparents."
Besides, Hollywood already has proof that grouchy septuagenarians mentoring an Asian youngster can draw crowds: Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino."
"Quality is the best business plan" is one of Lasseter's favorite mantras. However, the originality Pixar prides itself on and devotees have come to expect can be seen as a liability in an industry that squeezes every last dime out of the tried and true. Even some longtime fans are wavering.
"Since Pixar came around, I was a totally there-is-none-better person," says Kevin Kapanowski, 37, of Detroit and dad to Kaylee, 6. "But after the last three pictures, I'm not that way anymore. It seems like Pixar is reaching and getting a bit boring. 'WALL·E' was fine and all, but eh. Now 'Up' is up, and it's not really doing anything for me. Rats, lonely robots and old men? Really?"
There is a sense the company is at a crossroads, although the Pixar gang has no plans to compromise its standards. It's the rare film company where artists run the show. "I've always described Pixar as a filmmaker-led studio," says Lasseter, who directed four out of its 10 features. "These movies come from the heart of every director. There are life experiences we all had that find their way into these movies."
He remains steadfastly upbeat about "Up's" potential. "Honestly, every single one of our movies has challenged us," he says. "We are always striving to show the audience something they have never seen before. Not every movie is going to be a merchandising bonanza. That is not why we make the movies."
But he isn't being complacent, either. Steps are being taken to ensure that Pixar's future remains as bright as those multihued balloons that send Carl's home into the stratosphere.
•Rejoining the 3-D revolution. "Up" is the first Pixar full-length feature to be presented in the digitally enhanced format, which will become standard procedure for all its releases.