Film is first 3-D toon ever to kick off the event

Ed Asner isn’t exactly the first celebrity you’d think of to demand the spotlight on the Cannes Film Festival’s typically star-studded red carpet. But organizers are changing things up this year, choosing Disney and Pixar’s “Up” as the event’s opening-night pic.

“Up” will be the first toon, as well as 3-D title, to open Cannes since the festival was founded 62 years ago. It will screen out of competition.

The Mouse House is happy to use Cannes as a way to hype “Up,” about a 78-year-old man (Asner) who embarks on a series of adventures after tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying off to South America.

Other animated films have played Cannes in the past, with DreamWorks Animation presenting “Kung Fu Panda,” “Over the Hedge,” “Shrek” and “Shrek 2″ there in previous years, while Gallic fave “The Triplets of Belleville” bowed on the Croisette in 2003. Toon contenders for the Palme d’Or have also included docu “Waltz With Bashir” and “Persepolis.” Disney’s “Dumbo” screened at Cannes in 1947.

Organizers were attracted to “Up” because the toon enables them to tap into Hollywood’s push to release more 3-D animated features in theaters.

“Cannes has demonstrated for many years its interest in animation by selecting films from DreamWorks, as well as films that use animation differently,” said Thierry Fremaux, the fest’s director. “It’s audacious to open the festival with an animated film, but we’re conscious of our duty: By stretching its boundaries, cinema remains universal.”

“Up” is the 10th film from Disney and Pixar. Pic is co-directed by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.”).

Studio has been looking for more ways to promote its critically lauded animated pics after execs including toon topper John Lasseter have grown increasingly frustrated at the recent B.O. performance of releases like “Bolt.” While the toons wound up doing well, execs feel they could have performed better with bigger pushes.

DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg has long felt that a major presence at Cannes can serve as a lucrative launching pad for films, generating considerable mileage from media coverage by premiering pics there. While at Disney, he took “Beauty and the Beast” to Cannes, making it the first animated pic in many years to play at the festival.

Last year, for “Kung Fu Panda,” Katzenberg paraded Angelina Jolie and Jack Black, who voiced the lead characters in the pic. In other years, he made sure “Shrek” stars Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy were on hand. Studio’s also produced stunts for “Shark Tale” and “Bee Movie,” for which it stuffed Jerry Seinfeld in a bee suit and dangled him over the side of a building.

The voice cast for “Up” is not as high profile. Lead voices are provided by 80-year-old Asner, Christopher Plummer, John Ratzenberger, Delroy Lindo and Jordan Nagai.

Katzenberg is also the biggest cheerleader for 3-D animated films, with his “Monsters vs. Aliens” bowing later this month, so it’s a bit ironic that his biggest rival in the toon space has landed such a prime berth to show off the technology at Cannes. To be fair, Disney already has released more 3-D toons and boasts an upcoming slate packed with them over the next several years.

“It’s a great honor for the Walt Disney Studios, and our incredibly talented cast members at Pixar Animation Studios, to have ‘Up’ selected as the first animated feature to ever open the Cannes Film Festival,” said Disney chairman Dick Cook. “We are so proud of this terrific movie and can’t wait to share it with the filmmaking community and festivalgoers.”

Lasseter said, “This is a huge step for animation and further supports our belief that a great animated film is simply a great film.”

Cannes runs May 13-24, with “Up” screening on opening day. Toon opens in the U.S. on May 29.

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