Up, Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 96 mins, (U)
Zombieland, Ruben Fleischer, 80 mins, (15)

Pixar up to its old tricks while Woody (Harrelson) finds his role in life

Pixar has built its glittering reputation on cartoons that no other studio would countenance and no focus group would recommend.

Whenever the competition churned out another frenetic adventure featuring a gang of wisecracking, pop-culture-quoting animals, Pixar would bring us the personal story of a superhero with a mid-life crisis, a rubbish-collecting robot who talked in beeps and whistles, or a rodent who aspired to be a French chef. But nothing Pixar has done has been as unconventional as its new film, Up – or so it seems for the first half-hour.

The film opens in the 1930s, and introduces us to two small children, Carl and Ellie, who are united by dreams of exploring distant lands. They promise each other that they'll one day visit an Edenic patch of South American jungle called Paradise Falls, but the film has other ideas. A wordless montage takes us through their married life together, with all its joys and setbacks, before finishing with Ellie's illness and death. It's a gorgeous, moving sequence which would stand alone as a transcendent short film, and there's not a wisecracking animal in sight.

The story resumes in the present day. Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is now the most unusual of cartoon heroes, a grumpy old man who's being pressured by property developers to sell up and move into a care home. In desperation, he ties thousands of helium-filled party balloons to his house, in the hope that he'll float away to Paradise Falls on the breeze. It's a lovely image. As the house soars into the sky high above the city, suspended from a vast, jostling, candy-coloured cloud of balloons, it feels as if you're witnessing a cartoon like no other. Can the directors really keep their film buoyed aloft by such pathos and wonder?

Well, no. Actually they can't. After a joltingly brief flight, the journey's over, and Carl and a young stowaway disembark in South America within hiking distance of Paradise Falls. What we get from then on are some wacky escapades involving talking dogs, giant birds, a maniacal arch-villain, and a brilliantly choreographed all-action finale. In other words, what we get is the same sort of thing as we've already had from Madagascar, Ice Age, and all the other wisecracking animal 'toons.

Don't get me wrong. Up is still a delight, and it boasts some of Pixar's funniest ever comedy, but it feels like well-trodden ground for a film about travelling to a far-flung wilderness. If you didn't know better, you'd assume that a team of script doctors had taken a classic 20-page picture book about an old man in a floating house and then brainstormed a new plot to tack on the end.

Shaun of the Dead may still be the zombie comedy to beat, but its American counterpart, Zombieland, is a very close second. It doesn't have SotD's painstaking plotting or acrobatic camerawork, but it compensates with some of the sharpest jokes of the year, some properly stomach-turning gore, a sublime celebrity cameo, and four main characters you'll sincerely hope won't be torn limb from limb. Central among them is the film's nerdy, neurotic narrator (Jesse Eisenberg).

Most of the planet's populace has either been turned into zombies or become a zombie breakfast, but he's been saved by his cowardice, and his staunch adherence to a long list of rules: making sure you always fasten your seatbelt is, apparently, fundamental to survival in a world of ravenous fiends.

On the road to his home town to see if he can locate his parents, he joins forces with his opposite (Woody Harrelson), a fearless redneck who loves nothing more than bashing in zombies' heads with a banjo, and two sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) who don't trust anyone, undead or not. All four characters are perfectly cast – Harrelson in particular seems to have found the role he was born to play – and all four have enough personality to make you care about their insecurities as well as their chances of being eaten alive. In between all the fabulous gags with zombies being splattered by falling pianos, it's really quite poignant. I can't remember when I was last so keen for Hollywood to make a sequel.

Also Showing: 11/10/2009

Goodbye Solo (91 mins, 15)

Atmospheric American indie drama depicting the friendship between a garrulous Senegalese taxi driver and one of his fares, a taciturn old-timer who may, or may not, be planning to kill himself. A gem.

Love Happens (109 mins, (12A)

So it's come to this: Jennifer Aniston is reduced to playing a peripheral role as Aaron Eckhart's rent-a-quirk love interest in a long, dragging, sentimental drama about a self-help guru who could do with someone else's help. Time for her agent to start lobbying for a Friends reunion.

Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee (71 mins, 15)

Improvised mock-doc directed by Shane Meadows. A Steve Coogan-ish Paddy Considine plays a roadie who's trying to secure an Arctic Monkeys support slot for his pudgy rapping protegé. Cheap and cheerful.

Vanishing of the Bees (92 mins, U)

Worrying documentary. The French government has now banned the pesticide which appears to be responsible for the precipitous drop in worldwide bee numbers. The British government hasn't.

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