Finding Pixar: WALL-E (2008)

Wall-E

This is the ninth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

As Robert Christgau said at the beginning of his review of The Clash’s seminal 1980 album London Calling, “here’s where they start showing off.”  By 2008 Pixar had earned so much trust from Disney (who now formally owned the studio) that they’d been given an incredible amount of creative freedom, a freedom that they used without hesitation.  First they tested the waters of what could be done in a huge budget Disney movie with Ratatouille, a movie set in the world of French haute cuisine starring a rat voiced by an alternative comedian, but with WALL-E they dived in head first.  If anyone else had asked for 180 million dollars to make a film with a silent protagonist, no dialogue in its first half hour, and no star voice actors more famous than Fred Wilard they would have quickly been shown the door, but these Pixar guys had enough clout to demand just that and even had the audacity to make half a billion dollars in the process.

Critics almost universally recognized that courage and proceeded to praise the movie to a degree that’s unusual even for a Pixar movie.  It earned a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a little less than the scores of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and the Toy Story movies, but what it (barely) lacked in quantity it made up for it in the sheer mania induced by some of the reviews.  While critics have often liked Pixar’s movies, they had usually stopped short of throwing around the word “masterpiece.”  That wasn’t the case with WALL-E, which topped more top ten lists than any other film that year and would eventually be declared the best film of the decade by the New York Times’ film critic A.O. Scott.  Pretty much the only accolade the film fell short of snatching up was an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a snub that was only overshadowed by the furor over The Dark Knight failing to make the shortlist in the same year.

I came really really close to making this the first Pixar movie I saw back in 2008.  Part of that was just the frenzy of praise surrounding the film.  Of course there’s always a critical frenzy around Pixar movies, but what I was hearing from the critics was a lot more convincing this time around.  More importantly this was the least “kiddie” looking movie that the studio had put out to date.  There were no talking animals in WALL-E and the film’s aesthetic seemed to skew a lot closer to what would be seen in live action movies than the cartoony visuals I’d see in the trailers for Pixar’s other films.  What’s more, I’ve always been a pretty big science fiction fan, and this looked like it could very well fit alongside other films in that genre pretty well.  Come year end I began to feel like there really was a hole in my annual retrospectives, though I certainly didn’t admit that out loud.

I do feel like I would have at least rented the movie when it came out on DVD in late 2008 had I not been actively writing reviews of all the contemporary movies I saw at the time.  As was the case with Ratatouille I just didn’t feel qualified to write about the movie without at least a passing knowledge of Pixar’s previous work.  So I skipped the movie in spite of the fact that every film literate person around me was talking extensively about the film and would even find myself getting e-mails from random readers telling me I should give the movie a chance.  One friend/co-worker even went so far as to call me a “hater” for not seeing the movie.  Yikes.  Still, it cannot be understated just how much this movie did to wear down my resistance to Pixar as an institution.  I think it might be safe to say that I never would have embarked on this retrospective had it not been for WALL-E, and would still be resisting the studio to this day.   You could almost say that this entire project has just been one big pre-requisite to my viewing of WALL-E, and as you might expect, that brings some pretty big expectations to the table.

So did the film actually deliver on all the hype?  The short answer is “almost entirely.”  I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one: WALL-E is awesome; it’s the movie that Pixar had been promising for years but which it had never quite delivered.  Perhaps part of what sets the movie apart right from the get go is that there seems to have been a major leap forward in the technology that Pixar has at its disposal.  The computer animation in WALL-E is truly awesome, especially in the film’s first act set on a desolate earth.  The environments and the robots that inhabited it approached photorealism in just how truly awesome they looked; it almost felt like they managed to skip an entire generation’s worth of animation progress after Ratatouille.  Of course this triumph comes with the asterisk that in the film earth is literally devoid of anything organic and as I’ve long pointed out, it is significantly easier to craft inorganic things with CGI than it is to make living breathing organism (something that films like Transformers and Iron Man have benefited from).  The hyper-realism of the film’s animation goes a long way toward making the film feel like more than a cartoon, it gives it a real weight and makes imagery like a skyscraper sized stack of garbage cubes stand out all the more.

It’s interesting that all this visual wizardry is applied to a movie that is an exercise in minimalism, at least as far as big budget science-fiction films go.  This is, after all, a film with all of eight speaking parts and only three of those are from living human characters.  I would be interested to read the film’s screenplay, because I suspect that it’s something like 20% dialogue and 80% stage directions, the opposite of what I’d expect from a conventional film.  The effect of this minimalistic but not completely silent speech track is highly unique but not quite unprecedented.  The film strongly reminded me of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which a working class man grows weary of his life and finds himself going on a strange odyssey through a vaguely science fiction world largely out of an innocent love for a woman he meets.   That film, made long after the invention of the “talkie,” never had the little tramp speak but did use synch sound for some of the surrounding characters (particularly those speaking through technology like video screens and telephones).

I was also reminded of the films of Jacques Tati, whose films had the Monsieur Hulot character finding his way through a strange modern world filled with odd devices that everyone else seemed to understand better than he did.  Tati’s films also used minimal dialogue and had a similarly ambivalent view of future progress and also felt like a throwback to silent cinema when they were released in the fifties and sixties.  Of course it’s one thing to see these techniques used in near-silent comedies and French repertory-house staples, but to see it used in a $180 million dollar Disney movie in 2008 is quite another.  After all, ten minutes of dialogue free cinema at the beginning of There Will Be Blood seemed like a really wild move just a year earlier and to do a similar thing through much of a children’s film must have been an incredibly ballsy decision.  That said, after a couple of minutes the unconventional dialogue choice did not really stand out as much as I expected it to.  That might be a testament to how much the sound designers were able to communicate through various recordings of the words “WALL-E” and “EVE-a” as spoken by Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, or it might simply say something about how well told the story is.

The film’s first half hour are the film’s best, and incidentally most dialogue free, moments.  This segment almost feels like it could be its own separate mini-movie, like an extended version of one of the (often silent) short films that they play in front of their theatrical releases.  The film then shifts hard when it leaves earth and changes location to the large self-sufficient space vessel the Axiom, and this is where the film becomes… less perfect.  I don’t want to make it sound like the movie becomes bad at all at this point but it does begin to feel like a more run of the mill Pixar movie than the truly transcendent experience that the film’s first half hour promised.  The plot at this point gets a little simplistic: the Axiom robots are trying to hide the plant and WALL-E and EVE are trying to find it, it’s essentially an extended chase scene.  There are certainly some excellent moments within this chase like WALL-E and EVE’s zero gravity space walk or WALL-E’s near death experience in the garbage compactor populated by WALL-As, but none of it is wildly deep.

The material with Captain McCrea discovering the wonders of self-sufficiency that happen simultaneously are perhaps a bit deeper (if a bit rushed), but that probably brings me to the biggest problem I have with the movie: the way humans look in the future.  Elsewhere in WALL-E the filmmakers made the bold decision of mixing live action footage of Fred Willard into the film playing a former world leader in “archival footage” and live action footage continues to be used whenever we see footage from earth’s past.  On Axiom the now wildly obese humans are rendered in the same computer animation we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and I think this was a mistake on many levels.  For one thing it’s not consistent with the live action footage we’ve seen before, which I could forgive if it were particularly well executed but it wasn’t, in fact I’d say that the animation used on these future humans is weaker than what we saw in Ratatouille.  The problem seems to be Pixar’s fear of the uncanny valley, they’ve always been afraid to make human characters overly realistic and have instead opted for human models with exaggerated and cartoony features.  These particular human models clash violently with the near photorealism we see elsewhere in scenes populated by robots and this takes the audience out of the movie.  I almost wish they’d gone with all human actors, possibly using the fat makeup that seems to look fine when Eddie Murphy wears it for bad comedies (though I’d be fine if they’d dropped the obesity thing altogether).

Fortunately the film mostly ends well.  I could have done without a tacky 2001: A Space Odyssey reference at a pivotal moment late in the film, but the notion of humanity finding its way after a long slumber did have weight and I also found EVE’s desperate struggle to save WALL-E at the last minute to be quite exciting and oddly affecting.  I also found the original Peter Gabriel song to work a lot better knowing its context than it did when I heard it being performed at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, especially given that it was accompanied by a really cool animated sequence during the credits.  The truth is there isn’t a lot that I can say to add to the conversation about this film.  I could rattle on and on about movies like Toy Story because I felt like I had a unique point of view that needed to be defended, but here I feel like I’m mostly in agreement about the consensus.

So, what is there to say about WALL-E in final analysis?  The film is absolutely an improvement over what Pixar had done previously and I’ll be shocked if they top it or even match it with their follow-up films.  This is the first time that I wouldn’t hesitate at all about comparing this not just with live action films, but with really good live action films.  How does it rank amongst that company?  Pretty well I suppose.  I’m certainly not going to call it a new classic and I’m also not placing it amongst the pantheon of the greatest post-millennial films any time soon, but it is a “four star” film and I could even see myself adding the film’s Blu-Ray to my collection some day.  Did it deserve to be nominated for an Oscar?  Maybe.  It certainly deserved to be nominated over The Reader or Frost/Nixon so within the context of that rather lackluster Oscar slate it was indeed “snubbed,” but I don’t know that I’d be ready to call it Oscar-worthy in the sense that it genuinely deserved to be amongst an annual top five.  Specifically from that year I’d say that Rachel Getting Married, The Dark Knight, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Che, The Wrestler, Revanche, and maybe Vicky Christina Barcelona were all greater achievements. That said, this would firmly have been in my top ten if I’d seen it in 2008, and that’s a pretty big deal considering that I’d more or less shunned animated children’s movies at the time.

The Short Program: Presto

The short that was played in front of Wall-E was very good but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it great.  It’s sort of an update of a really early Pixar short called Red’s Dream, in which a clown is upstaged by his unicycle in cartoony fashion.  This time it’s a magician being upstaged by the rabbit he plans to pull out of his hat.  This little magic trick is based in real magic, the magician has a pair of hats that are linked to each other, when he reaches into one hat his hand comes out the other.  It’s a concept that would be familiar to anyone who had played the computer game “Portal,” which came out the year before this short saw the light of day.  Like most of Pixar’s shorts it contains no dialogue, and while the animation is mostly effective the magician character doesn’t look as good as the human models in Ratatouille and the rabbit looks kind of odd as well.

Presto is a work of extremely broad slapstick.  Almost the entire work is dedicated to the magician getting hurt (but not really hurt) in a variety of increasingly cartoony ways like getting his head sucked into his hat and getting shocked through the fingers by an electrical current, all while the rabbit keeps getting the last laugh.  It’s like a direct homage to old cartoons like “Tom and Jerry” or the “Coyote and Road Runner,” or perhaps live action slapstick of the type the Three Stooges would engage in.  One shot even seems to be a direct lift from The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the main character is a bunny (who, like Bugs before him, is positively desperate for carrots).

The incorporation of the short almost feels like a calculated strategy given that it’s attached to what is supposed to be one of the most serious and grounded Pixar movie to date.  It’s like they want the audience to get their thirst for cartoony hijinx out of their system so that once the movie starts they can enjoy the (relatively) serious material that is to follow.  Looked at on its own Pesto is good fun and while the material isn’t earth shattering by any means, it is well staged and enjoyable within its five minute runtime.

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