July 9, 2008
One Giant Beep for Mankind
By Tim Walker
It's a cartoon about a lonely robot who can't even speak, but America's leading critics are queuing up to hail Pixar's summer blockbuster as 'ET' meets 'Citizen Kane'. Tim Walker discovers why we're all about to fall for 'Wall-E' - and why it could even become the defining film of our times
The lunch at which he was created is the stuff of legend. In 1994, as production wrapped on their first full-length feature film, Toy Story, four of Pixar Animation's big guns gathered at a restaurant in California to talk through ideas for projects. At that single meeting, the writer-director Andrew Stanton and his colleagues sketched out on napkins the ideas for A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo - and one more movie, about a lonely robot left behind when humans abandon Earth. His name was Wall-E.
On Friday next week, this rusty little contraption will come clanking into Britain, bringing with him a colossal carbon footprint of critical acclaim after his $63m opening weekend in America's cinemas. The website Rotten Tomatoes, which collects reviews from major publications on both sides of the Atlantic and derives from them a percentage score for films, gives Wall-E a remarkable 96 per cent. Last year's winner of the best picture Oscar, the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, mustered 95 per cent.
Pixar's team, their work long ghettoised in the animation categories of awards ceremonies and DVD rental stores, are finally finding themselves accepted as film-makers of artistic merit to match the Coens and their peers. Such is the buzz around Wall-E that Variety, Hollywood's in-house journal, last week ventured that it could become Pixar's first film to win a nomination in the best picture category of the Academy Awards.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine described Wall-E as "a landmark in modern moviemaking" and an "enduring classic" that bears comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, ET and even Waiting for Godot. John Anderson of The Washington Post wrote that the film would "raise your hopes for humanity". The Village Voice called it "breathtakingly majestic". The New York Times loved it. The Chicago Tribune loved it. Roger Ebert, perhaps the most influential American film critic, loved it. The Wall Street Journal and New York magazine have come right out and called it a masterpiece.
"I thought it was extraordinary," says Steven Gaydos, Variety's executive editor, who attended Wall-E's Los Angeles premiere. "It felt like history in the making; one of those landmark films that people will be talking about for ever. How rare it is to work in Hollywood and to be able to hold your head up high and say, 'I'm proud to work in this business. I'm proud to be associated with Hollywood film-making.' Everybody knocks the big studio movies. They're supposed to be soulless. They're supposed to be commercialised. They're supposed to be mainstream and dumbed down. But I was just sitting there thinking, 'No, not this time.'
"Wall-E has an incredible shot at a best picture nomination. It's hard to believe there will be five better films this year. ET was one of those rare science-fiction fantasy movies that get nominated for best picture, and I think Wall-E is probably superior to ET in just about every way."
Straight after Stanton won his last Oscar - best animated feature in 2003, for Finding Nemo - he set to work on Wall-E, supposedly cancelling the six-month holiday he'd planned. He was captivated by the concept of the lonely little robot, who was, he now says, "the saddest character I'd ever heard of".
In Wall-E's world, it is 700 years since humanity departed the dying Earth to live aboard a space-bound pleasure dome named Axiom. Wall-E, a "Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class", is a janitor robot designed to clean up the mess left behind. His futile task is to compact mountains of trash and turn them into skyscrapers. His only companion is a pet cockroach, one of the few species resilient enough to survive the environmental apocalypse - or being accidentally run over by his robotic friend.
As he goes about his work, Wall-E finds objects among the detritus that pique his curiosity: a Rubik's Cube, a box containing a diamond ring (he throws away the ring; it's the box's hinge mechanism that fascinates him), a string of Christmas lights. He uses these human ephemera to decorate his humble living-quarters because, after being alone for seven centuries, Wall-E boasts more than just a relentless work ethic; he has acquired a soul.
Wall-E is a character in the grand tradition of silent, sympathetic slapsticks such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He's a sci-fi superlative, equal parts R2-D2, Johnny Five and Marvin the Paranoid Android. He's even, in his solitary, post-apocalyptic milieu, the natural culmination of family cinema's "lost child" motif: Bambi, Nemo, Simba and ET all rolled into one.
The end of the world is a melancholy premise. It taps into fears that afflict us all - of environmental disaster and, on a more personal level, of loneliness and loss. Even Wall-E's teaser trailer is a tearjerker. But then, Pixar has always relished the introduction of adult ideas into what are, ostensibly, children's films.
The Incredibles, for example, was a film about a family of superheroes. But it was also a meditation on the value of eccentricity, and an argument against the notion of appearing "normal" in order to fit in. Ratatouille, the studio's most recent feature, turned society on its head by putting the rats in charge of the kitchen. Pixar's films have always outstripped those of Dreamworks - maker of the Shrek series, among others - because they contain universal truths rather than a series of swiftly dated cultural in-jokes.
But even in Pixar's output, Gaydos says, there was room for improvement. "Animated films have fallen into a bit of a rut over the past few years," he says. "They all had the same script, which was saying, 'You can be who you want to be.' I was getting a bit tired of hearing the same shtick, and Wall-E really breaks out of that mould."
This is why many believe the film could legitimately garner at least a nomination for best picture at the 2009 Academy Awards. While Pixar's films always make an appearance in the best animated feature category (which Ratatouille won this year), Wall-E has bigger thematic fish to fry than its predecessors. Its adult subject- matter - the dangers of consumerism, the limits of technology, the fragility of our world and our society - has already attracted an adult demographic.
According to the The Hollywood Reporter, almost a quarter of its US audiences are couples without children. "That basically tells you that the adults have heard the reviews, and they're coming," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane told the paper. Meanwhile, the Cannes Film Festival this year failed to produce an array of Oscar hopefuls, which means that the field for the awards season is wide open; an unconventional champion such as Wall-E could scoop some major gongs.
Contrast Wall-E's reception with that of Dreamworks' latest offering, Kung Fu Panda, which received good, if not glowing, reviews. Its plot is of the standard "be who you want to be" variety described by Gaydos, and it is unashamedly aimed at children. Whatever its undoubted qualities, Kung Fu Panda is a beast unlikely to transcend the animated feature category.
More than any other group of movie men, Pixar's creative team continues to drive popular film-making on, ensuring that it remains a vital cultural medium in the 21st century. While others have employed computer-generated imagery (CGI) to batter narrative to death, Pixar has used it to craft a whole new paradigm, making the studio's name synonymous with superb storytelling, stunning imagery and emotional realism - even when those emotions are experienced by plastic toys, by hairy monsters, or by a shy, inquisitive robot.
Of the eight Pixar features since Toy Story, only Cars came in for any criticism - and it still made almost half a billion dollars at the box office. During their long run of success, Pixar's animators have become famous for their ruthless attention to detail. Mythic tales of their meticulousness include the three million individually rendered hairs covering Monsters Inc's lead character, Sully. Animators spent a full year studying the movement and behaviour of rats in preparation for Ratatouille.
Wall-E's dystopian backdrop required its animators to expend their energies on various different types of dust. Roger Deakins, the Coens' cinematographer on No Country for Old Men, helped Stanton to achieve a handheld camera feel for the first half of the film. For the scenes following Wall-E's later escape to space, software was developed to imitate the look of the Super Panavision 70mm camera used to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, and production designers took pains to decide on the appropriate category of star to light their hero's way.
Stanton, who is understandably proud of his and Pixar's creation, recently told The New York Times: "We were always frustrated that people saw CG as a genre as opposed to just a medium that could tell any kind of story. We felt like we widened the palette with Toy Story but then people unconsciously put CG back in a different box - 'Well, it's got to be irreverent, it's got to have A-list actors, it's got to have talking animals.'"
Wall-E does boast voicework from a pair of A-listers - Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Garlin (of Curb Your Enthusiasm) - but the film's stylistic masterstroke is to be essentially dialogue-free for the first few reels.
Wall-E is not, strictly speaking, silent. In fact, his repertoire of bleeps and whistles was generated by Ben Burtt, the renowned sound-designer of ET and Star Wars (hence the man responsible for R2- D2's wordless but expressive vocabulary). But the first half of the film is spent in the company of just three characters - Wall-E, his pet insect, and Eve, the robot with whom he falls in love - none of whom can speak.
Stanton also insisted that his characters should lack the unrealistic, cartoonish elasticity of past Pixar protagonists. Thus Wall-E and Eve are of fixed dimensions; they have no grinning mouths, no anthropomorphic eyebrows. Without these stylistic short- cuts or the crutch of dialogue, Wall-E is free to revel in the visual storytelling style of the earliest silent movies.
Pixar has pushed things forward by looking backward, and not for the first time. Many of the studio's films pine for the past, yet, of course, they are at the cutting edge of film technology. Take Woody, Toy Story's heroic old cowboy, whose position as top toy is threatened by the bang-up-to-date Buzz Lightyear. Or Lightning McQueen, the arrogant, "hoodstrong" protagonist of Cars, who learns from his elders and betters to value life in the slow lane. In the end, these films' old characters must reconcile themselves to change, while their new ones must learn to embrace the lessons of their predecessors.
Wall-E's narrative, too, is locked in an embrace between old and new. Wall-E, the old and rusting utilitarian machine, falls head over heels for a younger model when she appears unexpectedly on Earth. Eve, as pale and sleek as a box-fresh iPod, is an "Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator" sent back to the planet from the Axiom space station to look for signs of life. When she hops on a spaceship home, Wall-E inevitably follows. The film-makers are adamant that their movie is, above all else, a good old-fashioned love story.
What the old robot discovers on the Axiom are the remaining dregs of humanity. Buy *Large, the most powerful (and sole remaining) corporation is, it emerges, responsible for most of the consumerist junk Wall-E has spent his life rearranging. Thus it is also to blame for the sorry state of Earth's former inhabitants. The Axiom's population is pampered and provided with machines to perform every task - including the chewing of food - leaving their masters free to do nothing but watch endless television advertisements. These obese, unthinking humanoids are less human than the robots that do their bidding.
Buy *Large appears to be a thinly veiled approximation of the real world's Wal-Mart multinational. Alongside its mainstream advertising, Pixar has run a viral marketing campaign with a Buy *Large website as its centrepiece. There, at www.buynlarge.com, potential customers can find information on the company's consumer products and shopping options ("because the family that pays together, stays together"), on its newsgathering operation, and on its fledgling robotics division.
This unambiguous satire of consumerism is another Pixar paradox. In 2006, the studio was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in a well-publicised $7.4bn takeover. When Pixar chief - and Andrew Stanton's mentor - John Lasseter announced the deal, he did so while wearing not a business suit, but a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Creatively speaking, the nerds of Pixar retained complete control over their output. But it's ironic to hear anti-corporate noises from the very company that epitomises the encroaching influence of corporations - so much so that its fondness for bland commercialisation has coined a term: Disneyfication.
Sure enough, there is controversy over the apparent political content of Wall-E. Conservative bloggers have dismissed the film's environmental bent as left-wing propaganda, while eco-lobbyists are suspicious of a pro-recycling film that will generate mountains of disposable Disney merchandise.
In interviews, Stanton has distanced himself from any political points his film might seem to make. "The environment talk started to freak me out," he says. "I don't have much of a political bent, and the last thing I want to do is preach. I just went with things that I felt were logical for a possible future and supported the point of my story, which was the premise that irrational love defeats life's programming, and that the most robotic beings I've met are us."
Still, Wall-E has been compared, in its conscience-rousing power, to Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But, argues Steven Gaydos, Wall-E's message is more universal. "It's a wake-up call, telling people that the stewardship of the planet is a simple human responsibility, but also that it's a human's responsibility to live their life," he says. "Wall-E's themes are not just topical, they're universal: if you don't take action and you don't take responsibility and you don't exert your humanity, you can lose it. That's a timeless message, but it's not one you see in Hollywood movies every day."
Wall-E spends every evening watching an old video of the Hollywood musical Hello Dolly!, hoping to learn the tropes of romance. Indeed, two of the songs from that 1969 movie provide plot points for Pixar's futuristic fantasy.
And who knows? Maybe one day, after the apocalypse comes, the survivors picking through the trash will stumble across a touching film about a lonely robot, and learn a little about where humanity went wrong.
"Some day, there will be college courses devoted to this movie." New York Post
"A film that's both breathtakingly majestic and heartbreakingly intimate...you'll adore it because of a cuddly, lonely little robot who breaks your beeping heart." Village Voice
"Wall-E is one for the ages, a masterpiece to be savoured before or after the end of the world." New York magazine
"It is, the more I think about it, a jewel of a film - in conception, execution and message." Washington Post
"So sweet and funny that the multitudes undoubtedly will surrender to its many charms... Wall-E is just possibly the studio's most original work yet. Can they really top this?" The Hollywood Reporter
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