Judge Mike Rubin-O never completed his prime directive.
After 700 years of doing what he was built for—he'll discover what he's meant for.
Pixar hasn't had a failure yet, and with each new release the company takes bigger and bolder chances. WALL-E, a largely silent science fiction romance, may have been their biggest gamble thus far (yes, even more than that movie about rats). And yet with all of the risk in technology, storytelling, and social commentary, WALL-E is one of the studio's best efforts and one of the year's top films.
Facts of the Case
In a future where the human race has completely trashed the planet, a sentimental robot named WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) has been put in charge of cleaning up the place. While he's busy doing that, the humans are off spending 700 years on a space-cruise called the Axiom, owned by the multi-national, evil corporation, Buy n' Large (who's responsible for creating the mess in the first place).
WALL-E's centuries of solitude come to a halt, however, when a mysterious robot named Eve shows up to scan the planet for life. WALL-E quickly becomes smitten with the iMac-esque bot, and tries to woo her with the romance skills he learned from studying a VHS tape of Hello Dolly! Despite WALL-E's best efforts, Eve can't be swayed from her prime directive, especially after she discovers vegetation growing out of an old boot.
Eve is soon retrieved and taken back to the Axiom, with WALL-E in hot pursuit. Once on the cruise ship, WALL-E discovers a world of servant robots, blob-like humans, and sinister corporate motives—and all while trying to win the heart of the girl he loves.
WALL-E is quite the paradox. The film, directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), is both a brilliant piece of sci-fi decoupage and a sentimental Pixar flick steeped in social commentary. On the one hand, it borrows from the best, getting its look and feel from venerable films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Short Circuit. On the other, WALL-E transmits a message that warns of humans (read: Americans) becoming fat slobs that destroy the planet with their buying habits. Either way, I assumed that I would be turned off by the film's condescension.
That said, I must admit that I became a victim of WALL-E's central theme: irrational love defeats all programming.
Stanton proclaims the theme in his audio commentary, and it suddenly occurred to me why I liked the movie so much. It wasn't the heavy-handed cynicism of the portrayal of humans, nor was it the well-worn sci-fi atmosphere. I'm usually not impressed by that stuff. It was, like most Pixar movies, the film's heart that got me. Darn irrational love!
The first act of the film finds our robot hero alone, going about his day-to-day duties as Earth's sole keeper with a cheerful curiosity. While digging through humanity's garbage, he finds some of our more creative inventions to be more than salvageable. Once WALL-E returns to his humble abode, which he shares with a cockroach (read: post-apocalyptic Jiminy Cricket), it's clear that he's a pack-rat. The bot turns on his VHS of the forgotten Disney musical Hello Dolly and sinks in to his own world of sentimental revelry. It's this old technicolor movie that teaches the Buster Keaton-esque WALL-E everything there is to know about love and optimism. And it's this juxtaposition between the old and the new—between dusty old showtunes and dusty new robots—that Stanton nails perfectly.
Everything changes, of course, once Eve enters the film. WALL-E finally has a companion, even if she isn't the best communicator. From here, the movie begins its second act: the move to the Axiom. Again, Stanton uses the juxtaposition of the grimy, old Earth with the slick, hermetically-sealed world of the Axiom. Here the humans have evolved 700 years, becoming fat, baby-like creatures that hover around on deck chairs while being bombarded with advertising and technology. The transition in the film can be a tad jarring, as the audience travels from the serene, if dirty, world of Earth into the loud, obnoxious atmosphere of the Axiom. My first thoughts were "They Live in Space." And yet I can't help but feel that this jarring feeling is precisely what Stanton and the crew over at Pixar were going for. A cannonball effect in terms of plot development and exposition, without something as blatant as a monologue describing the entire world we see before us.
If anything, it's at about the half-way mark when the film returns to a more standard, Disney fare. WALL-E is out to win the heart of his true love, no matter what he has to destroy in the process. His simple, irrational romance never seems to waver in the film, and instead transforms those around him. Eve slowly comes around, abandoning her prime directive in favor of saving WALL-E and the world. The same goes for the scads of creatively-designed robots that WALL-E saves from the robo-psyche ward. He even awakens the heart of the ship's captain (voiced wonderfully by Jeff Garlin, Curb Your Enthusiasm), who decides to fight to return to Earth.
It's at this point that the film wins over the hearts of most skeptics and everyone cheers alongside that loveable little trash compactor. What can I say? I'm a sentimentalist.
But perhaps more important, at least for the future of computer animation, is the technology on display in WALL-E. In the ultimate ironic twist, Stanton, along with directors of photography Danielle Feinberg and Martin Rosenberg, go the extra mile to mimic the limitations and irregularities of a film camera. The movie is filled with subtle shifts in focus, lens flares, and abrupt zooms. They created WALL-E as if it were being filmed with a regular Panavision camera, and this choice just enhances the film's reality and depth. It's arguable, but I'm inclined to think that the actual look of the film, in terms of rendering, isn't that much beyond last year's Ratatouille; what has changed, however, is the amount of depth and imperfection that has created a very close approximation to photo-realism (at least in the first half of the film).
I won't go as far to say that this film is better than The Incredibles (which I consider to be the cream of the Pixar crop), but it's up there. The film's logic, pragmatism, design, and story all add up to one of the best films of the year.
Disney has released WALL-E in a jam-packed 3-disc special edition. The video is, not surprisingly, just about perfect. The same goes for the sound, which features a beautiful score by Thomas Newman and a kicking Peter Gabriel song during the closing credits. It's also worth noting the incredible sound design on this film, much of which was done by the legendary Ben Burtt (Star Wars). Burtt is also the voice of WALL-E, which, I must say, is way cuter than Johnny 5 ever was.
On the first disc, aside from the feature, Disney has included Presto, the short film about a magician that screened before WALL-E in theaters. Presto is an adorable, and fairly clever, short film about a rabbit determined to get his carrot during a magician's routine. Also included is the much-touted (at least in the commercials) short Burn-E. This seven-minute toon elaborates on the welding robot who gets locked out during the space-dancing scene between WALL-E and Eve. It's classic vaudevillian slapstick with the same production values as the feature—and Pixar nicely weaves it in to a bunch of other events from the film. Also on the disc is an excellent commentary track by director Andrew Stanton. He goes into great detail about the themes of the film, the process that he went through to get it made, and the variations on the ever-changing plot. To accompany his commentary track, there are two major deleted scenes on the disc that, if implemented, would have totally changed the end of the movie. Finally, there is an excellent featurette on the film's sound design and a :50 sneak peek of "WALL-E's Tour of the Universe."
That's all on the first disc, and also the single-disc release, if you decide to pick that up instead of the 3-discer.
Although the best of the special features, as far as behind-the-scenes stuff goes, can be found on disc two. This disc is split up into two sections, one for fans of the film and one for families (or really, kids). The family side has some neat features for tikes, like "WALL-E's Treasures," a brief series of clips that feature WALL-E messing around with random objects; "Bot Files," a collection of a ton of bios for all the robots in the film; and "Lots of Bots," which is basically a children's story book that has some puzzle solving thrown in.
On the "Fans of the Film" side, however, is a whole slew of excellent production featurettes. There are featurettes on how the animators recreated imperfect lenses for the film, the evolution of the human characters, the film's score, etc. And if that wasn't enough, there is a massive 90-minute documentary about the history of Pixar. The film was written and directed by Leslie Iwerks and narrated by Stacey Keach (Mike Hammer), and provides a very candid, in-depth look at the company's history (the film was completed in 2007). The documentary could have easily been released on its own; it's that good. There are also a handful of "BnL" shorts, which are basically more of the same cynical-yet-funny humor that was briefly seen in the film. Finally, there are a couple more deleted scenes (basically rough animatics) that look at different ways the third act could have evolved.
Last, but not least, the third disc features a digital download of the film. Why can't studios just figure out a way to make the feature disc downloadable? Does anyone actually use these things? Doesn't making a third, excessive disc just promote the wastefulness that WALL-E has to clean up? I digress…
The special features in WALL-E: 3-Disc Special Edition are excellent, and since much of the behind-the-scenes stuff is on the second disc, any Pixar fan is going to want to get this version instead of the single-discer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I may be able to overlook the film's obvious social commentary and blatant sci-fi borrowing, but I can't—can't!—overlook the crappy package this 3-disc set comes in. Whereas previous Pixar releases have come in standard amaray cases with flippers inside and shiny sleeves, WALL-E comes in a strange, flimsy cardboard case that reminded me of those late-generation Sega Genesis games. The discs pop out of these wings that slide from the sides of the case. If you have kids, they'll tear this thing to shreds in seconds.
So the question is why the junk case? Well, it's not (I don't think) because they're going to release these discs in a giant WALL-E head six months from now. Rather, it's because the case is "100% Earth (and space) friendly eco-packaging." Now, I love the environment as much as the next guy, but there's got to be a better way to make these cases. This thing may be green friendly, but it's not user friendly.
Pixar's latest lives up to the hype. As a science fiction tale, it borrows a lot, but it uses everything pragmatically (everything you see in the film has a thoughtful purpose). As a Disney film, it's a perfect fit with just the right amount of sentimentality and humor. And if you're willing, like I am, to look past the heavy (zing!) amount of social commentary inherent with this kind of stuff, you're in for a real treat.
Disney and Pixar have released a massive collector's DVD set. With two additional, and hilarious, shorts and a feature-length documentary, you can't go wrong shelling out a little more for this release.
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Scales of Justice
• "Burn-E" Animated Short
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