Cautionary tale connects on an emotional level
For all its state-of-the-artiness, Pixar Animation has always been about imposing the better human qualities on nonhuman entities. In other words, friendship, loyalty and family, as portrayed by toys, bugs, fish, cars and rats.
More specifically, Pixar has done for inanimate objects what Uncle Walt did for furry woodland creatures.
Yet despite all this, “Wall-E” — the Disney-Pixar contender for best animated feature and best picture — still seems an audacious conceit: Set in a future where Earth is despoiled and the humans are obese, the ultimate irrationality of romantic love is experienced by, and through, machines. Who seem more real than lots of human actors.
Then there’s the environmental subtext, which Pixar chief and the film’s writer-director Andrew Stanton says was never intended. Not exactly.
“I’m not foolish; I knew it would become a topic of conversation,” he admits of his movie’s eco-themes. “But the last thing I want to have happening when I go to the movies is to feel like I’m being preached to — even if I agree with the opinion being preached.”
He says Pixar’s strategy — or philosophy, or worldview — has always been about “telling the best story despite the medium we’re in. We just want to be on the same playing field as all those movies we loved.” But he doesn’t mind if audiences leave “Wall-E” remembering that “the most important thing is that we connect with each other.”
The film’s title character — a Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, and collector of ironic human detritus (a Rubik’s Cube, a copy of “Hello, Dolly!”) — is the last remnant of organized labor, toiling under his lonely planet’s rubbish skyline. His personality, and his exchanges with Eve, the far more advanced vegetation probe with whom he falls in love, have been oft cited as Chaplinesque, although Stanton says the stone-faced Buster Keaton was more of an influence. Stanton, however, actually tried to underplay a lot of the movie references that have been seen as informing “Wall-E” — “E.T.” for instance, or “The Wizard of Oz.”
“There are not a lot of direct references,” he says, “because I didn’t want to pull you out of the picture. But I have to claim ownership of the ‘2001’ stuff. That was just too good a shorthand for the resumption of mankind.”
Much has been made of the fact that for the first half-hour or so of “Wall-E” there’s no dialogue at all and that much of what’s in the film is uttered by nonhumans. “We were starting from the premise that we were going to have two characters not speaking, at least not as you or I would speak, and that forced us to explore just how much emotion and drama can be conveyed without dialogue,” Stanton says. “And the thing is, there’s very little that can’t be.”
The methodology of making the character Wall-E human was the same, Stanton says, as was used on “Finding Nemo.” In that case, the “grammar” of fish — how they naturally move — was studied and translated into human body language. In “Wall-E,” it was the grammar of hydraulics and machinery.
Ever since “Beauty and the Beast” got its best pic nom in 1991 — or even since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was released in 1938 — animators have been wishing upon a star that the Academy would bestow its top honor on a cartoon. While the establishment of the best animated feature category for 2001 seemed calculated to prevent that from ever happening, Stanton says the move was really a compliment.
“If it’s ghettoized animation, that was unintentional,” he says. “The category was created because the Academy couldn’t ignore all the quality animation that was coming out, and it showed a trust that that would continue. But I can’t say that when we’re making a film that we’re trying to make the best animated film we can make; we’re trying to make the best film. It’s not about thinking, ‘What would an animated movie do?’ but, ‘What would a movie do?’ “