“Wall-E” isn’t like other toons, not even previous Pixar ones. Instead of coloring within the lines of existing computer-animated movies, director Andrew Stanton saw the technology as an opportunity to raise the bar, to tell the kind of story that isn’t possible with live-action and had never been tried with animation.
The result is a largely dialogue-free post-apocalyptic love story between two robots that is a complete rejection of the celebrity voices, wisecracking critters and kid-friendly stories that have come to characterize other CG toons. It’s also Pixar’s first romance (a genre that tends to alienate young boys) set against a science-fiction backdrop (not big with the girls), with the two lead characters relating through Charlie Chaplin-like pantomime.
“Questions like, ‘Why do I have to subscribe to pre-existing rules?’ have pretty much been the modus operandi since the day I walked in here,” says Stanton, who joined Pixar at a time when there was no promise of doing anything beyond commercials. When the studio crossed over into features, he joined “Toy Story’s” story team and later helmed Pixar’s top-grossing film, “Finding Nemo.”
“‘Toy Story’ was fueled by this frustration that inside Hollywood, they were beginning to solidify the elements of successful animated pictures and turning them into rules,” Stanton explains. “We had this little cheat-sheet list for ourselves that said, ‘No love story. No villain. No ‘I Want’ song. No happy village.’”
Instead of recycling Disney’s standard 2-D formula, the Pixar crew concocted an original buddy movie set in the present day with no ties to classic literature or fairy tales.
The emphasis on story and character made all the difference. While other animation studios managed to catch up on the technology front, Pixar’s core philosophy never changed.
“They’re looking at what is going to make success. Our approach has always been what is going to make the best movie, almost to the detriment of success,” Stanton says. “From a business mogul or studio standpoint, we’ve been reckless and irresponsible from day one. From a filmmaker or artistic standpoint, we’ve been as faithful and loyal as we can be.”
Stanton says he would love to see the studio reach a point where it doesn’t matter whether the films make money in the near term. “We don’t want the one that isn’t successful to change the model,” he says.
If “Wall-E” represents a seismic leap forward for animation, there’s no reason Stanton’s next project, “John Carter of Mars” (based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic “Barsoom” series), can’t push the art form even further.
“The computer is a pencil or paint,” he says. “Just think about how many different places paintings kept getting taken. The computer is going to be the same way. It seems infinite to me.”