Movie Review: Pixar's 'WALL*E' Out of this World

Image from Pixar's 'Wall*E', opening June 27th

In a story that’s rapidly becoming folk lore, before the release of Toy Story, Pixar’s founders John Lasseter and Ed Cartmull decided to have a think session/supper with some of their earliest and most talented hires. This included Andrew Stanton, the late Joe Ranft, and Pete Docter.

Lasseter and Cartmull realized their first full-length feature was going to be a success. They would be in a position to make more movies. It would be a good idea to plan out their future.

Over pizza the team thought up Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo. They didn’t think up Toy Story 2, then Disney head Michael Eisner pressed that on them. There was one last idea. It was about a robot with a heck of a story. It would eventually be named “Wall*E,” and Stanton would eventually be designated its primary director.

The little robot hits the big screen today.

Yes, a lot of fans have been commenting about how Wall*E looks like a futuristic cousin of Short Circuit. The truth is the resemblance is circumstantial at best. Quite frankly, after a quick inspection you’ll see he bears a much closer resemblance, at least in spirit, to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. I mean that in all the most positive meanings of those words.

In fact, the story in and of itself rings true to something the great Chaplin would have thought of.

Spoiler Alert

The story starts in the late 21st Century. Mankind has polluted Earth so badly the futuristic equivalent of Wal-Mart, called Buy’N Large, sets up a plan to send the bulk (or at least the wealthiest) of humanity out on a five-year “pleasure cruise” to outer space. While out there, the president of BNL, Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard), stays behind with a team of humans and robots to clean the mess up.

Seven hundred years later, it looks like the only thing left on the planet is one robot, a Wall*E (Waste Allocator Load Lifter*Earth Class) unit. He’s cannibalized his fellow units for spare parts, has turned a gigantic dumpster to horde his personal collection of rubber ducks, Rubik’s cubes, Christmas bulbs, and probably the only videotape of Hello Dolly! left on the planet. Oh yes, he also finds a plant growing out of an old shoe.

That’s when the first rocket ship lands on Earth in who knows how long. It deposits EVE (Extra- Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who’s smooth lines and incredible curves makes Wall*E blow a circuit or two. Even though one might say EVE is an 'atomize first, think later' type of ‘bot, she soon falls for the little guy. It looks like the start of an incredible relationship At least until Wall*E shows EVE the plant.

Little do both ‘bots know, the fate of the Earth and humanity in total rides in the balance.

End Spoiler.

As one might expect from a Pixar film, the use of CGI here is state-of-the art eye candy.

What one doesn’t expect is just how expressive the animation has become, particularly when it comes to the characters of Wall*E and EVE. Our hero’s head is basically a pair of binocular lenses on a retractable neck. Think about it. Nothing resembling a mouth, nose, ears and many of the other parts of a face to use to express emotion. Further, Wall*E’s vocabulary is restricted to two words “Eve-Ah” and his own name. EVE at least has the addition of her LED display to express herself with. She even has an extra word in her itinerary, “directive.”

The key here is Stanton, who’s past directorial efforts include Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. The latter is Pixar’s biggest money maker ever at over $800 million world wide. The reason for this is at his core, Stanton follows a very simple formula. He loves “quest” films with incredibly strong character development. He doesn’t vary from the tried and true that way.

On the other hand, when we get on to the daring element, realize this: there’s going to be absolutely no dialogue in this movie for nearly the first 40 minutes. The only words spoken are an old video tape of the film Hello Dolly!, some ancient communications footage from Shelby Forthright, the long dead former head of the Buy’N Large company that once ruled the planet and the occasional bleep, chirp and/or other strange noise from Wall*E and his pet cockroach.

This first half of the film is a treatise on the old pencils-as-actors concept championed by the likes of Chuck Jones. A large part of this is due to the work of Pixar’s character team, lead by Alex Ochoa and Jake Martin. As stated before, Wall*E is basically a pair of eyes on a big box with metallic claws. Yet, during this sequence, even though he rarely says more than a few “whoo’s” and “wow’s,” he’s every bit as expressive as some of Jones’ greatest works, including Wile E. Coyote and the schmo from “One Froggy Evening”

Actually, if you really need to look for a root character to Wall*E, you should look at Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The little guy will tear at your heart, for sure, but he’s also got spunk. He’s not afraid to kick something with one of his tank treads if it annoys him enough. Most importantly, like Chaplin’s classic Modern Times, he’s the anachronism rallying against all those who stand against him. Whether it’s being alone for centuries on a planetary-sized wasteland, hitching a ride into infinity and beyond or coming up against his final set of adversaries, he won’t take no for an answer. Further, even though he is a tad selfish, in the end his goal ends up benefiting the whole human race in his own inadvertent way, again very Chaplin-like,

As for the film itself, one must give Stanton his props for his sheer ambition. The early half of the film, set on the wasted Earth, is jam-packed with all kinds of easter eggs and visual puns guaranteed to make the inevitable DVD release a must-have. From there, when Wall*E does get off planet (and admit it, you know he does), the outer space sequences between Wall*E and EVE are short of ballet while the remaining shots are jam-packed with incredible characters of all sorts and sizes.

This brings also a most important warning. Towards the end of the film Stanton manages to come up with a sequence that is as heart wrenching as the death scenes from Bambi and Old Yeller. Don’t be shocked if it shocks the kids.

At the same time, in this sequence Stanton and company have managed to hit a raw emotional note rarely achieved in a family film, and pump it for all it’s worth. Those who wonder if CGI will ever have the emotional impact of more traditional animated films should check this out.

Before leaving, there are several other people who deserve their share of credit for this film. The first is “sound designer” Ben Burtt. Technically the voice of Wall*E, he is best known for his work on R2D2 and C3PO of the Star Wars franchise. He’s the one who has managed to make what few sounds Wall*E says so effective.

Also important were the sound and music teams. When one considers how little dialogue runs through this film, the actual sound effects and movie score becomes critical. These teams take the film to the level of the team of Carl Stallings and Trig Brown. Personally, I can’t give a higher compliment for their work.

Let’s face it. Considering the incredible run of movies Pixar has produced over the last decade, it would be shocking to say that they have a bust. The simple truth is not only is this film another incredible success, it’s probably their BEST. FILM. EVER. Wall*E was a difficult film to make by anyone’s standards. The fact that they not only did an incredible job, but managed to break a lot of ground in the process, proves this studio still has a lot of life in it.

Honestly, I can’t wait to see what they now have planned for the next few years. If the string of films that came from that first meeting between Lasetter, Stanton and company is an indicator, they have a lot more great movies coming in their future.

… Oh, ad I can’t end this review without mentioning the latest Pixar short, “Presto.” If Wall*E is the studio’s most daring film yet, this short stands as one of its out-and-out funniest.

Directed by Doug Sweetland (previously the supervising animator on Cars), this film harkens back to the early, more looney days of Chuck Jones, particularly a very early short he did, “Harem Scarem” featuring Jones’ Two Pups and an early prototype of Bugs Bunny. Take a half-starved bunny, a 19th century magician, two magical hats, and a carrot the bunny doesn’t get to eat, and there’s going to be some serious hell to pay. Sweetland comes up with all manner of incredibly painful things to put the magic man through and you’d have to be a stone cold corpse not to end up laughing so hard your ribs will crack.

Definitely make it for this short. If you don’t, you really missed something.

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