If there’s a dark side to the film Wall*E, it’s certain factions are already reading political statements into the film, and one would be hard pressed to say the little robot has happy feet.As many now know, when Wall*E finally meets humanity, he finds they have become floating-couch ridden, Blue Tooth-addicted, uniform big babies perpetually floating around their ship in perfect formations. Stanton openly admits one of his influences for this was Aldous Huxley’s beautiful dystopia Brave New World. Another was a NASA researcher he met while doing research, John Hicks.
“I just went with knowing what I wanted humanity to be and I wasn't sure how to express it at first,” Stanton recalls. “Something to amplify what was going on with the main point of the love story. I'm not one of those people who come up with a theme and then write to it. I like to find the natural things that seem to be firing and somewhere halfway I realize what the theme is.
“[Hicks is researching] long term residency in space. He told me this fact of they still are arguing about how exactly to correctly set it up so that when a human does go all the way to Mars and back, they won't start losing their bones. Because disuse atrophy kicks in if you don't simulate gravity just right the entire time. That's sort of a form of osteoporosis and you won't get that back. They actually said they've had arguments where they go, ‘If we don't get this right, they're just going to be a big blob.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that's perfect! That's perfect!’
“To be honest, in a very early version, I actually went so weird I made them like big blobs of Jello,” says Stanton, “because I thought Jello was funny and they would just sort of wiggle and stuff. There was sort of a Planet of the Apes conceit where they didn't even know they were humans anymore and they found that out, but it was so bizarre I had to pull back. I needed some more grounding.
“So I thought alright, I'll make them big babies. There's actually a scientific term that Peter Gabriel, actually, told me about. It's called neoteny. [It’s] where there's this belief that nature kind of figures out that you don't have to use these parts of yourself anymore to survive so why give it to you? Why let you grow any farther? And I thought that's perfect. It was almost again sort of a metaphor for ‘It's time to get up and grow up!’"
He also swears politics had nothing to do with the ship deciding that red was “the new blue,” thus turning all humanity’s uniforms the same color. The same for when two of the characters, John (John Ratzenberger) and Mary (Kathy Najimi), get knocked off their couches and start realizing the world they actually live in, that political affiliation had nothing to do with their uniforms returning to red.
“I go, ‘Look, I don't want it to be offensive but if you had no reason to do anything anymore,” Stanton said. If everything had been figured out and technology made it that easy to never have to get u, then I guess this would sort of set in. It's kind of happening just with my remote in my living room.”
The simple truth, at least according to Wall*E’s creator, is he turned humanity into a gigantic pack of giant floating babies to help tell his love story. The story is about two robots transcending their hardwired programming, their “directives” as EVE would call them, and save humanity in the process. After all, another point is robots who stick to what they are told, like M-O, end up the butt of every joke possible. Worse, like Auto, they nearly destroy us all by sticking to their protocols.
“I realized the point I was trying to push with these two programmed robots was the desire for them to try and figure out what the point of living was,” said Stanton. “It took these really irrational acts of love to sort of discover them against how they were built. I said, ‘That's it! That's my theme: Irrational love defeats life's programming.’"
“I realized that that's a perfect metaphor for real life. We all fall into our habits, our routines and our ruts, consciously or unconsciously to avoid living. To avoid having to do the messy part. To avoid having relationships with other people. of dealing with the person next to us. That's why we can all get on our cell phones and not have to deal with one another. I thought, ‘That's a perfect amplification of the whole point of the movie.’ I wanted to run with science in a way that would sort of logically project that.”
Potential controversies aside, what one can not deny is Wall*E is truly a groundbreaking film. Stanton truly shows his directorial muscle in the first 40 minutes, where there isn’t a single word of dialogue, just the robot and his pet bug (named Hal Roach) running around the planet on a wasted Earth.
“We felt we could do it with nontraditional dialogue,” Stanton explains. “Maintaining the integrity of the character. In real life, when characters can’t speak—a baby, a pet—people tend to infer their own emotional beliefs onto them: ‘I think it’s sad. She likes me.’ It’s very engaging for an audience.
“In the world of animation, pantomime is the thing animators love best. It’s their bread and butter, and they’re raised on it instinctively. John Lasseter realized this when he animated and directed his first short for Pixar, ‘Luxo, Jr.,’ featuring two lamp characters who express themselves entirely without dialogue. The desire to give life to inanimate objects is innate to animators.”
One could even say it’s the very core of animation and as old as J. Stuart Blackton’s short “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” now recognized as the first ever animated short.
“For the animators of Wall*E, it was like taking the handcuffs off and letting them run free,” Stanton continues. “They were able to let the visuals tell most of the story. They also discovered that it’s a lot more difficult to achieve all the things they needed to.
“I kept trying to make the animators put limitations on themselves, because I wanted the construction of the machines and how they were engineered to be evident. The characters seem robotic because they don’t squash and stretch. It was a real brain tease for the animators to figure out how to get the same ideas communicated and timed the way it would sell from a storytelling standpoint and still feel like the machine was acting within the limitations of its design and construction. It was very challenging…and completely satisfying when somebody found the right approach and solution.”
Another interesting element in the film’s overall composition is its use of live action footage in-between all the incredible animation. Critical elements are an old video Wall*E finds of the film Hello Dolly! and live-action performances of Fred Willard as the former leader of the Buy’N Large super stores, Shelby Forthright. The latter goes a long, long way of telling just what happened to the planet without being heavy-handed while the former goes miles in establishing Wall*E’s loneliness and the joy of meeting EVE.
“I had been searching for the right musical elements to go with the film,” Stanton admits. “and stumbling upon Hello Dolly! was the best thing that could have happened. The song ‘Put On Your Sunday Clothes,’ with your ‘Out There’ prologue, seemed to play so well with the themes of the film and yet would not normally be the kind of music you’d expect to find in a film like ours. It’s a very naïve song, really, and it’s sung by two guys who don’t know a thing about life. They want to go to the big city. They won’t ‘come home until they’ve kissed a girl.’ It’s such a simple joy to it, and it really worked for us. When I found ‘It Only Takes a Moment,’ it was like a godsend. That song became a huge tool for me to show Wall*E’s interest in what love is.”
Even so, when pressed Stanton does opt that it’s a choice no one, including himself, was expecting.
“I know,” he laughs. “Why? The weirdest choice I'll ever make in a film I make in my life. I am not lying, when I had that weird idea of putting that song, I turned to my wife and said, ‘This is the weirdest idea I've ever had and I will be asked why I chose this for the rest of my life.’
“But by the time I'd sort of come to terms on the analyst couch why I had done it, I realized OK, I'm willing to put up with answering this for the rest of my life because I really do think it's the best choice. [It’s something] I wanted early, early on, it's even in the very first script. I knew I wanted old fashioned music against space. I knew I loved the idea of future and past juxtaposed and that on the first frame that would not seem familiar. It would seem sort of fresh, like this isn't exactly where I'm used to a movie being, let alone an animated movie. I just liked that it was almost like a firm footing that I wouldn't be conventional.
“So then I started looking through stuff and I said, ‘Well, there's so many old fashioned songs. What do I pick?’ I started going down to standards at some point and standards come from a lot of musicals and I'd done enough musical theater to know what the staples are, you know Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, Annie, West Side Story, and Hello Dolly!. So I got to Hello Dolly and I played the beginning of ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes,’ and when that phrase ‘out there’ came on, just viscerally, just ‘out there against stars,’ I'm like ‘Wow! That just kicks in. That just works.’ Out of context, it works. Then it starts talking about, you know, weird stuff, but then I was ‘I don't know, I can't drop it.’ So I kept putting it in and slowly showing it to a slightly larger circle of intimate creative friends and saying ‘What do you think?’ It kind of worked and then I finally realized why. I realized it's because the song's about two nerdy guys that have never left their small town and they just want to go out to the big city for one night, feel what life's all about, and kiss a girl. I said, "That's my main character!’
“So then my co-writer, Jim Reardon, said ‘You know, he should just find the movie and that's what'll explain why he knows this.’ So we looked at the movie and when I found that second song and I saw the two lovers holding hands, it's like this light bulb went off. I said ‘That's exactly how he can express the phrase 'I love you; without being able to say it.’ When you get that kind of gift falling on your lap when you're doing your research, you don't run away from it, you just embrace it. So I embraced the odd choice and just said ‘I think this is meant to be.’”
Then there was his choice of Willard.
“Well, he's the most friendly and insincere car salesman I could think of,” said Stanton. “It's funny. I thought it would be a little more obvious. I hope I succeeded in it in the sense that once I chose an old movie for somebody, WALL-E to watch, that I knew would be showing footage of real human beings, I said ‘Well, that sets a precedent. That means anytime you look at old footage, it should be real human beings.’ I can get away with being CG with where humanity has changed in the present slash future, but I thought it would be even weirder if I was sort of all over the map with how I portrayed humans in old footage. I said I should just be consistent with that so that's why I picked it. It was just because I set a precedent.
”I always felt, almost with a zealous passion, that animation can tell as many stories as any other medium, and it’s rarely been pushed outside its comfort zone,” Stanton added regarding Willard being shot in live action. “I was so proud to have had something to do with the creation of Toy Story, because that I felt that the tone of the movie and the manner of its storytelling broke a lot of conventions that were in people’s minds. I feel like you can keep pushing those boundaries. Even before I knew the film was going to be called Wall*E, I knew it was yet another step in pushing those boundaries out farther. I’m so proud that I got a chance to make it and that it matched my expectations.”
Don’t be surprised if after seeing the film yourself you’re in absolute agreement.