Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Reality of Wall-E

Wall-E doesn't play by the rules. I refer to Wall-E the film as opposed to Wall-E the character.

While it seems that praise has been nearly universal for this latest Pixar film, a considerable amount of dialog has emerged about what many consider the movie's somewhat odd mixture of formats. Specifically, the initial presentation of photo-realistic characters and environments, the use of live-action footage (primarily in the scenes featuring actor Fred Willard) and the somewhat dramatic aesthetic shift to the more cartoony realizations of the human beings aboard the Axiom spaceship in the film's latter half.

Noted animator and animation historian Michael Sporn noted on his blog, "I was, again, impressed with the incredible artistic abilities of the Pixar people, but I didn’t feel as though I were watching an animated film. It felt like a live action film (until the balloony fat people entered) with high effects. Perhaps that’s a positive; I’m not sure anymore. Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Snow White. These films were magic to me as a child. I imagine Wall-E is like every other effects film to today’s children. I can’t imagine it will inspire future generations to get into the field. Maybe, you never know."

I agree with Michael; very often over the course of Wall-E's 97 minutes, I completely lost the sense of this being an animated film. In fact, so immersed was I in this environment that, when EVE ignited a cigarette lighter in one of the movie's earlier scenes and my friend next to me marveled at how the flame was a simple yet amazing piece of animation, it took me a moment to understand what he was talking about. And I understand Michael's reservations as well. With much of Wall-E, Pixar has stepped beyond the very genre it has espoused and remained generally faithful to over the course of its prior eight films. They clearly decided to, in many aspects, move beyond what would be considered a traditional animated presentation. To many, especially industry professionals like Michael, it begs the question--are we watching something akin to Pinocchio or Snow White, or product more related to George Lucas' FX-driven opuses, or blue screen-filmed dynamics like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300?

I believe the answer to that question is truly rooted in the out-of-box creative approach that Pixar has long been noted for. Wall-E is unconventional. It moves beyond the unwritten but still somewhat ingrained rules of animation presentation, and does so in the service of the story it wishes to tell. I submit that the combination of the film's disjointed aesthetic dynamics was very much a deliberate choice on the part of Andrew Stanton and his team. The movie's three very distinct design approaches--photo-realistic animation, live-action actors and sets, and cartoon-based characters--are in fact integral components of the film's overall theme and story.

While Wall-E is at its heart a character-driven love story, it is played out on a thematic canvas that contrasts reality with the artificial. Robots are artificial; that is and has been a consistent truism of all entertainment media. And typically accompanying that truism is the story device of imbuing robots with sentience and emotions. But that plot dynamic is in fact not really central to Wall-E. Wall-E is introduced as a fully developed personality, not requiring a journey of self-discovery. He is a survivor very aware of his harsh reality, a being who understands concepts of loyalty and friendship, and more than anything he is a lonely dreamer yearning for companionship. Though artificial in construct, Wall-E is very real; he is not very far removed from current executions of robot-based technology, thus he is all the more believable. In turn, his native environment is equally believable; from the haunting landscapes of an abandoned and garbage-filled megalopolis, right down to his battered Rubik's Cube and comical collection of garden gnomes. The intention becomes clear, Wall-E's world is not very far removed from our own.

The establishment of Wall-E and his environment by use of photo-realistic animation then serves to contrast the film's other not so subtle overriding theme--the reverse-evolution of humanity. Closeted aboard a giant cruise ship-inspired spacecraft, the human race has wholly embraced the artificial. Theirs is an existence of commercial over-consumption, supported by an infrastructure that simultaneously exposes and insulates them from their environment and fellow beings. The physical-emotional connectivity that Wall-E so desperately desires is seemingly always within reach for the denizens of the Axiom, but ironically only occurs by accident.

In filmed entertainment, there is in fact nothing more artificial than traditional cartoon-style animation. And so we thus see that transformation of human beings in the film. Humanity, as initially represented by the very real character of Buy-N-Large CEO Shelby Forthright, portrayed by Willard, is ultimately supplanted by the very artificial and cartoon style-designed incarnations aboard the Axiom. It is an evolution that is cleverly documented via the portraits of the Axiom Captains that hang on the wall in the current ship captain's quarters. It is there in that one subtle but very important set piece that the filmmakers' aesthetic and design intentions become especially clear.

Characteristic of Pixar, it is indeed a bold move. For they in fact use the various different formats of filmed presentation in the service of storytelling and transcend the very medium they have long been associated with. In many circles, especially those within the animation industry, it will likely remain a debated and somewhat controversial topic. As strictly a moviegoer, for me, Wall-E presented a wholly new and original approach to the animation genre. We can certainly split hairs as to how we want to categorize and classify the film, but in the end, at least in my opinion, it will remain a wonderful combination of stunning visuals and heartfelt storytelling.

Image © Walt Disney Company


kentberlin said...

Amazingly put I agree whole heartedly.Keep up the great work Mr. Pepper.

Lou Mongello - said...

I SO can't wait to go see this. The original plan was to sneak away for a few hours and take the kids to see their first, in-theater movie. What a great first choice, right?

NOW I'm thinking I should sneak away ALONE ("research purposes") to possibly avoid the squirming, the questions, the jumping around, etc. (and that's just from Deanna!) ;)

Great posts, buddy!

Cory Gross said...

Interesting discussion about animation styles that, I think, articulates one of the big weaknesses I've felt Pixar and its derivatives have held up to now. When asked about my favorite CGI animated film, my answer is always Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

I'm not sure why we should or even would make the distinction between "pure animation" and "mere special effects" in a medium as versatile as CGI. I'm not sure how much of that distinction is actually made by the story, in that Pixar has defined the genre of CGI animated films (the wry and wacky, pop-culture laden secret life of things that are funny because they're just like us), much like how Disney is accused of having regimented the genre of traditional animation, and therefore any films that use CGI as a medium and draw their influences from elsewhere are mere FX films.

Of course, Pixar might just be bound by the same market pressures that have given the impression that Disney defined what traditional animation can be in the West. Whenever Disney deviates from the fairy tales with talking animals, nobody pays to see it... While, for all my criticism of Pixar, I am looking forward to Princess of Mars, I worry that it is going to bomb and the company will go back to the forumla established in Toy/Bug/Monster/Fish/Superhero/Automobile Story. Barely anybody bothered with Sky Captain.

Anyways, I think it's an interesting discussion, even if having to have it at all is a symptom of what's wrong with our perception of CGI animation (and even how Westerners conceptualize animation in general).

action-packed said...

speaking of CGI in regular films vs. animated ones- I mentioned to a friend during the Clone Wars preview that it was only 5 or 10% more animation than Episodes 1-3. I hope that Clone Wars is good, I liked the preview. I would ride a Star Tours upgrade with that style of animation, I hope that there will be several variations including the classic one available to ride when and if they refurb that ride.

I managed mot to cry (like a baby) in Wall-e but it was close. I still can't get through Iron Giant without choking up.

Good wall-e posts, I hope he shows up in a good attraction in tomorrowland soon.

Anonymous said...

It's an excellent film, for all the reasons Mr. pepper cited...and then some. I see this film taking it's rightful place, in due time, just as "Ratatouille" took a bit longer to find an audience who truly understands it.
Remember, very few "got" Fantasia when it was first released. I believe that was only Walt's 4th release...this is (I think) one of Pixar's first 10 or have come this far this fast is something only Pixar and Disney have ever done. Period.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the film and I frown at the posters at Cartoon Brew complaining about the film's ecological message. I thought it was good and hated to read Thad K's review of the film. He seems not to enjoy the film and I'm losing intreast in his bad attitude and his commenters who agree with him.

Anonymous said...

I can't be the only one who's noticed the "Hello, Dolly" song we hear throughout Wall-E has been a fixture of Main Street, U.S.A's soundtrack for decades, too.
I'm going to see it again tonight. :-)

Anonymous said...

By the way...notice the Pizza Planet truck in one of the trash piles as Wall-E is scooping up trash...and the "people mover" is the name of the contraption on the ship.

Anonymous said...

Your first sentence echoed my own thoughts on the movie (that it doesn't play by rules).

In the same vein, "Presto", the short paired with it, is a rule-breaker for CG animation. Specifically, it has a large number of static holds, which help it capture the Chuck Jones/Tom & Jerry style. Every CG book and expert has so far declared that static holds are taboo for CG animation. But they pulled it off with some careful planning and timing tricks.

I'm glad the people at Pixar are experimenting, instead of falling back on what's worked before, and giving us more of the same.

kentberlin said...

I thought the ecological message was a small one.I thought the bigger message was when the captain said " I want to lIVE not Survive". That is a much stronger message in that it is warning us of over conveniences and laziness.