Even among Pixar’s very creative catalogue of films, WALL-E is unique. For a movie that’s about an hour and a half long, there’s barely any dialogue, telling most of its story through its visuals, sound design and soundtrack. It was the first Pixar movie to feature live-action characters. It also clearly critiques consumerism, and to a lesser extent, Disney’s production values and aesthetics. There’s a heavy nostalgic vibe to the movie while also taking place in the far future. There are also subtle Christian themes related to the Adam and Eve story, but you can easily watch the movie and not even think about that.
This June will be the 10th anniversary of WALL-E. It’s their 9th movie released in the span of 13 years. Pixar’s been increasing their rate of releasing movies since; in the last 10 years they’ve released another 10 movies, and number 20 is coming out this summer. That alone shows how much they’ve grown as a company.
Andrew Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo, came up with the idea while eating lunch with fellow writers John Lasseter, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft as far back as 1994. Toy Story was almost complete and they were brainstorming ideas for their next projects. Stanton asked “What if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?” Stanton and Doctor decided to expand on the idea under the title Trash Planet for a couple months in 1995, but didn’t know how to develop the story. Another reason they didn’t go forward with WALL-E when they first came up with the idea was because the technology simply wasn’t ready for their ambitions. They both decided to focus on other projects for the time, with Docter working on Monsters Inc. and Stanton on Finding Nemo.
While finishing up on Finding Nemo, Stanton and Lasseter thought about having WALL-E falling in love, which would help progress him past loneliness. Stanton’s script would later be described as similar to a haiku, with a lot of lines describing visuals in as few words as possible. The script went through several major changes too. At one point aliens planted probe robots on Earth to see if it was viable for life. After he learned of atrophy and the effects of prolonged weightlessness has on the body, it inspired him to turn the movie’s humans into blob-like aliens with a culture very different from our own. At one point he also considered a reveal of their ancestry in a Planet of the Apes/style twist, but eventually decided that was a bit too bizarre.
WALL-E was the most complex production for Pixar since Monsters Inc. because of the world and its history, which needed to be told mostly through the visuals. While most Pixar movies have around 75,000 storyboards, WALL-E required 125,000. They also wanted the movie to have a realistic appearance, like the science-fiction movies Stanton remembered from his youth. He wanted to take the advancements Finding Nemo made with animating water and apply that to the air. They worked for months just on the movie’s visual atmosphere, emulating the unfocused backgrounds you get in real life and focusing on the kinds of angles you’d use while shooting a live-action film. It’s something you don’t notice when you’re just watching the movie, but it gives WALL-E an extra visual edge that sets it apart from Pixar’s earlier work. The live action segments, mostly used for in-universe archival footage, were also used by Stanton to warm himself up for his live action debut, John Carter of Mars.
From the start, they wanted WALL-E shaped like a box and EVE to be shaped like an egg. They designed WALL-E’s eyes to look like binoculars after Stanton found himself distracted by a pair of binoculars he used at an Oakland Athletics baseball game. They added zoom lenses into WALL-E’s eyes to make him more sympathetic. They gave the animators more room to work with on WALL-E’s expressions, allowing them to give him a childlike quality. They studied trash compactors for further inspiration on designing his body, and designed his treads based on a specialized wheelchair someone built.
To further help with the silent film aspect of the movie, the crew watched a Keaton and a Charlie Chaplin film every day for almost a year, along with a couple other silent films here and there. To help with the sound design, they brought in Ben Burtt, the sound designer for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Having just finished Revenge of the Sith, he originally told his wife he no longer wanted to work on movies with robots, but fell in love with the WALL-E concept, stating it sounded fresh and exciting. He began his work in 2005, experimenting with filtering his voice for two years to come up with the right sound.
WALL-E eventually released in late June of 2008 to massive critical praise, earning a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 8.9/10. The American Film Institute named it one of the best films of 2008, and Time Magazine went so far as to list it in their 10 Best Movie of the Decade. Roger Ebert argued that it was “the best science-fiction movie in years.” WALL-E also won numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with five other nominations), Best Animated Feature at the Golden Globes, Best Animated Film at Bafta and winning three awards at the Visual Effects Society.
Despite not being allowed to screen in China, WALL-E grossed $533 million on a $180 million budget.
I remember seeing this movie while visiting family in Nova Scotia, and I really enjoyed it back then. For a while, this was on a small list of movies that, no matter how I feel beforehand, it always put me in a good mood by the time it’s over. I also remember a number of people quoting various robot lines from the movie, like WALL-E’s somewhat clumsy speaking, EVE’s “directive” line, and the one I used the most, “foreign contaminant”. I haven’t seen it for years until last night, but it’s about as good as I remember. What this movie accomplishes with little dialogue is incredible. Despite his box-like appearance and robotic nature, WALL-E is very expressive. You can’t help but enjoy his curious nature. You empathize with his loneliness at the start of the movie, and it’s hard not to tear up a bit when he’s nearly destroyed.
EVE is an equally compelling robot character. She’s very technologically advanced and defensive at first, but learns to enjoy WALL-E’s childlike nature quickly. Eventually she learns that he wants a companion and learns to share that desire. It’s a strange romance to be sure, but it’s brilliantly told through the sound design, the visuals and the sparingly used dialogue. It doesn’t hurt that the robots in this movie are kind of cute. Well, most of them anyway.
The humans in the movie aren’t as compelling, but they do tie into the movie’s themes well. It makes fun of our over reliance on technology by showing a potential end result. When a handful of character break from the automated routine, their fascination with the real world is hard not to be entertained by. That said, what feel like supposed dramatic moments for them are sometimes more comedic than anything else. Thankfully they still get some good dramatic moments, and they never distract from the more compelling story of WALL-E and EVE.
In addition to the movie’s themes on technology and laziness, it also explores our natural love of nature, and how rampant consumerism easily distracts us from this. It explores the potential environmental impact from our increasingly wasteful culture, using heavy doses of nostalgia to reflect on a simpler time in human history. The movie doesn’t demonize technology, but it does examine the dangers of relying too much on it.
I mentioned Christian themes in the opening paragraph, and this feels like a good time to expand on them. Stanton, a Christian himself, intended WALL-E as a reversal of the Adam and Eve story. The robot EVE is even intentionally named after Eve. Instead of Eve taking an apple from the wrong tree and being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, EVE’s directive is to find plant life on Earth and bring it back to the Axiom, so that humanity can return home. It’s to move humanity away from the “false god” of Buy and Large, the in universe corporation that ultimately led humanity to disaster in the first place. Some employees also compared EVE to the dove from the Noah’s Arc story. Another major theme is how hard work is what makes us human, in that the human characters feel more alive when they’re actually doing something.
But as I said earlier, you don’t need to think about religious parallels or the movie’s themes to enjoy WALL-E. At its core, WALL-E is a romance between two robots that couldn’t be much different from a design standpoint, but they share values in preserving life and enjoying the little things. I considered it one of my favourite animated movies back when it came out, and it might remain so. The animation still holds up very well today with beautiful visuals, and the soundtrack feels both futuristic and reminiscent of the 50’s at the same time. As a whole, WALL-E is a work of genius, and it’s worth checking out for Science-Fiction fans and fans of romance alike. It’s also amusing enough to keep kids’ attention.
Up is next, and it has what is quite possibly the most emotionally brutal opening 5 minutes out of any animated movie released by Disney, regardless of the studio. After that it’s Toy Story 3, followed by Cars 2. It’s after Toy Story 3 where Pixar movies started getting a bit more mixed from a quality standpoint, but that’s not to say they haven’t released any more works of genius. I am a bit worried about Cars 2 though.