Well, they've done it again. Through amazing animation and skillful storytelling, the Disney-Pixar gang has found a way to make us care about a trash-compacting robot whose attitude toward work and life might even provide a little inspiration for humans. Same with the movie itself, which obviously hopes to inspire the next generation to be better stewards of the earth and consume less.
In his theatrical review for DVD Town, Jason Vargo gave "Wall-E" a 7 out of 10 because of its "left wing 'green' theme." But I didn't find the film's truth to be nearly as inconvenient as Jason did. Unlike "Bambi," where the obvious theme of man's hunting and carelessness is a point-of-view thing, the green elements form the structural core of this film. It would be hard to make it any other way. So while I would agree with Jason that "Wall-E" is a blatant advocacy film, I would also point out in that respect it's not unlike "The Ten Commandments" and its heavily Christian theme. The question for me is how artful the presentation, and in the case of both the Cecil B. DeMille classic and this soon-to-be classic, there's plenty to praise. In fact, if artistry were seismographic, "Wall-E" would register off the charts.
All you have to do is compare "Wall-E" to the 2005 Fox animated feature "Robots," which was certainly a competent bit of animation. But you never believed that those characters were anything more than cartoon robots. With Wall-E, you become instantly fascinated by the amount of personality that animators were able to infuse into such a tiny little garbage-compacting package. The eyes are the window to the soul, and Wall-E's eyes are as expressive as anyone's. This little guy, who, besides a cockroach friend, is the only sign of movement and intelligent thought left on the trash pile that used to be Planet Earth, has a work routine, and by golly, he's going to do his job, even there's no supervisor around and even if workload is impossible. Talk about a work ethic! The amount of trash skies higher than the skyscrapers and there's no sign of life, yet buoyed by an old VHS tape he found of "Hello, Dolly!" this diminutive robot imagines a world "Out There" and figuratively decides to "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" to make the best of things. Like the Dwarfs in Disney's first full-length animated feature, this little guy basically whistles while he works, though conditions are less than ideal.
Earth's bleak landscape features sudden storms that Wall-E must deal with, but he's got his own refuge: the inside of a big piece of machinery in which he stores all of the trash treasures he's rescued, collecting them in a secret stash the way that Ariel did in "The Little Mermaid." Old Christmas lights decorate the inside, and this solar-powered robot has also managed to collect spare parts for himself. He may be a Waste Load Lifter--Earth Class, but he's no dummy. Even cartoon characters get smashed up a bit, and this guy can be his own doctor.
Things change, though, when a rocket ship lands, dropping off a high-tech flying robot probe that's been sent to Earth to check for signs of plant life. It's the first creature besides the cockroach that Wall-E has seen, and so it's predictably love at first sight. EVE, meanwhile, has been programmed to be just a little bit cautious . . . and trigger-happy. Any sudden movements, and this kid blasts away. Here too, you have to credit the filmmakers for giving us a robot love story that unfolds in romantic comedy tradition and ups the ante in the caring department.
It turns out that Earth has been a trash heap for the past 700 years, and the residents who had been urged to consume, consume, consume by a Big Brother conglomerate that in the future has become one gigantic corporation have been living in a spaceship waiting for the clean-up to be finished. Well, with one tiny robot slaving away, that's going to take some time. Obviously, corporate greed takes a hit here, as does the bigger-is-better mentality that's driven American consumerism for the past 50 years. People in the future do nothing but sit in movable beach chairs and suck down whatever food and drink is handed to them, watch whatever propaganda is displayed on individual screens before them, and atrophy in a blissful state of ignorance. Video gamers take a hit too, as creators project that America's entire sedentary culture will result in a fat, bovine life far removed from the world of nature that ought to have been sustaining us.
Yes, it's heavy-handed--or just plain heavy, as when one fat person falls out of his seat and needs robots to help him up again, or when the ship tilts and all the fat folks fall helplessly like a pile of Weebles. But I happen to think its pure genius for the Pixar folks to combine an ecological crisis with what the Endocrine Society is calling an Obesity Crisis. Sixty-seven percent of American males and 62 percent of American females are considered overweight. The society estimates that 400,000 people die each year as a result of poor diet and low physical activity. What's surprising to me is that Disney, an outfit that's usually so overly cautious about offending anyone to the point where we'll probably never, ever see a film like "Song of the South," would show overweight people in such a bad light. But there they are, and the Pixar people are obviously hoping this film will make a difference. From a storytelling perspective, though, the people are victims of the most heinous sort of corporate takeover, and from there it's only a short leap from to a "2001: A Space Odyssey" confrontation.
For "Wall-E" the Disney artists created two separate worlds, one a denuded, bleak, and post-apocalyptic landscape, and the other a glitzy and colorful "Jetsons"-style world of the future in which everything is programmed and automated, and robots that have been created to serve the humans can start to seem (at least to an outsider) more like jailers. What's amazing to me is the level of detail in Wall-E's world, with each individual piece of garbage rendered in striking detail that looks all the more striking in High Definition. That director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") and his animators are able to make such a bleak world still feel warm enough to support the most meager level of life is a real tribute to their skills, and that Stanton and fellow screenwriter Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.," "Toy Story") were able to hold an audience's interest with essentially a single non-human character doing his thing for the first third of the film. Though Ben Burtt handles the voice of the robot, he speaks very few recognizable words. The rest of his vocabulary are distinct, evocative sounds, and so we watch Wall-E with the same fascination that held us in thrall as we watched Tom Hanks shoulder the narrative burden in "Cast Away." You really have to see it to believe that such warmth and narrative interest could be generated by not just non-human robots, but drawn ones at that. Who would have thought that a robot love story combined with a cautionary fable about over-consumption would be such a hit?
Elissa Knight gives limited voice to EVE (short for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) the love of Wall-E's life, while Jeff Garlin ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") is the Captain, Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger has a cameo as one of the fatties, and Sigourney Weaver is the voice of the computer. Just as there are two animated worlds, there are two worlds of humans in this film, one a cartoon version and the other the world of the past that comes to Wall-E and others through videotapes, involving real humans from "Hello, Dolly!" and BnL (Big and Large) CEO Shelby Forthright (played by Fred Willard) in a PSA. It's another curious aspect that makes "Wall-E" the successful risk that it is. Message-laden or not, "Wall-E" is an artistic triumph which raises the bar yet again for animators who will follow.
Wow. This is one of the best animated Blu-rays I've seen in terms of how rich the picture looks. In 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec), the level of detail is remarkable, while there's a strange warmth to the apocalyptic terrain that is partly achieved by earth tones and a pleasing 3-dimensionality that gives depth without "popping" the figures out at you as if you were watching a film with those funny cardboard glasses. There is a great amount of detail even in murky edges, and when the film opens up into a broader color palette for the second act we get a real sense of color brilliance. It's a solid picture, easily as good as "Ratatouille," which is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) that offers full 6.1 Surround. This is the only sound option, so you'd better like it. Fortunately, it's a dynamic track that has bright high notes and deep-textured lows. Even smaller effects like the sighs of a cockroach are picked up as if the entire animated set had hidden microphones placed everywhere. Everything is in great balance, too: the dialogue, the FX, the music, and the ambient sounds.
This is the three-disc set, which includes first and foremost a third disc that's a digital copy. The other two discs contain probably as many bonus features as the most recent offering from Pixar, "Ratatouille," and they're are also in Hi-Def.
My kids loved the animated shorts. "Burn-E" is shot as if we were getting a fourth-camera alternate version of what happens to a minor robot character in the film when the action moves away from him. It's an ingenious concept to begin with, and very funny-though not as hilarious as a second cartoon, "Presto," which opened for "Wall-E" in the theaters. This one was a hoot, shot visually in styles that were reminiscent of both old Disney cartoons from the Fifties but with action and gags that recall Warner Brothers cartoons from the Forties.
The big bonus feature for Pixar fans is "The Pixar Story," a 2007 documentary that tells you everything you need to know about this upstart studio, with plenty of recollections from actors like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, along with appearances from players like George Lucas and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. And it's all in the family, too, produced by the granddaughter of legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks.
Pixar commentary tracks have always been wonderful to listen to, and this one is no exception. Stanton does a good job of sustaining a believable energy and interest level through what must be a difficult task, these commentaries, and you can watch this with or without Cine-Explore--a PIP supplement that's playable only with Profile 1.1 machines.
Fans of deleted scenes will find roughly 20 minutes of them here, in various states of completion. There's another visual commentary option that teams character supervisor Bill Wise with story artist Derek Thompson and lead animator Angus McClain, with producer Lindsay Wallace also weighing in. This track isn't as serious as Stanton's, but there's still a lot of information--very little of it overlapping.
Youngsters will go for a four-pack of games. My kids liked "EVE's Bot Blaster" the best, which gives you a chance to develop your own itchy trigger finger. Also included are "Wall-E's Dodge & Dock," "M-O's Mop-up Madness," and "Burn-E's Break-Through," all of which are simple games that are geared for ages 6-12, it would seem.
Then there are a number of small (2-10 minute) features, including a brief look at behind-the-scenes segments on art design, sound design, and (human) character design, along with full versions of three BnL films seen in the movie, a brief montage of Wall-E and his treasures, a virtual promo, and two tours-of-sorts that let you click-on to see various portions of the ship or "the universe." A robot storybook and still gallery rounds out the bonus features.
"Wall-E" cleverly offers three things in one: a robot love story, a cautionary fable, and another Pixar demonstration in how to create a richly detailed and textured world that surpasses everything previously done. And if Wall-E isn't the cutest Disney animated hero in the longest time, he's certainly one of them. Somewhere in the "Cars" town of Radiator Springs, I suspect Lightning McQueen is getting jealous!