“WALL•E,” the tale of a little trash-collecting robot that voyages to the cosmos and winds up restarting humanity, is many things. It’s Pixar’s ninth animated feature, released at a time when the studio was on an unprecedented creative hot streak (it was sandwiched snugly in-between “Ratatouille” and “Up”). It’s also one of the most idiosyncratic movies in the studio’s history, featuring live-action components (some aided by visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic), cinematography inspired and advised by Roger Deakins and a largely wordless first act that calls back to the earliest days of cinema.
And while the movie was rapturously received (New York Times critic A.O. Scott put it as his #1 movie of 2008 and said: “the visual sublimity of Andrew Stanton’s latest Pixar masterpiece is matched by a depth and sweetness of feeling not seen since the heyday of Charlie Chaplin”) and continues to be revered (last year it was selected by the National Film Registry for preservation), there was something that eluded it. Until now.
In November, “WALL•E” was inducted into the Criterion Collection, a home video distribution company founded in 1984 that specializes in “important classic and contemporary films,” serving up special features-laden discs that really capture what make the movies so special. Some of the filmmakers they’ve lionized include Terrence Malick, Akira Kurosawa and Francois Truffaut (among others).
“WALL•E” is the first Disney or Pixar movie the company has ever done and, if we’re not counting the Karel Zeman box set, only the fourth animated feature they’ve released. And it is properly festooned with extras, both old (like Leslie Iwerks’ wonderful, feature-length doc “The Pixar Story”) and new (like an early short film), equipped with both Blu-ray and 4K discs for whatever player you have.
“It was pretty simple. I approached Alan Bergman, who is President of Walt Disney Studios, and he and I know each other, so I just said, ‘I know this is breaking precedent, and there’s probably a million Disney lawyers that don’t want do something like this, but I’d really think WALL•E’s got a unique cinematic DNA in it that matches and is inspired somewhat by a lot that’s in the library of Criterion. And I’d love to see if there’s a there there,’” co-writer/director Andrew Stanton told TheWrap in a recent interview. “He was open to it.”
Those initial conversations happened in 2019; Criterion was interested and Stanton was “pumped.” Talks ramped up again last year, but a question loomed in Stanton’s mind: “What else was there to do?” A great question, especially considering how much material was already included in previous home video releases of “WALL•E.”
Stanton said that Pixar felt a “kinship” with Criterion and with that feeling, an innate sense of trust.
“We kind of went along with it. We were startups in the late eighties as they were. We just bought everything that they made and followed it along and felt like they were going to film school at the same time we were going to film school in house, making our movies,” Stanton said. “Fortunately, they really humanized it. They brought it back from a filmmaker-centric place, which is what we consider our films, and just really went to the cinematic inspirations of the piece.”
Of the new special features presented in the Criterion release, Stanton is particularly fond of “Anatomy of a Scene: The Plant,” a little documentary where he breaks down the creation of a single scene (the moment when svelte probe droid EVE follows WALL•E home and he shows her the plant he’s found).
He said the feature was “particularly meaningful.” “To really break down one of the scenes and go through the sort of masterclass of… I mean that’s really how thorough we understand what we’re doing on scenes,” Stanton said. “And to be able to take the time to do that in that sort of forum was really fun.”
Another feature that Stanton pointed to as a favorite is “Where It Began: The Origins of WALL•E,” a documentary where he talks about the movies that he loves and how they inspired “WALL•E” – everything from “Being There” to “Silent Running.”
“To talk about all the cinema influences that came from it, that started during and before, I really felt like it was being able to say a thank you to the cinema that inspired me and inspired directly that film and then to an audience that wanted to hear that stuff,” Stanton said. “Because I think a lot of people would, no matter how much I don’t want this to be true, buy a lot of our stuff as a babysitting tool. And that’s not the audience I was speaking to. The audience I want to talk to was my peers – all the people that go to the movies for movies and don’t really care about box office and popularity, they just want to see good cinema and they want to be inspired. They don’t care if a movie’s old, black and white, foreign or whatever. I wanted to talk to that crowd.”
Everything about the “WALL•E” Criterion release is striking; even before opening it up – the cover doesn’t feature the actual characters but a gorgeous illustration by Jason Raish that features EVE and WALL•E as piles of trash. Noticeably absent are corporate logos (besides, of course, the in-universe mega-mart Buy N’ Large) – the words “Disney” and “Pixar” don’t even appear on the packaging. He said the look of the release was “all Criterion.”
“I mean, I would’ve never thought of that cover on my own,” Stanton admitted. “Most of the perspective and the packaging and even the booklet. I couldn’t be objective to know what is interesting about how my team made this film, how we do it. It was enlightening to have very tasteful and artistic and authoritative people give you their perspective of what was fascinating, including the cover. If anything, I just was geeking out, as a fan of somebody that might buy this.”
Stanton did suggest one tweak to the cover art. There’s a cardboard box that makes up WALL•E’s “body” and Stanton made the note to tip “the box sideways so the flaps look like the chest.” When asked if there was anything that he wanted to include on the set that they couldn’t fit in, Stanton said, “No.” (Curiously, a preexisting feature, Doug Sweetland’s short film “Presto,” which played before “WALL•E” during its initial theatrical exhibition, is missing. The short is available to watch on Disney+.)
The Criterion release is the latest feather in “WALL•E’s” robotic cap, but the movie was far from a sure thing – its production struggled through various iterations where the inhabitants of the cruise ship were perceived as aliens (“They were literally Jell-O blobs with fruit as eyes,” Stanton said), only to be revealed as de-evolved humans. And while most Pixar movies go through a dark night of the soul and come out on the other side, “WALL•E” was pushing the limits of what was possible – not even in a Disney or Pixar movie but in an animated feature. It’s one of the rare movies that bumped out the borders of what an entire artform could accomplish.
“I knew I was pushing the envelope on not only what animation’s been perceived to do with storytelling, but even within the limits of what we thought we could do in the studio at the time,” Stanton said. “It wasn’t hell, but it was hard.”
During production Stanton was “buoyed” by how well “Finding Nemo,” his previous film, was received and continued with that momentum. “I just wanted to do something as pure as I could while I had this sort of protection,” Stanton said. “Nobody could say a hard no to me after ‘Nemo’ for whatever I wanted to do next. I picked what I thought was the most challenging and inspiring thing. And because I was so pure in my inspiration and so was everybody that got on the team, it was the closest what it felt like to make ‘Toy Story.’ I kind of don’t care how it gets received. I so want to see this on the screen.” Stanton summed up his feeling: “This deserves to exist.”
Following the release of “Finding Nemo,” Pixar management, including “Toy Story” director and former Pixar bigwig John Lasseter and owner Steve Jobs, assumed that Stanton was “relaxing and brainstorming.” But what he was actually doing was working on “the first reels,” rough storyboards of the first 20 minutes of the movie, with WALL•E rolling around a desolate, trash-strewn Earth.
“I just then brought it in and showed it to Steve and John and knew that we’ll watch the first 20 minutes and we’ll either not think it’s worth it, or we’ll think it’s worth it and we won’t have wasted five minutes debating whether an audience will sit through something like this,” Stanton recalled. :And it was close to what the finished film is.” The lights came up after the screening and, according to Stanton, they both said, “Oh I get it. Let’s do it.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of “WALL•E” is its use of live-action footage – evil corporate czar-turned-president Shelby Forthright is portrayed by Fred Willard and footage from “Hello Dolly,” including cast members Michael Crawford and Marianne McAndrew belting out “It Only Takes a Moment,” plays throughout.
Stanton said the decision to use live-action footage was born out of a “conundrum.” “It’s easy now, because technology is so advanced. But at the time, doing humans was very hard,” Stanton said. “And I was going for such a level of believability, not photorealism, but that was closest to photorealism that we’d ever gone in our choices artistically. For that film, I didn’t want to break that belief… In my mind, when you were watching WALL•E on that deserted earth, you were associated closer to how we look as humans than how a cartoon human would look.”
He found himself in “a tough bind.”
“We can’t pull off that sort of look that we can now get with humans very well. We couldn’t achieve that then.” The chubbier humans on the intergalactic cruise ship the Axiom could afford to be more pushed, stylistically. “But seeing humanity as we know it at the time that everybody left, I had to play it safer and go, ‘I’m going to film everybody,’” Stanton said. “I wish it was 10 years later, then I would’ve just kept it all CG. But we just didn’t have that confidence then, technically.”
Watching both the vintage special features and the new material prepared by Criterion for this “WALL•E” release, you really do get the feeling that Pixar, whose first feature was 1995’s landmark “Toy Story,” was in a very special groove. Stanton said that the first four movies (“Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.”) was when the team was “still going to film school.” He says that the world “saw and accepted what we were doing to the level we now know it” when “Finding Nemo” opened in the summer of 2003. This acceptance energized the team at Pixar and led to boundary-pushing critical darlings like “WALL•E.”
“Everything felt like it was progressing towards that, but something about ‘Nemo,’ not that it’s solely that film, but it was something about the sum of all those movies up to that point. Finally, everybody was like, ‘Oh, I get them and I get what they’re trying to do and I get the quest they’re on to just make good s–t.’ And I think because we finally felt seen, I think we felt emboldened to just keep going,” Stanton said. “You know what I mean? It felt like people on a race and the audience was just going, Oh man, we get it now. Go, go, go. And so there was a lot of backdraft of that, to just keep challenging ourselves. We probably didn’t need help, but it certainly was more fuel for us at the time.”
Enough fuel to power a rocketship, for sure.
Criterion’s “WALL•E” set (spine #1161) is available now to purchase.