Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. WALL-E

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: WALL-E

Year: 2008

Budget: $180 million

Box office: $533.3 million

Plot: In 2805, Earth is covered in garbage. The population had evacuated on giant starliners 700 years earlier. Megacorporation Buy-N-Large has left behind WALL-E robot trash compactors to clean up. All have since stopped functioning, except one unit who has gained sentience and is scavenging parts from other units to remain active.

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One day, WALL-E discovers a healthy seedling, which he returns to his home, where he has collected items he finds interesting. Later, an unmanned spaceship lands and deploys an EVE probe to scan the planet. WALL-E is interested in EVE, who is initially hostile but gradually befriends him.

When WALL-E brings EVE to his trailer and shows her the plant, her programming takes over. She takes the plant and goes into standby mode. The ship then returns to collect EVE, and with WALL-E clinging on, returns to its mothership, the starliner Axiom.

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The Axiom’s passengers have atrophied due to microgravity and reliance on an sedentary lifestyle. The ship’s current captain, McCrea, leaves the ship under the control of the robotic autopilot, AUTO.

EVE is taken to the bridge, with WALL-E tagging along. McCrea learns that placing the plant in the ship’s Holo-Detector for verification will trigger a hyperjump back to Earth. The plant is missing and she blames WALL-E for its disappearance.

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EVE is deemed faulty and taken to Diagnostics. WALL-E misinterprets the procedure as torture, and attempts to rescue her, accidentally frees a group of malfunctioning robots and causes both EVE and himself to be designated as rogue robots.

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Frustrated, EVE takes WALL-E to an escape pod to send him home, but they are interrupted when GO-4 arrives with the plant, having stolen it from EVE on AUTO’s orders. GO-4 places the plant in an escape pod and sets it to self-destruct, but WALL-E enters just before it is jettisoned. WALL-E escapes, saving the plant, and he and EVE reconcile and celebrate with a dance in space around the Axiom.

EVE brings the plant back to McCrea, who concludes that they have to return to Earth. However, AUTO refuses, revealing directive A113: the corporation concluded in 2110 that the planet could not be saved, and that humanity needed to stay on board the Axiom. AUTO mutinies, throwing WALL-E and EVE down the garbage chute.

EVE reboots herself and helps WALL-E bring the plant to the ship’s Holo-Detector chamber. AUTO tries to close the chamber, but WALL-E keeps it open, damaging himself in the process. McCrea is inspired to deactivate AUTO while EVE inserts the plant to activate the hyperjump.

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Back on Earth, EVE repairs WALL-E from the collection of spare parts, but finds that his memory has been reset. EVE gives WALL-E a farewell kiss, which sparks his memory back to life and restores his original personality. WALL-E and EVE reunite as the humans and robots of the Axiom begin to restore Earth.

Background:

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Andrew Stanton conceived WALL-E during a lunch with fellow writers John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft in 1994. Stanton and Pete Docter developed the film under the title of Trash Planet for two months in 1995, but they did not know how to develop the story and Docter chose to direct Monsters, Inc. instead.

Stanton came up with the idea of WALL-E finding a plant, because his life as the sole inhabitant on a deserted world reminded Stanton of a plant growing among pavements. In late 2003, Stanton and a few others created a story reel of the first twenty minutes of the film. Lasseter and Steve Jobs were impressed and officially began development.

 

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James Hicks, a physiologist, mentioned to Stanton the concept of atrophy and the effects prolonged weightlessness would have on humans living in space for an inordinately extended time period. Stanton felt half the audience at the screening believed the humans would be unable to cope with living on Earth and would have died out after the film’s end. Jim Capobianco, director of the Ratatouille short film Your Friend the Rat, created an end credits animation that continued the story—and stylized in different artistic movements throughout history—to clarify an optimistic tone.

Art/Sets/Tech demo station with Ralph Eggleston (Director/ Production Design)
Ralph Eggleston

 

Animation and design: Production designer Ralph Eggleston wanted the lighting of the first act on Earth to be romantic, and that of the second act on the Axiom to be cold and sterile. During the third act, the romantic lighting is slowly introduced into the Axiom environment.

Pixar studied Chernobyl and the city of Sofia to create the ruined world; art director Anthony Christov was from Bulgaria and recalled Sofia used to have problems storing its garbage. Eggleston studied 1960s NASA paintings and the original concept art for Tomorrowland for the Axiom, to reflect that era’s sense of optimism.

The first lighting test included building a three-dimensional replica of WALL-E, filming it with a 70 mm camera, and then trying to replicate that in the computer. Stanton chose angles for the virtual cameras that a live-action filmmaker would choose if filming on a set. The animators visited recycling stations to study machinery, and also met robot designers, visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to study robots, watched a recording of a Mars rover, and borrowed a bomb detecting robot from the San Francisco Police Department.

WALL-E’s eyes were inspired by a pair of binoculars Stanton was given when watching a baseball game. Pixar’s studies of trash compactors during their visits to recycling stations inspired his body. His tank treads were inspired by a wheelchair someone had developed that used treads instead of wheels. EVE’s eyes are modelled on Lite-Brite toys. Auto was an homage to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

To animate their robots, the film’s story crew and animation crew watched a Buster Keaton and a Charlie Chaplin film every day for almost a year, and occasionally a Harold Lloyd picture. They also watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf, films that had sound but were not reliant on dialogue.

Sound design: Burtt had completed Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and told his wife he would no longer work on films with robots, but found WALL-E and its substitution of voices with sound “fresh and exciting”. During production Burtt had the opportunity to look at the items used by Jimmy MacDonald, Disney’s in-house sound designer for many of their classic films. Burtt used many of MacDonald’s items on WALL-E.

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Some of the sounds that Burtt sampled:

  • A hand-cranked electrical generator for WALL-E moving around.
  • An automobile self starter for when WALL-E goes fast.
  • The sound of cars being wrecked at a demolition derby provided for WALL-E’s compressing trash in his body.
  • The Macintosh computer chime was used to signify when WALL-E has fully recharged his battery.
  • A radio-controlled jet plane toy for EVE’s flying.
  • For EVE’s plasma cannon, Burtt hit a slinky hung from a ladder with a timpani stick. 1
  • Burtt had visited Niagara Falls in 1987 and used his recordings from his trip for the sounds of wind.
  • He ran around a hall with a canvas bag up to record the sandstorm.
  • For the scene where WALL-E runs from falling shopping carts, Burtt and his daughter went to a supermarket and placed a recorder in their cart. They crashed it around the parking lot and then let it tumble down a hill.
  • To create Hal (WALL-E’s pet cockroach)’s skittering, he recorded the clicking caused by taking apart and reassembling handcuffs.

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Songs: Thomas Newman began writing the score in 2005. Stanton wanted the whole score to be orchestral, but Newman felt limited by this idea especially in scenes aboard the Axiom, and used electronics too. Newman travelled to London to compose the end credits song “Down to Earth” with Peter Gabriel, who was one of Stanton’s favorite musicians.

The movie features the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” 2 from Hello, Dolly!, 3 Jerry Herman allowed the song to be used without knowing what for; when he saw the film, he found its incorporation into the story “genius”. 4

Voice Cast:

Ben Burtt as WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-Class). Is a four-time Academy Award winning sound designer and editor. He is best known for his work on the Star Wars films, creating the voices of R2-D2, Chewbacca, and BB-8 among others. He also worked on ET, The Dark Crystal, Munich, and the Indiana Jones films. Elissa Knight as EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She is a production assistant at Pixar. She voiced Tia in Cars and appeared as additional voices in Monsters University and Inside Out.

Jeff Garlin as Captain B. McCrea. His many credits include Mad About You, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Goldbergs, and Wizards of Waverly Place. Kathy Najimy as Mary. Her break out role was in the comedy Sister Act, as Sister Mary Patrick, reprising this role in Sister Act 2. She also appeared in Hocus Pocus, If These Walls Could Talk 2, Cats Don’t Dance, Bride of Chucky, Rat Race, Soapdish, Chicago Hope, Veronica’s Closet, Numbers, Hercules: The Animated Series, Stuart Little: The Animated Series, Drop Dead Diva, and Disney’s Descendants. On stage she co-created and starred in Kathy & Mo”, Back to Bacharach and David, and appeared as Mae West in the Broadway hit Dirty Blonde.

Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the Axiom’s computer. 5 She appeared in Gorillas in the Mist, Working Girl, The Ice Storm, Galaxy Quest, Futurama, Paul, The Cabin in the Woods, and A Monster Calls. However she is best known as Dana Barrett in the Ghostbusters films and as Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. Fred Willard 6 returns as Shelby Forthright, the CEO of the Buy n Large Corporation. 7

MacInTalk, 8 the text-to-speech program for the Apple Macintosh computers, was used for the voice of AUTO.

Where in the World is John Ratzenberger?: John plays John, a passenger on the Axiom

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Pizza Planet Truck: One of the many derelict vehicles

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A 113: A113 is the designation for the directive to stay in space

Critical Reception: WALL-E won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing at the 81st Academy Awards. 9

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Richard Corliss of Time named WALL-E his favorite film of 2008 (and later of the decade), noting the film succeeded in “connect[ing] with a huge audience” despite the main characters’ lack of speech and “emotional signifiers like a mouth, eyebrows, shoulders, [and] elbows”. It “evoke[d] the splendor of the movie past” and he also compared WALL-E and EVE’s relationship to the chemistry of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Other critics who named WALL-E their favorite film of 2008 included Tom Charity of CNN, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, A. O. Scott of The New York Times, Christopher Orr of The New Republic, Ty Burr and Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe, Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.

Legacy: Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) built animatronic WALL-Es to promote the picture, which made appearances at Disneyland Due to safety concerns, they generally refused to have their puppets meet and greet children at the theme parks in case a WALL-E trod on a child’s foot. However, the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” is played in the Main Street USA section of the park.

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Disneyland Paris has statues of WALL-E and EVE in the Discoveryland area.

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Video Games: The game was published by THQ for multiple platforms. The game was released in North America on June 24, 2008, Europe on July 4, 2008, and Australia on September 4, 2008. The game was also released in Japan on December 11, 2008, although not available on the Xbox 360 or any PC.

 

My take: This movie is incredible, probably Pixar’s best. I have always admired actors who can tell a story through movement, from the classic silent actors up to modern actors like Bill Erwin. Not only did they manage to keep dialogue to a minimum, but they did it in a way that avoided being twee.

And it’s FUNNY! It’s funny in a way that early Looney Tunes could be, and then it turns around and is completely romantic.

There is also the idea of WALL-E following a Ship of Theseus trope. He has replaced so much of himself, that how much of the original robot is left? And we see that at the end. What constitutes a robot’s soul. Stanton is religious and one can easily compare the Axiom to the Ark, with EVE playing the dove.

And yes, it has a message, one that conservatives hate. I am reminded about the finale of Battlestar Galactica. Are people who have spent their lives on a pleasure cruise going to want to rough it? Or would they take one look around and get back on the ship?

Next Week: Bolt