(Infinity and Beyond is a regular column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights WALL-E.)

How do you know for sure how much power someone has in Hollywood? For filmmakers, it can be as simple as seeing a studio greenlighting a pet project thanks to their success with big-budget blockbusters. For actors, it can be allowing them to pick and choose their preferred projects, no matter how it may look for their box-office prospects moving forward. Pixar Animation Studios is, and has always been, an entirely different beast. With the exception of Brad Bird, Pixar’s filmmakers aren’t often perceived as distinctive auteurs. 

Yet as the studio’s films became consistently the highest-performing titles from the Walt Disney Company on a yearly basis, and even as they nearly moved beyond Disney entirely at the end of their initial contract, Pixar pushed the limits of how they could tell stories with computer animation. In 2008, they pushed their boundaries further than ever before or since, in telling a story about human avarice and greed, the death of Earth through pollution, and boiling it down to a love story between two robots who don’t speak English.

There Was a Lunch

If you know your Pixar marketing campaigns, then you may already know that in 1995, there was a lunch. It was that year that Andrew Stanton and a few other members of the Pixar braintrust sat down at a local cafe to talk about what they would do if Toy Story became a hit for their fledgling studio. Most of the stories that arose during that conversation became the studio’s next hits, from A Bug’s Life to Monsters, Inc. But there was one idea that stuck around long past the mid-1990s, best boiled down to one question: what if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?

The setup of WALL-E was simple enough, though Stanton said in special features for the movie’s home-media release that he never perceived the story that dark, because its representation of Earth as being piled high with stacks of trash was a childish conception of disaster. Yet WALL-E is undoubtedly, perhaps because of how matter-of-fact its depiction of life in the 2800s is, the darkest film Pixar has ever made. As distinctive and unforgettable as the opening 35-minute stretch of WALL-E is, the film always had the potential to be much darker and more disturbing.

As is often the case with Pixar, the road to development was full of obstacles. Though Stanton and Pete Docter began to work on development of the project, originally known as Trash Planet, in 1995, they couldn’t crack the second act and left it dormant. Years later, Stanton was able to build out a second act, but just as the humans in the final film looked vastly different from humans in real life, so too did the original second act, where the humans were…gelatinous.

I Want to Live

The premise of WALL-E was always the same: roughly eight hundred years in the future, Earth has been entirely abandoned by the human race, which kept on consuming until there was nothing left to consume and nowhere else to leave behind the refuse. Robots like the heroic if cripplingly lonely WALL-E are tasked with picking up all the trash, compacting it, and discarding it. When the story begins, we slowly realize that while there were many WALL-E models given this task, only one of them still remains and he’s gained a personality over a long period of time. 

When we meet WALL-E, we learn that he’s doing his job day in, day out, but he’s also desperate for companionship. Conveniently, a ship arrives from the middle of outer space to drop off a sleekly designed, white-hued robot named EVE, a fitting name if there ever was one. WALL-E and EVE eventually become friendly, and her mission becomes clear: to detect if there’s any sign of sustainable life on this trash planet. When WALL-E shows EVE an impossible little green fern growing from dirt in an old boot, her system override kicks in, the ship returns to take her away to parts unknown, and WALL-E, now firmly in love with EVE, tries to rescue her.

In the original version of the film, this decision would’ve led WALL-E to meet the remnants of the human race and see how far removed they were from humanity. Based on guidance from physiologist James Hicks, Stanton’s original vision for the future of humanity was known as the Gels. The principles of atrophying bodies led to the idea that humans would have become so lazy as to essentially devolve back on the evolutionary scale. While that may have led to a more realistic and bleak depiction of the human race, it led to a very strange-looking second part of an ostensible family film. As Stanton recounted after the film’s release, “It was so bizarre I had to pull back.”

Stay the Course

Speaking of pulling back, before we revisit the big-baby version of humanity that WALL-E meets on the space cruise ship Axiom, let’s go back to the first half of the film. By the time that Pixar released its ninth feature film, some critics could have arguably pointed out to a creeping sense of the formulaic cropping up in even the studio’s best films. Stories like Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Cars ostensibly were very different from each other, in visual design, in emotion, and in storytelling. But they were all also telling stories of non-human characters acting like humans, and those stories were often adventures pairing two mismatched types who would become best of friends. (At least in Monsters, Inc., the two leads are already best friends.) 

The first 15 minutes of WALL-E are at once a thrilling and bracing reminder that Pixar Animation Studios began by breaking new ground in cinematic storytelling. You could almost argue that the first stretch of the film could have functioned as a very bleak but memorable short film. We have a largely non-verbal character who spends his day building compact squares out of the leftover detritus where he lives. (You might presume that WALL-E exists in some metropolis like New York or Chicago based on the far-off skyscrapers, but it’s quite clear that each of those tall spires are simply trash upon trash upon trash.) WALL-E is obsessed with odd little baubles, from the box in which an engagement ring is housed (not the ring itself) to a brassiere. And he’s also obsessed with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, as performed in the film version of Hello, Dolly! (It is now a mere, but weirdly chilling coincidence that since Disney bought Fox, you can now stream the 1967 musical on Disney+ and see the sequence for yourself.) And WALL-E is lonely, imagining what it would be like for him to share a romantic moment with a partner, before he has to abscond away to his home during a massive sandstorm.

Once WALL-E starts a new day, he meets EVE; even during this sequence, in which these two opposites are paired together, WALL-E feels like an entirely new way of telling a story. With the absence of standard dialogue (outside of the chirps and beeps both WALL-E and EVE make, courtesy of pioneering sound designer Ben Burtt, there’s barely any dialogue in the first 40 minutes), we’re left with background information to give us an idea about what the hell happened to Earth. Mostly, that arrives courtesy of an ad for the massive Buy N Large corporation, which owns the planet from the looks of things. Perhaps the most jarring sight in the film is that of the beloved and recently deceased comedic actor Fred Willard, who holds an extraordinary distinction in Pixar history: to date, he is the only live performer to appear in a Pixar film, playing the “global CEO” of the corporation. (His appearances include the phrase “stay the course”, which was all too familiar to anyone paying even moderate attention to George W. Bush during his disastrous administration.)

Your Very Best Friend

But we mostly learn little about what happened to Earth in WALL-E, aside from the vague and all-too-believable notion that people got too lazy, bought too much stuff, and didn’t care about the consequences. (You don’t have to think hard about how that concept is still very applicable in the middle of a global pandemic.) And the first 40 minutes of the film are crucial, because they place us squarely with WALL-E and EVE. There’s no villain in this part of the film, at least none that can be seen or squarely dealt with. There’s only the enigmatic specter of whatever or whoever is in charge of EVE’s programming. 

For this section alone, WALL-E transcends formula. Andrew Stanton is one of the great modern animation filmmakers; he would be no matter what. But this section of film cements his status. WALL-E desperately wants EVE to notice him, and only after she lets down her own guard to display her frustration at how Earth is hellbent on giving her a hard time (whatever she’s made of, it attracts magnets) does she give him the time of day. The true adventure of the film begins when EVE shuts down and her programming calls her back to the Axiom – perhaps the most haunting moment in this movie comes when WALL-E shrieks out EVE’s name in anguish, after coming close to being with her.

When WALL-E arrives on the Axiom, the action kicks in without ever becoming formulaic. As much as WALL-E and EVE are polar opposites – she with her sleek design, he with his rough-and-tumble attitude – the movie separates them for large chunks so that WALL-E can explore the inner bowels of the cruise liner and we can get a better sense of what’s become of humanity. The future is both garish, dystopian, and not terribly far away from what could become reality: humans become ever-reliant on robots to do everything from move them around to doing their nails. 

Define Dancing

Importantly, though, the humans aren’t the villains of the piece. (Here, perhaps, is where the movie feels too fantastical to be believed now.) That was by design: as Stanton mentioned on the DVD special features, he wanted the captain of the Axiom (voiced by Jeff Garlin) to be unchallenged but open to learning new things. Or, depending on how you look at it, a certain group of humans are the villains, but not those we see on the Axiom. The humans on that ship are grossly overweight and materialistic, but they are also essentially overgrown children who have been taught from birth to expect robots to do everything for them. (The most haunting moment in this delightful dystopia comes when we briefly see a group of preschool-aged humans being overseen by a female-voiced robot who intones, “B is for Buy N Large, your very best friend.”

The action is amplified in the final half of WALL-E, all because of a directive given by Willard’s character to the Autopilot on the Axiom: don’t come back to Earth no matter what. Since that directive flies in the face of the little plant WALL-E and EVE protect at all costs, it makes Auto (voiced by the MacInTalk software, and designed to have a dark red “eye” just like HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) into the film’s most obvious villain. In the midst of all the action, we get to see minor subplots of how WALL-E and EVE’s romance inspires the humans on the Axiom to rebel against their technological overlords. As much as it may be funny to watch a tentative connection bloom between John and Kathy (voiced, fittingly, by John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy), it’s the connection between WALL-E and EVE that hits home hardest.

The high point of the second half of WALL-E is a wonderful fusion of emotion, music (by Thomas Newman), and animation. As the captain asks the ship’s computer (provided by Sigourney Weaver, a sly nod to both Alien and Galaxy Quest) to define the concept of dancing, we watch as WALL-E and EVE sail around the Axiom in delight. The cross-cutting between the captain being told what dancing is, and all of us getting to see it for ourselves is just on the right side of being too clever by half. Largely, it works because WALL-E and EVE, through their animation and the voice performances from Burtt and Elissa Knight, feel like such vibrant and multi-dimensional characters. 

A Hoe Down

WALL-E was a gamble on every possible level. Where previous Pixar films leaned into a stylized, if not photorealistic design, WALL-E created a challenge for Pixar animators because the world of the film is clearly meant to be our world. By showing clips of real movies and featuring real actors (Willard’s the only one with dialogue, but in a brief shot, we see previous Axiom captains, who started out as live humans like you or me), that required Stanton and the animators to make a world that could legitimately look like ours in the 2800s. The humans end up being cartoony in their design, a decision that would somewhat be mirrored by the 2015 film The Good Dinosaur, in which the photorealistic world is offset by non-realistically designed characters. (Whatever else is true of The Good Dinosaur, as we’ll get to eventually, that film’s animation is stunning.)

WALL-E’s animators were consulted by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and special-effects guru Dennis Muren during the production, with Muren staying on board for months. (Though Deakins’ work with DreamWorks Animation on How to Train Your Dragon was often championed during that film’s release, it’s worth noting that, as is the case with many modern animation touches, Pixar did it first.) The effect of this consultation is that WALL-E often, especially in that first 40 or so minutes, looks like a real movie. The camerawork is so lively – with constant movement around the trash planet, zooms in and out as WALL-E goes about his day – that there might as well be a set where all of this is taking place. And in the more raucous second half, as action explodes around the Axiom, there is a tactile sense of the ship, its computer systems, and even its Lido deck.

WALL-E was a risk for Pixar, and the fact that it paid off is as much a testament to the film’s quality as it is to Pixar’s track record to that point. By the summer of 2008, Pixar hadn’t made one perfect film after another – neither Cars nor A Bug’s Life works quite as well as they could, in part because of a lack of emotional heft. But they hadn’t made a flop, and their weaker efforts still felt vastly better than most animated fare from competing studios. WALL-E ended up outgrossing Ratatouille at the domestic box office, with just under $230 million. Critics were mostly thrilled with the final result, though there was plenty of debate about whether or not the film’s pro-environmental message was too political, not political, or not political enough. (Some conservative critics, depending on who you read, would say it was overly liberal. Or that it was secretly quite conservative.)

At the Oscars, WALL-E was also a success, taking home the trophy for Best Animated Feature, and being nominated for its script, Peter Gabriel’s closing-credits song, and a few other categories. (As has been the case for a long time, it’s painfully, sadly clear that if the Academy isn’t going to award Pixar for its screenplays at this point, it’s never going to.) WALL-E pushed the boundaries of what a mainstream animated story could be. There were formulaic elements within the film, yes, but WALL-E was a far cry from the studio’s other efforts. Their next film would manage to both emphasize the formula while pushing further emotionally than any Pixar film had before.

And it would get even luckier at the Oscars, too.

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Next Time: Go Up.

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