Cutting to the chase, Wall-E is half a masterpiece and half a typically good Pixar animated movie. Its potential to be quite possibly one of the most majestic and extraordinary mainstream films of the past decade or three makes for a frustrating realisation when the picture opts to stumble down the safe and well-hewn path. Trying to react to the film as a whole requires balancing it all instead of merely pinning ribbons on the first half hour or griping about the blobby humans. You probably shouldn't let the brilliance of that first act influence an opinion any more than the disappointment of most of the rest, and vice versa. If I could, I think I'd take those initial thirty minutes and watch them three times in a row to call it a day. It'd be nice to think of the remainder as an enjoyable, if inferior sequel, but I don't think it works that way.
Where Wall-E bravely sparkles amid a landscape literally full of trash (seemingly made entirely by Americans) is during the opening, with dialogue about as scarce as the plant life. It's roughly 800 years in the future and Earth has become a virtual wasteland inhabited, as far as we can tell, by a single trash-compacting robot and his cockroach friend. Like a brave soldier, the little robot named Wall-E continues every day trying to efficiently compact the endless piles of garbage, picking up things of interest as he goes and taking them back to his home. He spends nights tinkering with the bric-a-brac he's horded and watching a beat-up copy of Hello, Dolly!, a detail that both humanises the robot and subtly reinforces the power of movies. The cockroach seems content to swim in a twinkie-esque sweet cake while Wall-E constricts himself into a box and waits until the next day's sunrise to repeat the same task over and over again.
Immediately in these scenes, the emotional investment in this computer-animated robot is remarkably concrete. I've rarely taken to a character regardless of orientation in such a short time and with such quick devotion. This may be the pinnacle of Pixar's animation thus far, by taking a previously unseen and unknown character and humanising him to such a degree that the viewer connects right away. It's a mammoth achievement. The insistence of little dialogue is also impressive, but less surprising given how successful the mostly wordless Pixar shorts have been over the years. The timid Wall-E, with his binocular eyes that somehow convey the utter loneliness he's been subjected to for an unimaginable length of time, becomes one of the great characters in animation almost upon first sight. If not then, certainly within minutes of trying to court the explosive and businesslike Eve, who's been sent to Earth to scan for any signs of vegetation.
From there it gets a bit creaky, and the plot of Wall-E may not be its strongest suit. Like director Andrew Stanton's previous film Finding Nemo, there's a heavyhanded quality at work here. I particularly dislike the almost cowardly nature of blaming humans, all of which have American accents, for the toxic destruction of the planet without fully taking a stand apart from the corporate nature of the cause. My initial reaction was that the film boldly placed the blame, as either a cautionary tale or a warning, on greed supplanting sense and the long-term effects being total disaster. A second viewing illuminated how muddled and safe it is. I'm not against the idea of environmental consciousness being blared out on a large scale, but at least get it together enough to form some coherent idea other than people make too much trash and then slowly lose bone mass to become fatsos. Next we'll have a very special subplot telling everyone that guns don't kill people, people kill people, and it's not nice to start forest fires. I suspect that most consumers (in the U.S.) will still buy their copy of Wall-E at Wal-Mart while they enjoy massive bags of Doritos and various other fattening items, all brought home in plastic bags via gas-guzzling minivans or SUVs. Wall-E is going to help the environment about as much as Ratatouille aided the cause of rodent chefs or The Incredibles paved the way for sympathetic superheroes.
Even so, the environmentally friendly plot is far from offputting on its face. My complaint is with the simplicity of it more than the message or the overtness. Most troubling from a filmic point of view is how trite and unimaginative the action unfolds, excepting the wonderful sequence between Wall-E and Eve in outer space. A first viewing might not feel as critical if the viewer is still buzzing from the especially enjoyable parts, but subsequent watches should pick up on the utterly conventional and unimaginative way it all plays out. This trap of adhering to standard plot and conflict storytelling pops a big hole in the transcendent balloon that is the first sequence of the film. Pixar movies often seem imperfect in some way, wowing us with images and attention to story but still failing to seal the deal on the whole. They also tend to not withstand multiple viewings with the same sort of reverence as the most classic of Disney feature-length animation films.
That sort of unevenness in much of the Pixar output only worsens the fall when Wall-E does the same exact thing, except it thuds from an even greater height than the other Pixar films. The introduction of obese and lazy humans is ultimately the film's lowest point because it does a funny thing in refusing to lay the blame on these people. Every single rotund human is portrayed as happy-go-lucky and entirely likable. We instead get the autonomous Buy-n-Large company and its CEO face Fred Willard, and the HAL-like machine Auto as villains. Any daring is essentially nullified by such a cop-out. If you're going to blame fat humans (Americans) for eating too much or being overly wasteful then do so and welcome the consequences. If that's not the intention then why go to such lengths with making the humans incredibly flabby and emphasising how clueless they are? Either way, it should be all or nothing instead of trying to have your low-fat cake and nibble at it too.
Despite these nagging problems, Wall-E leaves us with a mostly sweet feeling by its end. As the credits roll, I'm ready to overlook the deficiencies and make peace with how flawed the film is as a whole. I can't forget the sheer rush of joy those initial moments bring and the utter warmth the title character gives his audience. A little more ambition would've been nice, but that swooning romanticism on display in the first act literally goes all the way back to the silent era and Chaplin trying to impress any number of female co-stars on camera. Those familiar with Chaplin and Keaton will likely be reminded of their silent heroes while viewing Wall-E, and that in itself is a remarkable accomplishment. It's undeniably gutsy to keep the focus squarely on the unintelligible machine for a third of the picture. If it sets the bar too high for the rest of the film to leap over then our expectations will just have to be tempered accordingly. Wall-E is still one of the best films of the year and its missteps are probably judged harsher as a result.
Wall-E is available in a few different versions in Region 1/A. There's a single-disc DVD and another DVD release that has three discs, including a digital copy, and includes most of the features of the Blu-ray releases, of which there are two. One Blu-ray release has a digital copy, giving it three discs, while the other just has the standard two discs' worth of material. Some packaging issues for the DVD have also ired many fans, but there's no use getting into that here. (Disney: Saving the environment one keepcase at a time.) The three-disc Blu-ray comes in a slightly thicker than normal (plastic) BD case and has an embossed slipcase.
The feature is contained on the dual-layered first disc. It would be a big story if a Pixar film didn't look amazing on Blu-ray. There's really no reason to expect anything less than perfection on the transfer and it basically lives up to those expectations. When I watched the movie theatrically I was struck by how the first act often looked three-dimensional and with absolutely brilliant depth. I'm not disappointed that the Blu-ray doesn't entirely replicate that experience, but it's nonetheless probably as good as one could have reasonably expected it to be. The wide 2.39: 1 image has essentially no flaws and the colours are rendered immaculately. It's sharp as a tack. But also smoggy when need be, or drab when the colours are supposed to be muted. The great detail taken by the animators with shadows and intentionally bringing some objects out of focus to mimic the use of a camera filming live action is far better appreciated on this high definition image than the comparatively limited DVD.
I was a little surprised that there's a single audio option here. An English DTS-HD 5.1 track absolutely fulfills its task, even if I sort of expected more choices. You can only listen to one track at a time anyway. Plus this does the job fully, presenting the essential sounds and entirely effective score alongside dialogue. Wall-E really does place a lot of emphasis on its audio due to the nature of its early scenes and the DTS track doesn't disappoint. Rear channels are frequently and effectively utilised, and there's little to complain about here. Subtitles, yellow in colour, are provided only in English for the hearing impaired.
Disc 1 Bonus Features
A pair of commentaries are featured on the first disc. One track has director Andrew Stanton revisiting various aspects and ideas in the film process while the other has four people involved with the movie yakking over it in the tradition of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Stanton's solo effort is what you'd expect from a very hands-on director who's made a largely successful film. He discusses influences, ideas, and, especially, the process of making the film. On the Blu-ray, Stanton's track plays with picture-in-picture storyboards frequently popping up. The second track, which features Derek Thompson, Bill Wise, Lindsey Collins, and Angus MacLane, contains some good inside information on the film and is billed as a "Geek Track" with "trash talk and trivia." Unfortunately, it's also loud and noisy, and the equivalent of a conversation you're not a part of, thus making it great for people who like to listen to others talk over a movie. There are enough factual bits that some will probably enjoy the commentary, but it was too chaotic for me. (I believe it's exclusive to the Blu-ray.)
Much more fun are the two Pixar shorts included on the disc, both in 1080p HD. "Presto" (5:14), which was shown theatrically prior to Wall-E , is very much in the vein of classic animated shorts, and concerns a magician, who's a dead ringer for William Powell, and his misbehaving rabbit. Both funny and charming, "Presto" seems to once again show that Pixar is even better at creating standalone short films than features. As a companion to Wall-E, an exclusive short called "Burn-E" (7:19) offers an alternate view of some of the events in the film. The title character is a repair robot whose life seems to be inadvertently made worse by Wall-E's actions. The short is a bit obvious, but cute enough. It can also be watched on this Blu-ray with picture-in-picture storyboards.
A typical collection of previews or Sneak Peeks, including the forthcoming release of Pinocchio, and some BD-Live content round out the disc one extras.
Disc 2 Bonus Features (all in 1080p HD)
The second disc immediately upon loading allows for navigation in English, French or Spanish. A set-up option on the main menu also lets you choose between these languages for subtitles and audio. Otherwise, we're given a choice to explore either Robots or Humans.
"Wall-E's Treasures and Trinkets" (4:54) - The robot and his friends play around with a hula hoop, a vacuum cleaner and other assorted items.
"Lots of Bots" - Split off into a section with just the Storybook (3:05) and also one with games and puzzles, Kathy Najimy acts as narrator to a children's book type of reading about the functions of the various robots in the Wall-E universe. John Ratzenberger adds his voice to the puzzles and games portion. Definitely more for young children to enjoy.
"Axiom Arcade" - A collection of four arcade-style video games that can be played with your remote control. The games are called: Eve's Bot Blaster, Wall-E's Dodge and Dock, M-O's Mop-Up Madness, and Burn-E's Break Through. It's a time waster and each game has droning music, but different strokes.
"Sneak Peek: Wall-E's Tour of the Universe" (0:46) - I'm not even entirely sure what this is. It seems to be an advertisement for something space-related that piggybacks on Wall-E.
"Bot Files" (9:04) - A total of 28 different robots are briefly explored, including favourites like Nannybot and Thirst-E. Each can be highlighted individually and discussed by an accented female narrator.
"Deleted Scenes" (22:54) - Beginning with an introduction (0:40) by director Andrew Stanton, who also returns before and after each scene to tell us both what the intention was and why it ended up getting cut out of the picture. There are just four of these total, but the first two - "Garbage Airline" (6:52) and "Dumped" (2:38) - are almost fully animated. The other two - "Secret Files" (4:35) and "Docking" (8:10) - contain storyboard reels with audio. It's interesting to see some of the story ideas that were abandoned, though much of that is also discussed on the disc later on.
"Behind the Scenes" (1:09:45) - Here's the bulk of the typical sort of special features. I'll bullet point:
- "The Imperfect Lens: Creating the Look of Wall-E" (14:32) - The film's cinematography is examined in pleasing detail, including interviews with ace DP Roger Deakins who served as a consultant
- "Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up" (18:43) - Absolutely fascinating dip into how all those wonderful sounds, from the robots to the other various noises, were recorded. Ben Burtt is the deserved focus, but there are also several clips of older Disney cartoons and discussion as to how those sounds were created, as well.
- "Captain's Log: The Evolution of Humans" (7:57) - Fairly straightforward look at how the human characters went from originally being gelatinous and unintelligible aliens to the boneless creatures we see in the film.
- "Notes on a Score" (10:39) - Another interesting aspect tackled, as the attention is turned to composer Thomas Newman and how he worked on the score.
- "Life of a Shot: Deconstructing the Pixar Process" (5:08) - The scene where Wall-E "goes to work" early in the film is shown to be the handiwork of hundreds of creative people at Pixar.
- "Robo-Everything" (5:46) - A short insight into how the various robots were created, including why they look so similar from bot to bot.
- "Wall-E & Eve" (7:00) - The film's two main characters, aptly described here as "if Buster Keaton made a movie with Sigourney Weaver."
"BnL Shorts" (8:45) - Five brief reveals of the BnL world, including a captain's orientation video, the original plan for clean-up and return to Earth, an introduction to the robots, a history of the company, and a glimpse into the utopian world designed for the Axiom.
"3D Set Fly-Through" (10:38) - Literal buzz through different sets in the film, including eight from the Axiom and two more on Earth.
Gallery - Numerous image galleries featuring storyboards, stills and promotional materials. The galleries are divided into Character Design, Layouts & Backgrounds, Visual Development, and Publicity.
"Worldwide Trailers" (13:37) - Consists of three domestic trailers, a French Canadian spot, one each for Japan and Italy, and another that aired during the Super Bowl. They're all subtitled.
"The Pixar Story by Leslie Iwerks" (1:28:30) - Made by the granddaughter of legendary and highly influential animator Ub Iwerks, this feature-length documentary treads some of the same ground as the much shorter featurette included on the Pixar Short Films Collection release, but it obviously goes into more detail and covers all the way up to the release of Cars. Most everyone whose participation you'd like to see is interviewed, including John Lasseter, George Lucas, Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Robert Iger, and even Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Billy Crystal. The almost hour and a half runtime goes by quickly, and Pixar really gets its due for a phenomenally successful run that shows no signs of letting up. The Walt Disney Company is even given a small black eye in the documentary for both firing Lasseter in the 1980s and showing no interest in computer animation at the time.
Though the film doesn't go in the direction I'd have liked for it to, Wall-E is still among Pixar's very best and far superior to most of the 2008 releases thus far. The Blu-ray is a triumph and easily sits alongside the best of the year, as well.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:31:10