Wall-E Review

The Film


Pixar may very well be the best producers of animation in the world today. They may also be the safest. Their films may feature the most mesmerising visuals, the tightest plotting and the most memorable characters in the medium of computer-generated animation, but it’s rare for them to come out of their comfort zone and attempt something fresh. Let’s not forget that, prior to Brad Bird’s appropriately-named The Incredibles in 2004, every single one of their films had adhered to the “buddy movie” framework that went back to Toy Story in 1995. They’re arguably the best in their field, but aren’t exactly known for taking risks.

Wall-E changes that. The many strengths of this daring, compelling and utterly captivating film have been ably covered already, both in reviews by Clydefro Jones and Chris Stringer at DVD Times and in a multitude of other publications and web sites, and I see little point in rehashing the same ground here. Suffice it to say that Pixar have, in this viewer’s opinion, delivered yet another masterpiece and the best film of 2008 by a country mile. It stands comfortably alongside The Incredibles and the original Toy Story as one of the best animated features to be made since the death of Walt Disney and is a monumental triumph given that the medium is currently inundated with crude comedies filled irrelevant celebrity voices throwing around tired pop culture references. I wish I could have been present at the initial meeting when co-writer/director Andrew Stanton pitched his vision to the executives at Disney (bearing in mind that this would have been before Disney Feature Animation’s top brass consisted of his bosses at Pixar, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull).

“What’s your back-story?” they would ask.

“Well,” he would reply, “my film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future – say, 800 years from now. Greedy fat cat corporations, not unlike your own, have sucked the Earth dry of its natural resources. It’s now basically a great big ball of garbage in orbit, and it’s completely uninhabitable. Those that could afford to have abandoned it and now inhabit a spaceship called the Axiom, where all the amenities they could want are provided for them, waiting for Earth to be made inhabitable again. This is being done by an army of robots called ‘WALL-E’ (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). It’s too big a job, though, and the humans have remained in space while most of the robots have stopped functioning. Now, only a single WALL-E is left, and he continues to carry out his waste disposal functions.”



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“Hmm...” The executives shift awkwardly in their seats, glancing at each other uneasily. “Well, Andrew, the thing is, we’re not sure how this would go down with the shareholders. It seems a bit... provocative. Tell us about this little robot, though. Sounds like he has some good marketing potential.”

“Right, yes, well, Wall-E is alone on Earth apart from a solitary cockroach – ”

“Oh!” One of the executives cuts him off. “Excellent! Will he be like Jiminy Cricket? Will he be Wall-E’s conscience?”

“Erm... no, not quite. That would be quite difficult, because the cockroach doesn’t speak.”

Whaaaaat?” The executives are becoming decidedly nervous. “But... but if he can’t speak, and he and Wall-E are the planet’s only inhabitants, who’s going to perform the dialogue?”

“Oh, there won’t be any dialogue – ”

No dialogue? Not possible!” The execs are really panicking now. “But... but... if how will we know what the characters are thinking if they don’t tell us with words?”

“We’re going back to the old silent movies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, communicating the mood largely through pantomime. And Wall-E’s emotions will be conveyed to the audience almost exclusively through his eyes.” Stanton pulls out a pair of binoculars and proceeds to demonstrate. “I was playing around with these and found that you could change whether the eyes of the binoculars appear happy or sad simply by adjusting their angle.”



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“This sounds incredibly complicated, Andrew. Are we sure the kids are going to get all of this?”

“Ah, well, you see, at Pixar we’ve never made films just for children. We appeal to adults as well, and – ”

“But we don’t understand!” cry the befuddled execs. “Isn’t animation a children’s genre?”

“No,” replies the director with studied patience. “Anyway,” he continues, eager to move the pitch forward, “there will be a few words of dialogue here and there. For example, Wall-E can say his own name – ”

One of the execs interrupts again: “Oh, yes, this sounds much better! And who do you have in mind to voice him? I hear that Will Smith does cartoon voices nowadays. Didn’t he appear in that shark movie?”

“Did we make that one?” whispers one suit. The others shrug.

The director rolls his eyes and tries hard not to leap over the table and punch the clueless suit. “In actual fact, I’m planning to call on the talents of Ben Burtt.”

The executives stare at him blankly. “Who’s he? I’ve never heard of him. What’s he been in?”

“Well, he hasn’t really been in anything, so to speak. He’s a sound designer. He worked on both Star Wars trilogies, the Indiana Jones films...”

“Oh, oh! You mean Harrison Ford! Wonderful – he’ll please the old-timers. But we really need someone to draw in a younger audience – someone with marquee value. Wouldn’t it be possible to get Hannah Montana in somehow?”



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“Please, let me finish. There’s no dialogue in the first half-hour, but then, a probe robot called EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is dispatched from the Axiom to search for plant life on Earth. Wall-E falls madly in love with her, and when she departs for Axiom, having found a solitary plant, he hitches a ride on her transport ship, and ends up aboard the Axiom along with the descendants of Earth’s former inhabitants.”

The executives’ fears are beginning to be assuaged. “This sounds much more promising, Andrew. But... but... would it not be possible to cut the first half-hour and have the whole thing take place on – ”

“No.”

“Oh. Well, we’re not sure about this, but it looks like we’re going to have to go along with it. Tell us more about these humans.”

“Well, centuries of complete and utter sloth, waited on hand and foot by machines, have caused the human race to devolve into fat, gelatinous blobs with tiny bones who can no longer even stand up.”

One executive whispers to another: “That’s going to go down a treat with our licensing partners at McDonald’s.”



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“So,” Stanton continues, “the final two-thirds of the movie consist of Wall-E’s adventures aboard the Axiom, in which he unwittingly succeeds in spearheading a revolt against the ship’s computer-controlled steering system and sets in motion a plan to return to and re-cultivate Earth.”

“And then we’ll have some dialogue?” squeaks an exec hopefully.

“Some, but the narrative will be advanced mainly through the characters’ actions rather than their words. There’s a lot of visual humour, and the chain of events that takes us to the film’s conclusion unfolds in something of a Keystone Kops manner.”

“Again with the silent films,” whispers one of the suits to another. “What is it with this guy and the golden oldies? Can he not just enjoy a good fart joke like the rest of us?”

The other execs nod in agreement, then get into a huddle and discuss matters among themselves. Finally, they separate and turn to face Stanton, looking most grave. The designated spokesman of the group clears his throat before speaking.

“Ahem! Yes, well, we were all very impressed by your enthusiasm, Andrew. Clearly, this is a project about which you feel incredibly passionate.” He spits out this last word as if it belongs to a language with which he is unfamiliar. “However, all this talk of robots, Charlie Chaplin, no dialogue, sound designers doing voices... I’m sorry, but I just can’t see how this can possibly be remotely profitable.”

Stanton narrows his eyes and leans forward to glare at the executive who just spoke. “Sir, I directed Finding Nemo, which at the time enjoyed the highest grossing opening weekend for an animated feature. On DVD, it’s the best-selling film of all time. Forgive me if I feel I know more about making a movie than you.”

Blu-ray Presentation




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After the stellar work Buena Vista performed on Pixar’s two previous Blu-ray releases, Cars and Ratatouille, it would be reasonable to suggest that expectations for Wall-E were, to say the least, pretty high. Luckily, I’m pleased to be able to report that the technicians have served up yet another audio-visual presentation. Annoyingly, and despite a more or less simultaneous worldwide home video release, Buena Vista have opted to region-lock the Blu-ray releases. As a result, the North American release is coded for Region A, while the UK release being reviewed here is locked to Region B. It seems utterly pointless to me, but at least you can rest assured that, regardless of where you live in the world, you are guaranteed a stellar presentation.

The film is presented its original 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio, using a 1080p AVC encode on a dual-layer BD50 disc. On the UK disc, the film has actually been split into multiple .m2ts files, each containing only a few minutes’ worth of material; a similar practice was carried out on the Ratatouille BD. In total, the files pertaining to the film come to just under 27 GB, with an average bit rate of 36 Mbit/sec (inclusive of audio). This is somewhat higher than the 21 GB North American version, although I suspect that the difference is primarily due to the additional audio tracks found on the UK disc. In any event, I compared numerous instances of the same frame from each version in Photoshop, and any differences in compression were so minute as to only be visible when the image was enlarged considerably.

As with Ratatouille before it, the filmmakers have opted to give Wall-E a somewhat diffuse look, smoother and large harsh than most CG animated fare. In fact, they went as far as to consult with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins in order to achieve a Panavision-like look, resulting in focus playing a larger role than in arguably any other animated film. The result is that the film probably won’t wow you with its razor sharpness, but it looks a good deal more naturalistic than the Shreks and Open Seasons of the world, where the pixel-perfect detail makes the artifice of the CG models seem all too apparent.



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The one area in which the disc is slightly disappointing is in terms of its compression. The words “flawless” and “perfect” are often tossed around in reviews of CG animation content with reckless abandon, and indeed, 99% of the time, Wall-E is on the brink of perfection. However, a few intermittent artefacts do stop this transfer from attaining the coveted 10/10 award. Most of them are relegated to the scene where Wall-E is fooling around in space with a fire extinguisher, and they are far from the worst compression artefacts I’ve ever seen in a transfer, HD or otherwise, but they do knock the transfer down a notch. So, so close...

Audio-wise, the main track is a 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 affair, and concerned viewers can rest assured that the description on the back cover and in the setup menu “DTS 5.1” is categorically wrong. My amp, PowerDVD 8.0 and BDInfo v.0.4.1 all detected an uncompressed 6.1 Master Audio encode, with BDInfo also reporting a 1.5 Mbit DTS-ES 6.1 legacy core for those without high definition audio capabilities. It really is a truly spectacular track, ably showcasing Ben Burtt’s subtle but rich sound design. I’ve often opined that, because the soundscapes of animated films have to be created from scratch, they often turn out to be more impressive than their live action counterparts. This is certainly the case here, with an incredibly deep soundstage and a vast amount of ambient detail. Given the sparseness of dialogue in the film, clarity really isn’t a frequent issue, and what little there is sounds excellent. A top mix in every way imaginable.

DTS-ES 6.1 (1.5 Mbps) dubs in French and Dutch are also provided, along with a Flemish Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (640 Kbps) track and a Dolby Digital 2.0 (192 Kbps) audio descriptive track. English, Dutch and French subtitles are provided for the film, with none of the extras on Disc 1 are subtitled in any shape or form. On the second disc, subtitles are provided in English, French, Italian, German and Dutch, but with little consistency: for example, while The Pixar Story is subtitled in all of these languages, there are no English subtitles for any of the trailers or featurettes.

Extras




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Pixar’s previous two Blu-ray releases, Cars and Ratatouille, were pretty impressive in terms of bonus content, certainly more so than their DVD counterparts. Wall-E, however, ups the game once again by several other notches, surpassing the already outstanding packages put together for any of their previous films on DVD or LaserDisc. Because a number of the extras are replicated on the DVD version in a slightly different form (such as the Cine-Explore mode, presented as a bog-standard audio commentary on the DVD), I’ve decided to break with tradition and not split my review of the bonus materials into separate “Extras” and “Blu-ray Exclusive Extras” sections.

Please note that, while the US release is BD-Live enabled, granting users access to trivia games, Disney Movie Rewards points and various other online activities, the fact that this service has yet to launch in Europe means that it’s absent from the local version. All told, I don’t consider it to be any big loss. Note also that a number of the extras require a Profile 1.1 player in order to work.

In addition to the film itself and a variety of trailers for other current and upcoming Disney animated releases, Disc 1 includes the following bonus materials:

  • Cine-Explore: Taking the form of an audio commentary by writer/director Andrew Stanton, accompanied by a near-constant stream of picture-in-picture visual aids, this excellent feature provides a thorough and insightful overview of the creative process, touching on more or less every aspect of production. Pixar’s commentaries are always excellent, and, while this one is slightly unusual for the studio in that it features only a single participant (as was the case with John Lasseter’s commentary on Cars), Stanton does a fine job of keeping things running right up to the final credits crawl. The PiP material primarily takes the form of production and storyboard sketches, with a number of behind the scenes clips and pieces of unfinished animation as well. It’s nice to see that Pixar appear to have learned that less is more when it comes to these things, as, unlike Cars and Ratatouille, there are no jarring mid-sentence cutaways to grubby standard definition featurettes.

  • Geek Track: Clearly owing some degree of debt to Mystery Science Theater 3000, judging by the intermittent superimposed silhouettes of the commentators, this track features four participants – character team supervisor Bill Wise, co-producer Lindsey Collins, story artist Derek Thompson and directing animator Angus MacLane – spewing forth a veritable fountain of useless and not-so-useless technical trivia both about the film itself and science behind it. It’s a lot more chatty and laidback than the Stanton commentary and, perhaps unavoidably given that it is essentially four geeks watching the film and trying to impress each other with their irrelevant knowledge, it does at times go a little off-kilter, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

  • Presto: Written and directed by Doug Sweetland, this is the short film that preceded Wall-E’s theatrical screenings. In typical Pixar tradition, it proves to be a highly entertaining short subject, heavily reliant on slapstick and, like Wall-E’s first act, completely free of dialogue. A first-rate production all the way.

  • Burn-E: Continuing another Pixar tradition, this short film, directed by Angus MacLane, is set in Wall-E’s universe and shows another side of the story, presenting events aboard the Axiom from the perspective of the eponymous Burn-E, a robot brought in to perform repair work on the ship’s exterior. Though perhaps not up to the standard of the main feature itself, it still manages to be highly amusing and is, for my money, considerably better than the deeply mediocre short that accompanied Cars on its Blu-ray and DVD releases.

  • Burn-E with Boards: As the title suggests, this option lets you watch Burn-E with the rough storyboard drawings superimposed in the corner of the screen via PiP.



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It’s on Disc 2 that the real meat and potatoes are to be found. Split into two different sections, Robots and Humans, the former provides a number of activities and BD-Java games for children, none of which are likely to provide more than a couple of minutes’ distraction for older viewers. Thankfully, recognising the multi-generational appeal of these films, Pixar have put together an extremely impressive series of features geared towards the enthusiast.

  • Deleted Scenes: Presented with an introduction and various observations by Andrew Stanton, these excised materials, presented in varying stages of completion, reveal the degree to which crucial elements of the film’s story evolved throughout the production. Four scenes are included in total, and, while they all left me feeling slightly disappointed that they didn’t make it into the final film, the director’s well-observed explanations as to why they were cut make a great deal of sense. (Total running time: 23:08)

What follows is a section entitled Behind the Scenes, split into the following seven featurettes:

  • The Imperfect Lens: Creating the Look of Wall-E: This featurette examines the film’s visual style, going into considerable detail as regards the team’s attempts to mimic the look of 70mm Panavision films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much is made of their cooperation with Roger Deakins to ensure the proper degree of authenticity, including footage of some of the live action camera tests he shot to provide the artists with a reference. (Total running time: 14:30)

  • Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds From the Sound Up: Here, Ben Burtt, one of the unsung heroes of the world of movie-making, gets a chance to shine, going into detail about the creative process of designing a film’s soundscape from scratch. Demonstrations of the various tools he uses are fascinating, as is his jaunt to the Disney vaults to get a first-hand look at some of the extremely elaborate equipment used by the studio’s audio engineers to create sound effects from bygone days when field SFX recording was impractical. (Total running time: 18:44)

  • Captain’s Log: The Evolution of Humans: Providing a glimpse of the movie that almost was, this featurette examines a dramatically different take on Wall-E’s human characters, based on the premise that, after spending nearly 800 years in space, they had devolved into mumbling, gelatinous blobs reminiscent of Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants. This piece explains the reasons for and examines the process of bringing these characters back to something closer to ourselves. (Total running time: 7:57)

  • Notes on a Score: In this, the ubiquitous music featurette, we gain an insight into composer Thomas Newman’s collaboration with Andrew Stanton, the two having previously worked together on Finding Nemo. There’s a bit too much back-patting by all and sundry here, but it’s hard to deny that the results of the partnership are impressive. (Total running time: 10:39)

  • Life of a Shot: Deconstructing the Pixar Process: A lightweight but fairly entertaining piece, this featurette deconstructs the elements of a single scene in the film and introduces each of the multitude of artists and technicians responsible for it. (Total running time: 5:08)

  • Robo-Everything: Here, we gain some insight into the difficulty of animating inanimate objects such as robots and actually giving them a degree of personality, as well as how the team resolved the challenge of designing such a wide variety of different machines and ensuring they remained distinct. (Total running time: 5:45)

  • Wall-E and EVE: A fluffy little piece focusing on the heart of the film: the romance between Wall-E and EVE. Again, considerable attention is also devoted to the characters’ designs and how they reflect their personalities. (Total running time: 7:01)



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Following the Behind the Scenes pieces are a series of additional, smaller sections:

  • BnL Shorts: This reel consists of five phony trailers for the film’s Buy ‘n’ Large corporation. Despite the rather less than authentic English accent adopted by the narrator, these are fun to watch and constitute a nicely-observed satire of corporate marketing. (Total running time: 9:02)

  • 3D Set Fly-Throughs: Fairly straightforward, this is simply a collection of clips showcasing eight locations from the Axiom and two from Earth, with the camera slowly panning around the digital sets. These are exclusive to the Blu-ray release, though I’m not sure why, as they contain nothing that couldn’t be done within the DVD spec.

  • Gallery: A standard feature in virtually every Disney DVD and Blu-ray release, this is a collection of various different images, split into four sections: Character Design, Layouts & Backgrounds, Visual Development and Publicity, many of these with their own labyrinthine system of submenus. Luckily, a “Play All” function has been provided, although navigation from one image to the next remains manual.

  • Worldwide Trailers: This section contains three domestic (US) trailers, as well as the French Canadian, Japanese and Italian trailers, and a Superbowl TV spot featuring Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz discussing Wall-E.

  • The Pixar Story by Leslie Iwerks: The final piece, and one that justifies the price of the disc alone, is a fantastic hour-and-a-half documentary on the studio, tracing it from its roots as the brainchild of John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs, its early struggles and unexpected success, right up to the recent merger with Disney and a brief look at what the future might hold. I can’t say enough good things about this fascinating and relentlessly in-depth look at the studio’s history. While rose-tinted to a degree, there are moments that are refreshingly honest, including a rather damning indictment of Disney’s late 70s/early 80s management, as well as the extent to which Disney executives’ initial story notes nearly destroyed the first Toy Story, and how the initial reels of Toy Story 2 were so bad that the crew originally charged with making the then-DTV sequel had to be replaced by the first film’s creative team and the project restarted from scratch. In addition to the ubiquitous (and extensive) on-camera interviews with key creative (and non-creative) personnel are a wealth of archival behind-the-scenes materials, some of which have previously been seen before, such as in the documentary on last year’s Pixar Short Films Collection, but most of them were completely new to me. Honestly, had Disney released this film as a separate product, they would have been justified in charging full price for it. (Total running time: 1:28:30)

Oh, and, just to sweeten the deal, every single one of the above features is presented in 1080p high definition.

Overall




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It’s easy to become overly gushy about a package like this, not only on account of the film itself but also because of the excellent audio-visual presentation and downright generous offering of extras, but I’m going to take a leap and suggest that Wall-E on Blu-ray is one of the best – or possibly even the best – releases of 2008. A poster child for high definition and a remarkable film in its own right, this release deserves a place on everyone’s shelf.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
10 out of 10
Extras
10 out of 10
Overall

10

out of 10

Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:28:11

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