|Friday, June 27, 2008
20:52 - Jonathan Eve
I don't know if they meant it this way all along or what, but WALL•E plays like a living, glowing embodiment of the marriage of Disney and Pixar, like their inaugural project.
What you can't help but notice throughout the film is the tremendous number of Apple injokes and homages:
The startup "bong" sound when anyone reboots
The autopilot that's voiced by "Macintalk" (and credited thus)
Wall-E uses a beat-up 5th-gen iPod
The Susan Kare-esque pixel art in the credits sequence
The "Computer-generated voices by Apple Inc." in the credits
It's almost like the iMac-like design aesthetic of Eve and the rest of the denizens of the world of seven hundred years from now was no accident at all.
And on another level, one starts to wonder whether the concept of a love story between a hopelessly sexy and futuristic piece of technology and a decrepit but nostalgically lovable relic of the past might be meant to depict something more contemporary: the fusion of the barely-remembered legacy of Walt with the all-too-dominant ascendancy of the House of Steve.
I'm sure it didn't start out that way, if indeed any of this subtext was intentional at all, and they meant anyone but obsessive-compulsive Mac bloggers to pick up on it. But somehow I have to imagine that during the production process, the opportunities just kept presenting themselves, and the temptation simply proved far too great.
Not that I'm complaining. It hardly detracted from the movie at all; indeed, it meshed very well. And this is certainly Pixar's most ambitious effort to date, though I'll have to stew a little longer to decide whether it's their best and/or my favorite. What matters is that they're still pushing themselves as hard as ever, if not harder.
Pixar has always succeeded because they deliver more than you bargained for. I headed into Toy Story in 1995 expecting to see an amusing animated movie in an exciting new computer-generated medium; what I got was a movie better than anything but the very best Disney in its modern prime was able to produce. A little later, leaked videos appeared of "outtakes"—rendering errors from Toy Story—that were so damn funny that the studio itself couldn't resist letting people see them, probably since they could hardly stop laughing themselves. When I saw A Bug's Life, it was just as ambitious a film and just as successful, and—on top of that—a seven-minute short that they just threw in for kicks. For free! Who creates short subjects to play in front of their own feature films in this day and age? And—and!—not just that... they stuck in real "outtakes"! Fully animated, scripted outtakes, played over the credits—rendered with as much detail and comedic skill as the movie itself, as a massive tongue-in-cheek belly laugh over the whole concept of "outtakes" in a medium where they are so patently impossible. Then, just as we'd gotten used to that level of overdelivery, Monsters, Inc. gave us all of the above—plus another animated stinger, an animated "reenactment" of the whole movie we'd just seen, performed on "stage" by the kids of the monsters in the movie. By my count, that should have brought my ticket price up into the $20 range. But nooOOOoo, Pixar had to come along and ruin all expectations of the movie industry by topping themselves time after time, delivering more and more above what we expected of them from the previous outing, let alone from other studios. And they did it effortlessly, without even breaking a sweat. Meanwhile, all the old-school giants like Disney and Dreamworks could do was imitate and scramble to keep up.
Sometimes it seems like Pixar is being controlled by some alien intelligence, something hyperintelligent and omniscient, with limitless resources—something like a sort of social-engineering experiment by a culture from seven hundred years in the future. It seems perfectly capable of subsisting on its own, whether we pay it any attention or not. But its DNA comes from a source far older than its technology; lest we forget, John Lasseter was a classical 2D animator making flipbooks of anthropomorphic sacks of flour long before he envisioned bouncing desk lamps. Even if Disney had been reduced to one tired old wizened storyboard artist hunched over a light table, Pixar would still owe him everything that makes them successful—and if offered the chance to reunite and merge the old and new traditions, it's almost a moral imperative for them to have done so.
I don't know what will become of the Pixar formula under the new regime. The credits sequence of WALL•E, if we're to continue reading it the way I am, is optimistic; and so I'll remain eagerly expectant of great things. And will probably find I underestimated them again.
UPDATE: Oh for Pete's sake.
UPDATE: Via Mark, The 10 Worst Top-Shelf CG Cartoon Movies Ever Made. Touché. Incidentally, I wonder whether the relative star power of Cars—and the lack thereof in Pixar's better-loved outings, including WALL•E, which only has about five actual credited (human) cast members, none of whom I'd heard of—says something too. Like, the more big-name actors you blow your budget on, particularly those not particularly known as voice actors, the worse the final product will suck. (Travolta as Bolt? Nicholas Cage as a bug? Who could even recognize them?)
UPDATE: Reading some of the comments on the article linked in the previous update (and on this Cartoon Brew post), particularly the dull cockeyed-baseball-capped dungflingers who go LOL CARTOONS R 4 KIDZ U MORONS, I found myself thinking that the very concept of a "franchise" is probably grouped along different axes for different people.
The studio execs might think someone is willing to watch "a drama", or "a comedy", or "a talking animal movie", or "a Superman movie". And to some extent they're right, of course. But I think more moviegoers think more along the lines of "a Disney 2D feature" or "a Jack Black movie" or "a Pixar movie".
Someone in a Corpse Bride review I just read said something like how "most cartoons these days are made with slick computer programs" instead of the traditional methods; and the fact that he still called 3D CG movies "cartoons" made me think: do I consider such things "cartoons"? Do I consider a CG movie to be in the same ballpark as a 2D feature? Do I have the same impetus to go see one? Is the audience the same?
I don't think so. I think my moviegoing decisions were always made along the lines of "Is it part of a franchise to which I've subscribed?" rather than "Does it have elements that tickle my fancy?" And those franchises I cared about, the ones that weren't about specific actors or directors or perceived cultural footprint, were almost exclusively centered on the top drawer of the 2D feature market. I always considered Disney's theatrical features to be a "franchise"—I'd devour one, then immediately begin looking forward to the next one, whereas I'd all but shun 2D features from many lesser studios. Whether I would go see the next one was never in question. Sure, I'd have to make a decision on things like Anastasia or Quest for Camelot or Titan A.E.; those ones I'd have to weigh carefully, and some I decided to see, some I didn't. But there was never any doubt that Hunchback or Hercules or even The Emperor's New Groove would be a milestone in my yearly calendar, a holiday to look forward to.
And so it is with Pixar. Ever since Toy Story, it's not a question of whether I would see the next Pixar movie in theaters, but only whether I'd see it on opening weekend or not. It's a franchise to my mind, no matter how different in theme, subject matter, tone, or concept they are from one outing to the next. But at the same time, other "cartoons" from other studios—I guess I don't even consider them "cartoons", let alone part of the same kind of "franchise" as Pixar plays in. I never had any desire to see Meet the Robinsons or Chicken Little or Valiant, even though they're positioned as being the spiritual successors to the "animated feature" tradition of things like Beauty and the Beast.
Looking at the human character designs for Bolt, I find myself thinking that there's a depressing sameness to modern CG movies; they've all got an odd, off-putting, Uncanny Valley-ish quality to them that's made all the more apparent by the fact that CG allegedly gets them that much closer to "reality" than 2D animation. Much though the studios might love to think that 3D is the Way of the Future for "cartoons", the fact is that I just don't enjoy looking at them as much as I do a traditionally animated 2D feature—in other words, the very thing that supposedly makes it a "cartoon" is missing, as far as my mind is concerned. I love seeing a good drawing, not a good model.
Pixar is in a different class, since it seems to be able to make just about anything it touches turn to gold, often aided by its decision to focus on subject matter that allows it to avoid animating realistic-looking humans (WALL•E even goes to the extent of using live-action footage featuring Fred Willard for the fleeting bits where they require people that look like people, because the humans in the rest of the thing are cartoonish lumps of dough after centuries in artificial gravity, fortuitously for the medium). And Pixar's singular skill at delivering the goods keeps me glued to its franchise no matter what each successive film is actually about, rather than making me decide on each one individually based on whether they got Stephen Colbert or Bill Murray to provide a voice, or whether its subject matter or genre happens to be something that particularly catches my attention. I don't know how much effort most studios waste trying to pander to specific parts of the moviegoing public that doesn't respond to the magic words "Pixar" or "Peter Jackson" or "Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly In Yet Another Satire of Earnest Beloved Social Constructs"; and I don't know how large that part of the public actually is (I know I'm probably not all that typical). But as studios squander millions upon millions trying to hit upon the magical formula that will reliably and reproducibly deliver a Lion King-sized hit, maybe this angle of thinking about it would help somewhat.
Not that there's much they could do about it if it turned out to be correct, of course. Other than "be Pixar".
UPDATE: Oh, incidentally, I love how the Captain in WALL•E got stuck in a Wikipedia singularity.