Sunday, July 13, 2008

WALL-E Staves off Animated Despair

I went to see WALL-E several nights ago. Before the film, as usual, we sat through a battery of coming soons, which promised a depressing run of wacky animated hijinx from Dreamworks and Disney. The former cannot make an animated film with a meaningful structure or resonant metaphor under any circumstances. Pop tedium. The Disney gang offered the stupidest movie trailer to which I have ever been subjected, which covers a great deal of ghastly material, including something about Kevin Bacon as an invisible science fiction rapist some years back. I mean really stupid. Esther Williams as a chihauhau on a Mayan set, or some dumbass thing. (Beverly Hills Chihuahau is the name of the movie. There. I've met my journalistic obligation. Dumb-ass. Chew-off-a-limb-to-get-out-of-the-trap dumb-ass.)

I was contemplating leaving the theater and surrendering my cultural passport when the feature started. Actually, a very funny short started, followed by the somber, charming, beautiful and Zeitgeisty WALL-E.

I admire Pixar's work. I think they are producing some of the most important cultural offerings of the present period, and I am not a breathless critic. I will return to the subject some other time, because I think it bears exploration. But for now, I entreat you, go see WALL-E, just to be reminded that smart sensitive people are at work in the land. The first half of the movie is as precise, economical and resonant as the most accomplished silent films, Chaplin and Keaton included. The second half is more conventional, but pays off in intertextual film references, especially to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just go. We'll talk later.


Bob Flynn said...

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the film. I've seen it twice, now! There's been an overwhelming amount of praise, but a couple folks in the animation industry, namely Michael Sporn, have come down hard on it because he sees it more as a special effects film, and a departure from imaginative (illustrative?) animation.

We've been talking about it a bit over at the Creative Juices blog, and in the studio at FV.

My view is that it stands up as a CG film that is most true to the form (doing what computers do best, instead of trying to recreate what hand-drawn animation does so well). Use a medium for its strengths, right? There are all sorts of visual story-telling feats as well, especially in the first half. Which are enhanced by spectacular sound design (including robot vocalizations).

There are some questionable holes in the narrative on closer inspection, and perhaps the sci-fi aspect doesn't hold up to the level of realism some of the classics were able to achieve. But I too have been urging EVERYONE to see this film. I expect is will be in crossover contention for best picture this year at the Oscars.

Pleasurable on so many levels...and rare to see such a thought-provoking film amongst the onslaught of other animated features being pumped into theaters these days.

CABoard said...

I, too, look forward to your thoughts on Wall-E and Pixar in general. I am meanwhile trying to pretend the trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua never happened. Speak no more of it, I beg you!

I was especially interested to see Wall-E because I attempted to whet my CG appetite by seeing Kung-Fu Panda first. Seeing the two films within such a short time period (about a month) really brought home the difference between Pixar and everyone else. Kung-Fu Panda was not a bad movie, per se, but it was obviously only a pale imitation of... even Toy Story, my least favorite of the Pixar films. The storytelling, animation, and acting all fell far below the bar that Pixar raises as a matter of course with each movie they make. Pixar innovates, it seems, and everyone else imitates.

I think a big part of the lack of competent competition can be ascribed to the fact that Pixar is an animation studio first and foremost. There's a whole slew of other studios making CG films these days, Dreamworks (who did Kung-Fu Panda) being the most prominent among them. However Dreamworks, at least, works mostly with live-action movies. And, to some degree, I think they're trying to make animated movies the same way they make live-action ones. Kung-Fu Panda (and Shrek before it) rides on the strength of the actors, not the animation. If you take Jack Black out of Kung-Fu Panda, there's nothing left. It's even obvious in the marketing strategy. I don't know who did the voices for any Pixar movie character, but I know Jack Black was in Kung-Fu Panda because his name comes before the movie title in every single advertisement. With Pixar's approach, the actor behind the animation doesn't matter, which is how animation ought to work. This becomes especially obvious in Wall-E, with its set of basically non-verbal main characters, where the movie has to stand on the strength of the animation as art for the first 30-plus minutes.

Disney operated largely the same way. Disney's 2D animation competitors during the past two decades or so, which included Dreamworks and Fox Animation Studios (a division of 20th Century Fox, who are behind the upcoming "Space Chimps"), cast well-know actors for the voices behind their animated films. "The Prince of Egypt," Dreamworks' primary 2D film, stars Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Sandra Bullock. "Anastasia" and "Titan A.E." by Fox Animation Studios feature similarly star-studded casts. Disney, however, going as far back as Snow White, casts the voices to fit the specific needs of the film and the animation. Beauty and the Beast, for example, has a cast composed largely of Broadway actors in order to create the feeling of a Broadway musical. Even in later films, where big-name actors were occasionally cast, the philosophy seems to be one of casting the right actor for the role, not flailing about for a young adult male voice and settling on Matt Damon.

I am slowly falling in love with Pixar and CG animation (despite what this comment may imply, it has taken a long time), largely because they are picking up where Disney unfortunately seems to have left off in innovation and effective storytelling. I think the next few years of animated films will be very telling, as Pixar continues to grow (possibly in unfortunate ways--one of their upcoming films stars Reese Witherspoon) and Disney labors along (albeit in new directions--Rapunzel is a return to their roots, but using CG animation, and hopefully given a boost by Glen Keane's involvement).

And I think that's quite enough out of me, for now.

patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

DB Dowd said...

Thank you Bob, CABoard, and Patrick for your thoughts--acute, robust commentary, especially you first two. And Patrick, yes, you are correct. I looked it up, having missed "Short Circuit back in the day. I will get back to this subject in the next week or so--I want to see the film again before I write about it. But from my perspective the heart of the matter is this: Pixar builds projects from the inside out. Dreamworks does it from the outside in, but they never get to the core. Maybe halfway into the mantle, if that. They get caught up in surfaces, gags, and an overinvestment in currency--that is "now," not "money." Odd, really, that in doing so they miss the Zeitgeist altogether. A special sort of incompetence, really.