Th­ese are the droids you’re look­ing for

Tech­ni­cally dumb­found­ing, con­sis­tently hi­lar­i­ous and gen­uinely mov­ing – Pixar’s latest fea­ture Wall-E raises the bar for an­i­mated movies to new heights. “What keeps us go­ing is the de­sire to stick our necks out. To do any­thing else would be bor­ing,” it’s

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

IT MUST be nice to be a Pixar di­rec­tor. Ev­ery few years, you are put in a plane and taken on a tour of the world’s swanki­est ho­tels. Var­i­ous me­dia wastrels then shuf­fle be­fore you and, one by one, ask you to ex­plain how you got to be the world’s great­est ge­nius.

Now, Dr Syco­phancy is no stranger to the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, but the vo­cif­er­ous praise di­rected at Pixar is gen­er­ally sin­cere and jus­ti­fied. From Toy Story in 1995, through to Find­ing Nemo in 2003 and Rata­touille in 2007, the an­i­ma­tion stu­dio has es­tab­lished a for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion for com­bin­ing beau­ti­ful sto­ries with even more beau­ti­ful dig­i­tal images.

Some bit­ter lit­tle part of my psy­che al­most hopes that Wall-E, Pixar’s latest fea­ture, will fi­nally see the folks from Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia, lay­ing a big rot­ten egg. No­body de­serves this level of suc­cess. But it is not to be. The film, which fol­lows the last ro­bot on Earth as, over sev­eral cen­turies, he cleans up the de­tri­tus left by hu­man­ity, is tech­ni­cally dumb­found­ing, con­sis­tently hi­lar­i­ous and gen­uinely mov­ing. It is, in fact, a se­ri­ous con­tender for the best an­i­mated fea­ture ever.

Andrew Stan­ton, the film’s di­rec­tor, sits on a couch await­ing adu­la­tion. I won­der if he and his col­leagues ever get blase about the praise. “Oh, good­ness no,” he says with a con­vinc­ing gape of hor­ror. “If any­thing, we work harder on th­ese films now than we did at the be­gin­ning. What keeps us go­ing is the de­sire to stick our necks out. To do any­thing else would be bor­ing.”

Most of the top peo­ple from Pixar, though over­pow­er­ingly smart and con­sis­tently chatty, dotend to look a lit­tle as if they have emerged from mom’s base­ment. John Las­seter, who founded the com­pany and di­rected the Toy Story movies, in­sists on wear­ing “funny” Hawai­ian shirts to press in­ter­views. Pete Doc­ter, di­rec­tor of Mon­sters Inc, looks like a com­bi­na­tion of Goofy and Pe-

ter Crouch.

By way of con­trast, Andrew Stan­ton, who also gave us the gor­geous Find­ing Nemo, is a sur­pris­ingly pre­sentable fel­low. Dressed in a crisp sports jacket and pressed slacks, he could eas­ily be mis­taken for a hol­i­day­ing den­tist or a suc­cess­ful small busi­ness­man.

A grad­u­ate of the pres­ti­gious Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of the Arts, Stan­ton has been a part of the Pixar story from early on. Las­seter, a fan of Andrew’s early shorts, hired him as the com­pany’s fifth em­ployee. The stu­dio al­ways iden­ti­fies it­self as “di­rec­tor-driven”, but all the ma­jor play­ers in the op­er­a­tion – in­clud­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Jobs, co-founder of Ap­ple Com­put­ers – do still have an in­put into ev­ery pro­duc­tion.

An early teaser trailer for Wall-E ex­plained how the char­ac­ter was de­vised in the mid-1990s at a lunch at­tended by Las­seter, Doc­ter and Stan­ton. Ea­ger to find a suc­cess­ful fol­low-up to Toy Story, the team toyed with the idea of a film fo­cused on “the last ro­bot on Earth”, but even­tu­ally de­cided to de­velop the project that be­came A Bug’s Life.

“There were hun­dreds of lunches, but that was mem­o­rable be­cause two fully formed ideas came out of it: A Bug’s Life and Wall-E,” he says. “I was in­trigued by the idea of do­ing a science fiction movie fea­tur­ing a ma­chine that couldn’t speak as we speak, but could only talk like a ma­chine. But I don’t think we were good enough sto­ry­tellers at that stage to make that work.” Doc­ter tin­kered with the no­tion for a few months, be­fore even­tu­ally cast­ing it aside to work on Mon­sters Inc.

“Then, af­ter I was fin­ished with Nemo, I knew it had been thrown in this box, as it were. So I asked if I could have a crack at it.”

Stan­ton de­scribes the orig­i­nal con­cept of Wall-E as “arty” and, though no­body would con­fuse the fi­nal prod­uct with the work ofTarkovsky, the team at Pixar have, in­deed, taken risks with the au­di­ence’s pa­tience. The open­ing 40 min­utes fol­low Wall-E – a rusty metal box with ET’s eyes – as he pot­ters charm­ingly about an Earth en­gulfed in filth and waste. Hu­man be­ings, even­tu­ally over­come by pol­lu­tion and over­crowd­ing, have left the planet for a life in outer space.

Pixar per­son­nel al­ways get a lit­tle sen­si­tive when you re­mind them that a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of their au­di­ence is made up of chil­dren. But the folk at Dis­ney, the stu­dio’s cor­po­rate part­ners, must have shuf­fled col­lec­tively in their seats when they heard that the first half of the film would be largely with­out di­a­logue.

“I wouldn’t say that,” he says. “But even if they had, then that would be their prob­lem. If


they de­cided to not give us money to­mor­row, then that’s fine. We’d carry on with­out them. That’s what’s great about work­ing with Steve Jobs. He doesn’t want any­body to have to settle for sec­ond-best.”

Still, some crit­ics, des­per­ate to find some­thing to whine about, have noted that re­cent Pixar films do, per­haps, in­clude a lot of ma­te­rial that might be­muse younger chil­dren. Re­mem­ber all that chat­ter about pro­bate and the role of the critic in Rata­touille? What about the long word­less sec­tions of Wall-E? Stan­ton bris­tles.

“We have never ac­cepted that our core au­di­ence is chil­dren,” he says. “We have never ac­cepted that our films have a role as babysit­ters. We have al­ways been con­sis­tent about that. I loved the great Dis­ney films when I was nine. I loved them when I was 29 and I love them now. We make the films that we want to see and, if that makes us im­ma­ture, well then so be it.”

So he doesn’t see the long quasi-silent se­quence as a risky move? “It’s funny. If you talk about it, you can trick your­self into think­ing it is risky. But for 30 years in the last cen­tury, no­body thought silent cin­ema was risky. Ev­ery­body – peo­ple of all ages – ac­cepted it. Ev­ery day, while mak­ing this film, we


would watch a Chap­lin film or a Keaton film and we re­alised some­thing about the equa­tion that makes com­edy work. The au­di­ence finds it fun­nier if they can work out that two plus two equals four them­selves. Solv­ing the puzzle for your­self makes the joke fun­nier.”

I sus­pect that Stan­ton and his col­leagues are per­fectly sin­cere when they say they don’t ponder de­mo­graph­ics when plan­ning their films. But his re­sponses to ques­tions about the film’s ap­par­ent eco­log­i­cal mes­sage are more puz­zling. Wall-E’s “life” (is that the word?) is even­tu­ally dis­turbed when Eve, a milky white, ap­par­ently fem­i­nine probe – a kind of iPod with blasters – ar­rives to search for any re­main­ing life on Earth.

Af­ter many mishaps, Wall-E and Eve end up on the mas­sive space­ship that con­tains the re­mains of our species. It tran­spires that hu­mans, af­ter de­stroy­ing the planet by fill­ing it with garbage, have gone on to evolve into enor­mously fat, men­tally pas­sive blimps.

If ever there were a film with an evo­lu­tion­ary mes­sage, it is Wall-E: keep go­ing the way we are go­ing and we’ll bug­ger up the planet. So why has Stan­ton hith­erto de­nied that any such mes­sage ex­ists. “Be­cause it doesn’t,” he says. Yes it does! I know he spent six years mak­ing the film and that I’m just some schlub in the third row. But, even if he didn’t in­tend the film to have a mes­sage, it still speaks to cur­rent con­cerns about the planet’s malaise.

“I sup­pose that is what I am­say­ing. I’m say­ing I didn’t in­tend it. If you watch the film, you see we were just us­ing plant life as a sym­bol of hope. Ba­si­cally, I needed some way of mak­ing Wall-E iso­lated and to get ev­ery­body else off the Earth. Trash is very vis­i­ble. It works on screen, so that’s why I used it. Ev­ery­body knows about buy­ing too much stuff, so that works as an im­age. It just worked for the story. Sim­ple as that. Now, I find peo­ple are ac­cus­ing me of . . . ”

But, hang on a mo­ment. It’s not an ac­cu­sa­tion. Why does he feel the need to dis­tance him­self so com­pletely from sug­ges­tions that the pic­ture might be wav­ing the green flag? That would be a good thing. Wouldn’t it?

“Okay. I can look my­self in the mir­ror and say: if peo­ple are us­ing the film in that way then it’s not a bad mes­sage to be as­so­ci­ated with. But I would be ly­ing to you if I said that’s why I put it in.”

A quick glance at re­sponses to Wall-E in the US of­fers clues as to the source of Stan­ton’s cau­tion. On the left, blog­gers for the Huff­in­g­ton Post have com­plained that the film doesn’t of­fer enough eco­log­i­cal ad­vice to con­sumers. On the right, ful­mi­na­tors for the Na­tional Re­view de­nounce the pic­ture as “left­ist pro­pa­ganda”. Who would blame Stan­ton for re­treat­ing to his ide­o­log­i­cally neu­tral base­ment and erect­ing the storm win­dows? No­body wants to be caught in the cross­fire from th­ese cul­ture wars.

To be fair, like all Pixar’s best films, Wall-E, de­spite its con­cern with ro­bots, space­ships and the end of the world, works best as a touch­ingly hu­mane drama. Stan­ton, who has been in the same re­la­tion­ship for 25 years and has two teenage chil­dren, agrees that lit­tle per­sonal crises in­spire their sto­ries.

“I re­mem­ber walk­ing with my son when he was lit­tle and I re­alised that I had trou­ble just con­nect­ing with him be­cause I was so con­cerned about the dan­gers fac­ing him. ‘Don’t go there! Care­ful of the road!’ And that be­came the ba­sis for Find­ing Nemo.”

Is that the key to Pixar’s suc­cess? Do they suc­ceed by in­ject­ing the fan­tas­tic into the ev­ery­day? “Maybe. But, you know, it’s a shame that ev­ery­one’s not do­ing that. All sto­ries should be­gin with the per­sonal.”

Andrew Stan­ton and Wall-E

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