For director Andrew Stanton the key to Wall-E was trusting the audience member.
Robotic loneliness, love and yearning may not seem like the most natural jumping off points for an animated film, or any movie for that matter, but those questions were at the heart of Wall-E, according to director Andrew Stanton. “We had this lunch around the time of Toy Story, in 1994, where we were batting around any idea we could think of to try and come up with what the next movie would be,” recalls Stanton. “One of the half-brained sentences tossed out was, 'What if we did the last robot on Earth -- everybody's left and this machine just doesn't know it can stop?'”
“All the details weren't there, there wasn't a name for the character and we didn't even know what it would look like,” says Stanton. “But it was just the loneliest scenario I'd ever heard and I just loved it. I think that's why it stayed in the ether for so long.”
The yawning interim between Wall-E's inception and release, marked by some noodling around and roughly four years of production work, have of course been filled with animated hit after hit from Pixar -- nine theatrical releases in all, and around $5 billion in ticket sales. Still, there's no simple formula. “We're always trying to be different with every movie,” says Stanton. “We're a director-driven studio and we're trying to encourage and support the (director's) vision so that every film will be unique, and have its own taste and slant. But I knew going in that this was more of a major unconventional film, even when we just had the character conceit and nothing else.”
Set almost 800 years in the future, the movie centers around squat, solar-powered, Earthbound WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class), who wanders around the dust storm-ravaged landscape, dutifully compacting trash into neat cubes. WALL-E's no mindless drone, though. He has instincts and feelings -- and apparently gender identification, too, since he discovers a new purpose when a sleek search robot named EVE (an acronym for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Examiner) lands on Earth to search for signs of life. When she finds a plant, EVE is summoned back to the city-sized spaceship, which contains the castaway remnants of humankind, who haven't walked or done anything for themselves in generations. WALL-E then pursues her, setting off a daisy chain of adventure.
While human characters do appear in the movie (Jeff Garlin voices the spaceship's captain, and Fred Willard appears as a bumbling CEO-type figure), much of WALL-E's emotional resonance hinges on its title character, who communicates through a variety of nonverbal cues and tinny intonations. Finding just the right look to convey all those feelings was hugely important, Stanton admits. “Being a sci-fi geek myself and going to the movies all my life, I had come to the conclusion that there were two camps of how robots had been designed -- it's either the Tin Man, which is a human with metal skin, or it's an R2-D2, a machine that has a function, is designed based on that, and you read a character into it. And I was very interested in [the latter], because to me that was much more fascinating.”
“The other thing that really motivated me was that John (Lasseter, Pixar's CEO) had made Luxo Jr., this little short film about a lamp that hops around, and it's just an appliance, it's not even made to look like a character. It just happened to be an appliance that by its own natural design you could throw a character onto. And that thing is powerful. I've had to watch it about 1,000 times, and every time before we put it on I go, 'Oh jeez, I gotta watch this again.' And yet I get caught up every time. So I think there is some unique power to that type of bringing a machine to life than in other types of machines that are actually designed to look like a [person]. I put it in the same category as pets and infants -- you're already sort of charmed by it but it can't communicate fully, and so you're compelled to... pull from your own emotional experiences to finish its sentences” and feelings.
With the decision to let function dictate WALL-E's look, Stanton knew he still had a tall order on hand. He found some special inspiration while partaking of America's pastime. “I was at a baseball game, and somebody handed me their binoculars,” Stanton reminisces. “I hadn't designed WALL-E yet. I knew he had to compact trash so I knew he was going to be a box at the most basic level, and I knew he was going to collapse to show that he's shy. That's all I had. I was honestly thinking of putting a single cone lamp on it, because I loved how much you just read a face into the simplicity of Luxo. But I didn't know if that would hold for 90 minutes and a full-length feature. And then when I got handed these binoculars I missed the entire inning! I turned them around and started staring at them, I started making it go sad, and then happy, and then mad. It's all there. It's not trying to be a face; it just happens to ask that of me when I look at it.”
Much easier to gauge, certainly, will be the reactions on audiences' faces this opening weekend, and beyond. A sure bet to open at the top of the box office, great reviews and positive word-of-mouth seem sure to drive Wall-E to the similar heights of its Pixar predecessors. Still, Stanton and his colleagues don't take anything for granted. No matter the movie's characters or setting, they simply try to stay true to the story they're trying to tell -- even if that asks a bit more of audiences than many animated films.
“From day one, nobody at Pixar ever thought (animation is only for kids), which is why I think it’s so good working here,” Stanton says. “I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I don’t think of the audience at all, because I don’t go to see a movie hoping the filmmaker has second-guessed what I want. I go to see what he wants, because I like his taste and style and I want to see what he’s going to do next. The day we start thinking about what the audience wants, we’re going to make bad choices. At Pixar, we’ve always holed ourselves up in a building for four years and ignored the rest of the world, because nobody are bigger movie geeks than we are, so we know exactly what we are dying to see with our family and kids. We don’t need other people to tell us that. We trust the audience member in ourselves.” So far that formula has worked quite well.