Published at: July 7, 2008, 10 p.m. CST by Moriarty
"I don't want to survive! I want to LIVE!"
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I live in a Pixar world.
And if you’re a parent, I’m betting you do, too.
Even if you’re not a parent, it’s becoming increasingly hard to resist, as the studio turns out these films that simply enter the lexicon immediately, films that are sort of absorbed into pop culture without the least resistance. They’re megahits... financially speaking, it’s almost a given at this point. They’ve become such a successful brand, with the full weight of the rather prodigious Disney marketing machine behind them. But beyond that, they are the sort of classics that were generated by the Walt Disney Studios in the golden days, the SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO days, the days when Walt himself ran the show. There was magic in the way he grew his dream, year after year, expanding his focus and embedding his imagination so firmly into an entire generation’s inner life.
My first son Toshi has grown up surrounded by Pixar imagery. I’ve got all the movies in the house, and my wife watched them frequently, in rotation, enjoying all of them equally. I think A BUG’S LIFE and CARS are both very good movies, above-average entertainments with rich characterization and beautifully-realized animation. I don’t love them the same way I love other films they’ve made, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve both landed with the same impact as THE INCREDIBLES and the TOY STORY films and RATATOUILLE and FINDING NEMO and MONSTERS INC. In the case of CARS, it’s got the richest afterlife in terms of merchandising of anything Pixar’s made. Those films share the same sort of revered regard as the Pixar short subjects from over the years. My wife will put in any of the discs in the house that say Pixar. Anytime. And just leave those in the players now that Toshi knows how to press “on” and “play.” She trusts their movies that inherently.
I’ll be honest with you... at this point, I wouldn’t have the balls to work for Pixar. It’s the greatest work environment I’ve ever visited, Shangri-fucking-la, an artist’s dream job, but god... imagine being the dude who ends the streak. How can this dream machine go forever? Somebody, sometime, is making THE BLACK CAULDRON, and you’re just gonna have to deal with it when it happens.
Disney stumbled. Disney arguably fell for a while. There was a point where the brand didn’t mean anything anymore. Pre-Katzenberg/Eisner, Disney Feature Animation was pretty much on its last legs, getting ready to sell off the drawing tables. So it can happen. It’s possible for a streak to end and things can change. Can Pixar really avoid it forever? Can they really keep this sytem of theirs, this community, alive and thriving and productive?
Can you imagine? “Here’s my movie. I’m very proud of it.” “Oh. Wow. You’ve made... uh... ROCK-A-DOODLE.” Seriously. That’s my worst nightmare. To be the guy who made Pixar’s ROCK-A-DOODLE. Talk about Nixonian flopsweat. Dear god. I mean, I’m just enough of a hack to do it. And I’d never realize I’d done it until after the fact.
The good part of the system is that they would catch it. Pixar isn’t afraid to kill movies that aren’t working, and that’s important. Development is all about knowing when to pull the trigger. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s something you simmer for a while, and sometimes it never happens at all. Depends on the movie. If it’s right, make it. If it’s not, don’t. And they get that. That’s the instinct you have to respect. Knowing when to say when.
I’m content and pleased to just live in the Pixar world that they’ve generated over the past 24 years. Right now, as I type this, Woody is standing on the corner of my desk. I didn’t put him there. I didn’t see Toshi put him there. He’s just... there. And I guarantee when I wake up tomorrow, he’ll be gone. And I won’t see that happen, either. There’s a different WALL-E from Thinkway Toys up on each of my shelves. The smaller one is the iDance version, where you can plug your iPod into him, and he’ll dance along with it, while also doubling as a speaker for you to use with the player. It’s got surprisingly good sound. On the upper shelf of one of my bookcases, Dash is standing guard next to the illustrated spine of a Mario Bava boxset. Above him, on top of the bookcase, Homer Simpson stands next to JackJack, and waaaaay in the back, not visible from the floor, Frozone’s making the moves on Mrs. Incredible. Above the door, both Mr. Incredible and Violet are perched along a wide ledge positively jam-packed with figures and busts and bobble-heads and candy dispensers, mixed in among the likes of The Wolf Man and Beavis and Batman and Dr. Evil and Gollum and The Thing. And another The Thing as well.
All of those Pixar images are on display in my office, and not in an intentional way. I didn’t actually realize the saturation until I started the inventory for the paragraph above. That’s just in my room, too. In my whole house, it’s pervasive. Today was Toshi’s birthday. Toshi’s three now, and he just got his own bed in his own room, something we’ve planned on since we moved into the house. And the only way he’d agree to this new bed is if he picked out his own sheets, and the only sheets that were acceptable were these Wall-E sheets.
Today, he had a WALL-E cake. A real one. Pretty slick. And all the place settings were WALL-E themed. So was the piñata. He got WALL-E toys today of his own. So, you know, he doesn’t break Daddy’s WALL-E toys. Ahem. In our bedroom, in his bedroom, in my sister-in-law’s room, in my mother-in-law’s room, in the other office, in the family room, on the patio, in the kitchen, in the garage... there’s not a room in my house where I could go where I wouldn’t see some iconography of Pixar. Seriously.
Fine by me. I surrender willingly. One of the things that makes these films so much fun each time is that you get the sense Pixar is pushing themselves voluntarily. You know that scene in UNBREAKABLE where Bruce Willis is working out and he realizes he’s incredibly strong, and maybe he should find out just how strong, so he and his son start putting the weight on? Well... that’s what it feels like they’re doing over there... trying some fairly radical ideas, then refining them with the unerring eye for story that the studio has developed over the years.
WALL-E has generated a fair amount of controversy and conversation and opinion pieces already, and it’s being discussed in a way that would indicate it’s being taken seriously. People love the love story, but when it comes to the fate of humanity onboard the Axiom, people seem divided in how they react, or even in what they think it “means.” Some viewers want the first half of the film, but at feature length, with nothing involving other characters. I think if anything, that must make Andrew Stanton proud. People engage with the characters of WALL-E and EVE so completely that they’d rather just spend the entire time in the theater just watching them. Gotta respect that.
The past year, Disney’s put a lot of time and effort into introducing the character of WALL-E into the consciousness of the audience. They’ve done their best to make him real. And by focusing on WALL-E instead of on the story of the film, I think they did the right thing. It’s very pure marketing in the way the first half of the film is very pure cinema. It’s not silent storytelling in any way. The use of sound is sophisticated and visceral, thanks to the only-Oscar-lock-so-far-this-year work by Ben Burtt. Lifetime achievement award type stuff. If there’s a superstar in this film, it’s him. The animation is gorgeous and lush and photographed with an eye for photo-realism. Stanton asked a lot of everyone on this film, and I think the team he worked with delivered a lot of miracles. As a lifelong animation enthusiast, I would be remiss if I didn’t note just what a sensory pleasure this film is. Aside from anything about the story or the characters, it’s just incredible to watch and listen to. I saw it in two very different settings. First was in a screening room on the Disney lot. It was a private screening, and it was incredible to see the film with just my wife and my son, and to see him engage with it completely. He didn’t just watch the movie... he understood it. I’ve never had him tell me the story of a film before, but after this one, he explained the story to me on the way home. He was so excited to tell me everything that WALL-E and “Evah” did, and to tell me how sad it was to see that WALL-E got hurt, and then how we needed to go see the WALL-E movie tomorrow. The way the story is told, the way things are communicated, a three year old was able to follow the narrative. But the text is anything but simple. It’s actually a sophisticated fable about our will to do things for ourselves, which I would argue is pretty much at the core of all of human civilization. The drive to do something, to have your place in things... that’s one of the most fundamental parts of what makes us human. So of course, it takes a robot to make us understand it.
Anyone still making any comparisons between the character of WALL-E and the robot from SHORT CIRCUIT haven’t seen the two films, because WALL-E has a sweet, sunny human personality from the very start of the film, and it’s not the result of a malfunction, and they aren’t built the same. Johnny 5 was a military robot, if I remember correctly, and WALL-E is a garbage disposal.
It’s just facile, and the truth seems to be that the design of WALL-E is pretty much based on what they needed him to do. Just as the condition of the Earth is the way it is in order to give the film its dramatic engine, and in reaction to what they wanted WALL-E to be doing. Everything’s built backwards from character, and as a result, there are some things here that might feel political, but I think that’s incidental to the larger things Stanton is trying to get at. The love story between WALL-E and EVE is the soul of the film, and I would argue that it never takes a backseat to anything. It’s the thing that motivates pretty much every single action of WALL-E’s from the moment they meet. He loves her. He loves her. He loves her. He’s dizzy and swoony in love with her. It’s so charming because it’s so real and so innocent. He doesn’t want anything from her. He’s just pleased as punch she exists and lets him hang around. He’s giddy. He’s a schoolboy with a valentine in his pocket, all shucks and gosh. And it’s all just the way he carries himself, the way his eyes and his head move, inanimate materials given complex inner life in a way that Pixar specializes in as far back as those familial lamps that are now part of the company logo. It’s such great performance on the part of WALL-E and EVE and all the “crazy” robots onboard the Axiom, a motley crew who made me laugh even more the second time I saw the film. I’m not sure which one I liked the most... the massage bot gone punch-crazy or MO, the determined little cleaning bot. Each one is logical, functional, and vested with such clearly defined personality that it’s like magic.
And then there are the people. The humans. The secret the marketing campaign kept successfully. I am not surprised that the way the humans are depicted has sparked a bit of controversy. I’m just impressed the way different people seem to read very different messages into the film, and in many cases, the way people ignore the message entirely in favor of the entertainment. Which is fine, of course. I’m not sure I’d really want to see a movie question something about the fundamental way I live my life after dropping $50 on tickets for the family and another $50 at the concession stand, especially when it makes points as uncomfortable as the ones made here. Personally, I think the film’s not so much about “Fat Americans” in particular, and more about the way we are all gradually surrendering much of our real experience with the world around us in favor of virtual experiences.
Each year, it seems like “labor-saving” technology actually renders us increasingly useless for anything except sensory pleasure and comfort. The name of the ship itself, the Axiom, is a math terms meaning something that is “taken for granted.” Cuts right to the heart of what’s happened to the people living onboard over the last 700 years or so... they’ve gotten so adjusted to this lifestyle that they’ve literally turned into giant babies, soft and weak and unable to do anything for themselves. Every need, every want, every whim seems to have been provided for, and the result is someone who forgets how to do things for themselves. I don’t think WALL-E is an attack on the fat... I think it’s an attack on the mentality that would let someone get to this place of almost total reliance. One of the things I love watching as my sons grow up is watching the way they assert their personalities. They crave independence. They want to be able to do things for themselves. They have an innate curiosity about the world that fuels most of their decision-making right now, and it’s one of those qualities that I think is an essential part of who we are as people. Losing that would be a cultural disaster, and more than anything, that’s what WALL-E warns against. The environmental message? That’s a by-product of losing our drive to solve problems and improve our world. Becoming fat blob-babies? Same thing. A by-product.
I love that making choices is such a big part of the drama of this film. Even small choices. Take, for example, MO, the little cleaning bot who first encounters WALL-E when he shows up on the Axiom. His directive is simple. Clean up any and all foreign contaminants. He seems to have a second lesser directive in effect as well involving painted lines on the floor and only walking on those lines. When WALL-E takes off after EVE, that leaves MO with a choice. Follow one directive, or follow the other, and watching him puzzle through which one is more important is played as a joke, but one with just enough emotional snap to make it noteworthy. Later, when the ship’s captain (nicely voiced by Jeff Garlin) realizes that he is going to have to take action if he ever wants to see Earth, the simple act of standing on his own two feet becomes the greatest imaginable act of heroism. It’s a thrilling moment, and the absurdity of just how simple a thing it is only underlines just how far humanity has fallen by that point, and just how crucial it is for them to get up again.
I’m thrilled that Harry has taken the drastic actions he’s taken this year regarding his health and his weight, and it’s apparent while talking to him that he knows he has to make these major changes. He’s married now, in love with a great woman, and he’s finally seeing the future in terms of decades, not just years. There’s nothing easy about what Harry’s going to have to deal with in the next few years, but he’s taking that single step every day, focusing on the small changes that lead to the global shift. A few years back, I was dealing with my own health and weight issues, and I had to rewire myself completely in order to knock about 70 pounds off and keep it off permanently. Since then, I’ve managed to hover at a weight that still doesn’t thrill me, but that at least has brought my cholesterol and blood pressure and other vitals to a perfectly normal range, giving me the confidence and the energy to keep up with my kids every day. It was a miserable process, and the alternative of just letting my sedentary work lifestyle get the better of me would certainly have been easier and more fun. But no one every promised me that life is easy and fun every single day, and I was raised to accept that sometimes you do what you have to instead of always doing what you want to. For a film like WALL-E to tackle themes like that and still somehow entertain and move you with grace and elegance is a real master’s class in pop entertainment. The closing credits to the film were unexpectedly moving, telling additional story while also detailing the development of human art from cave drawings to computer animation. It’s a big idea, and it works perfectly, accompanied by a great new Peter Gabriel song.
Overall, having seen WALL-E three times now, I get the feeling I’m just starting to appreciate just how nuanced and rich a picture it is. Pixar remains stumble-free, but more than that, they appear determined to expand our notion of what “mainstream entertainment” is, and I’m just glad that I get to live and work at the moment they’re producing these classics so I can enjoy them as vital, current films and not just ossified classics. I’m sure I’ll be discussing this one more at the end of the year, but for now, I just look forward to seeing it again soon.