[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
(Part of Pixar Week)
Jason Bellamy: Aggregate movie review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are never more predictable than when compiling the reviews of a Pixar release. Through almost fifteen years Pixar has been a cinematic goose laying digitally animated golden eggs. Not all of Pixar's ten features have been universally beloved, but even the studio's disappointing efforts, like 2006's Cars, have been treated by critics as mostly worthwhile. Generally speaking, to read reviews of Pixar movies isn't to see critics wrestling with the question of "Is it good?" but rather "How good is it?" The result creates something of a critical paradox. When a Pixar movie earns a rare pan, the studio's previous successes seem to work against it. Pixar becomes the A-plus student who suffers a C-minus grade for turning in B-plus work. It becomes the victim of a masterpiece-or-else set of expectations, thus making critical takedowns seem annoyingly nitpicky or pathetically contrarian (yep, that's an Armond White reference). At the same time, however, when Pixar delivers something that's truly and utterly magnificent, any praise heaped upon it seems empty. Gushing reviews of a Pixar movie come off like testimonials on the joys of army life written by soldiers in the North Korean military.
I mention all of this because it helps to illustrate how troubling it can be to have critical conversations about Pixar movies. When someone tells me Finding Nemo is "great," do they mean "It's a great piece of family entertainment with something for everyone," or do they mean "It's on my short list of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, tied with Taxi Driver"? I can never tell if I'm supposed to be grading on a curve, if I'm supposed to be comparing Monsters, Inc. to just Dreamworks' Shrek or instead to There Will Be Blood and anything else. If I tell you that I found Cars to be tedious when I saw it on DVD at the age of 30, is that a valid assessment, or am I supposed to analyze the movie through the eyes of the 10-year-old for which it is intended? Why is it that if I tell people I found Toy Story cute but not special, I get wide-eyed looks like I've just insulted the 9-year-old in the school play for not being Meryl Streep?
These are issues we can cover over the course of our conversation, but for now all of that is setup for this: I absolutely adore Ratatouille and I have a fondness for A Bug's Life and Up, but at the top of the Pixar heap is WALL-E. This is the one Pixar movie that, while by no means flawless, I can call great without any hesitation or qualifiers. To me, it is a masterpiece, and not just of its genre. Of all the films I saw last year, there was a small handful that shared its company, but not a single one that was better. Ed, you hadn't seen WALL-E prior to this conversation, citing little interest in the Pixar series. My question to you now isn't if WALL-E is as good as I just described. Instead it's this: Is WALL-E better than you expected, a notable Pixar achievement, or is it just more of the same?
Ed Howard: You've pinpointed some of my own problems with talking about Pixar, namely the difference between "great" (full stop) and "great for children's entertainment." Anybody who says that Pixar makes great, fun children's movies is on pretty safe ground, but there seem to be a lot of critics and fans who make rather more grandiose claims about Pixar, and especially about WALL-E. You yourself have picked it out as not only the best Pixar film, but the best film of its year. A.O. Scott called it "a cinematic poem" full of "wit and beauty," and compared it to Werner Herzog, of all people. Joe Morgenstern said it left him "speechless," then went on to deem it "a love letter to the possibilities of the movie medium." For Fernando F. Croce, it conjured feelings of humanity's "existential smallness" in the world, again warranting comparisons to Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World.
In this context, I hate to find myself most closely in agreement with Armond White, but I'm afraid I have to be the grumpy contrarian in the room. To answer your question, WALL-E is about what I expect from Pixar, albeit with perhaps some added ambition elevating it over earlier efforts. It is, in spurts, charming, funny, entertaining, poetic, witty and visually graceful. There is much to admire here, much to praise, and I can certainly see the basis for the accolades that have been heaped upon it. There are sequences and images of real beauty and potency here. In these isolated moments, WALL-E truly is great, and not just great for a kids' movie. At the same time, I feel like these odes to WALL-E's greatness are necessarily selective, ignoring the film's infantilizing aesthetic of cuteness, its tendency to condense its action into jaunty montages, and especially its tremendous downward spiral after the first hour, when an amusing tale of robot love gives way to a polemical fable with awkwardly animated human blobs.
So, while I'm sure this will be a controversial and unpopular opinion, I can't say that WALL-E (or Ratatouille, which I actually like slightly better) has drastically changed my perception of Pixar. The studio consistently produces enjoyable movies, and it is at the cutting edge of computer animation. I like that they consistently use their extraordinarily sophisticated technology towards real aesthetic ends, rather than simply showing off the latest effects and tricks they've picked up. Their movies, for the most part, have obvious ambition and smarts. Sometimes, though, I feel like people are giving them credit just for that, regardless of whether or not their ambition actually pays off in full.
JB: I agree with you on the last part, and we also see eye to eye on the strength of the first half of the film compared to the second. Indeed, as you have somewhat implied, I find that Ratatouille is more consistently pleasing than WALL-E, and so for me selecting one favorite over the other is kind of a Sophie's choice. But about this I have no doubt: Pixar has never been better than it is over WALL-E's opening forty-five minutes. That first act is so strong, so rich, so moving that it makes up for a mostly lackluster second half in which the dancing sequence, EVE's rescue of WALL-E in the trash hanger, the bitingly hilarious "Also sprach Zarathustra" sound cue and the final poignant rebooting of WALL-E make for rare highlights among material that is otherwise disappointingly uninspired, with its baby-like human blobs, overly frenetic action and too-frequent ogling of the spaceship Axiom's expansive interior.
That said, am I being too lenient here? Am I being too selective in calling the film an outright masterpiece? To a degree, maybe. But at the same time I'm reminded of your reaction to the lengthy opening scene in Inglourious Basterds, when you suggested that had the film ended after Shosanna's sprint into the woods you would have left the theater satisfied. "It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story," you said of that incredible opening scene at the dairy farm. Now, I grant you that the opening chapter of WALL-E isn't quite so self-contained. And I admit that WALL-E's second half includes nothing anywhere near as powerful as the thrills of its first half, whereas Inglourious Basterds eventually follows the tense sequence at the dairy farm with the one in the tavern that's (almost) equally good. Nevertheless, those opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E lift the movie to such great heights that they eliminate the possibility of it crashing back down to earth, even if it does descend. So, yes, I'm being a bit selective by calling the movie an unqualified masterpiece, if that implies perfection from start to finish. Then again, if you asked me to nominate my favorite 45-minute spans of cinema over the past decade, WALL-E would be on the same short list as Inglourious Basterds. I find it wholly satisfying.
EH: Maybe, if I felt like you that the opening forty-five minutes of WALL-E were "wholly satisfying," I'd be more willing to forgive the obvious flaws in the rest of the film. The fact is, though, that while the opening, near-silent scenes are undoubtedly Pixar's finest achievement thus far, they also suggest the problems that will become harder to ignore throughout the film's second half. One of these problems is the cloying cuteness in the representation of the titular robot, who at one point actually falls into a pose like a dog begging, his "paws" held up in front of his chest, as he watches the musical Hello, Dolly! on a TV set. I get it, it's a kids' movie, there's going to be a certain degree of sentimentality, but I find moments like that distracting rather than moving: it's too openly manipulative. I'm much more admiring of the moments when WALL-E's characterization is achieved subtly, through low-key humor, rather than through this kind of sap: The scene where he can't decide where to categorize a spork in his filing system, or the one where he runs over his cockroach pal and has a horrified reaction until the little guy recovers.
My bigger problem with the opening scenes is the tendency to reduce everything to a time-lapse montage. It's almost always a sign of a lousy movie when important events are conveyed through this kind of fast-paced, shorthand—think of the inevitable and endlessly parodied training montages in stuff like the Rocky series. It's easy to miss, because it's a near-silent story about a robot, that so many of the opening scenes in WALL-E are handled in a similar manner. The scenes of WALL-E motoring around the empty planet are edited together in a disjunctive way, with little sense of continuity, giving the whole sequence a choppy feel with sweeping tracking shots that cut off before their natural movement is done, as though director Andrew Stanton is afraid to really embrace the Kubrickian long shots of his cinematic inspirations. The technique becomes even more obvious once WALL-E's love interest EVE arrives, at which point we get not only a falling-in-love montage in which WALL-E stalks the sleek, iPod-like newcomer, but then a more melancholy "break-up" montage after she shuts herself down and gets carted around everywhere by WALL-E. It's like all of the film's big narrative beats are delivered through visual and emotional shorthand, rather than allowed to play out naturally. The film spoon-feeds its emotions and ideas to an audience of children, and hey, that's who it's intended for. But that means I can only consider it great if, as you suggested above, I grade on a curve.
JB: That's an interesting reaction. Though I understand your objection to montages in general, none of WALL-E's feel like lazy shorthand to me. Or, perhaps more to the point, these montages don't feel like fast-food filmmaking, like something mindlessly zapped in the microwave. As I see it, the falling-in-love montage artfully establishes WALL-E's persistence, which is the best way to visually articulate the affections of a robot who lacks the vocabulary necessary to express himself in words. Similarly, the "break-up" montage demonstrates WALL-E's faithfulness. We know that all of these gestures of camaraderie can't fit into a single day or week, so each snippet serves as a marker for passing time in a world that is otherwise without change. In a sense, it's the same effect achieved near the end of Groundhog Day when we discover that Bill Murray's Phil Conners isn't just a skilled pianist but has managed to pick up ice sculpting, too. We can call this shorthand, sure, because that's what it is. But isn't there more depth and art in WALL-E's approach than there would be if Stanton thrust us forward in time with one cut and an intertitle reading "5 Years Later"?
Thus, I tend to look at these montages from a different angle: Any old filmmaker can have characters tell us how they feel. WALL-E shows us. It has some help, of course, from Hello, Dolly! tunes and Louis Armstrong's rendition of "La Vie en Rose." But although Roger Ebert bemoaned the use of pop tunes as moody emotion evokers in his 1969 review of Midnight Cowboy, suggesting the tactic to be an unfortunate aftereffect of The Graduate, the reality is that music of some kind or another has been used to support the cinema's on-screen action since the silent era. Sure enough, what we have here is a resurrection of silent era techniques, with WALL-E frequently approximating Charlie Chaplin. I understand why you see cloying sentimentality in WALL-E's antics, as if they are the marshmallows in the cereal bowl, designed to appease the young sugar-hungry crowd. But I look at WALL-E and see "The Tramp," and there's no shame in that. This isn't simply manipulative. It's classic, too.
That's why my biggest objection to those initial forty-five minutes would be in regard to those Axiom ads featuring a grating Fred Willard that are as blatant as omniscient narration, thereby betraying the movie's show-don't-tell spirit. (Not to mention that the audience young enough to require such explanation would probably find the Axiom ads too confusing to be helpful.) But, believe it or not, this gives us another reason to go back to Inglourious Basterds. That's a film that cuts away from the action to give us a mini documentary on the flammability of nitrate film stock. That's a film that is sometimes as subtle as a baseball bat to the skull. That's a film that at times spoon-feeds its audience, replacing child-aimed cuteness with adult-aimed violence. As you know, I adore both of these films. And I want to make it clear that I don't think it's mandatory that all moviegoers be moved by all genres. I have very little interest in horror, for example, and so if these family-minded entertainments don't satisfy your palate, that's a fair and honest reaction. Still, it's interesting that family-friendly movies are often faulted for being faithful to the interests of their younger audiences when more "mature" pictures are often just as manipulative in their approach, just as dumbed-down, just as desperate to play on our emotions.
EH: I guess my main problem, not only with this film but with most "family-friendly" movies, is the over-the-top sentimentality of it all, the way the film makes WALL-E this little avatar of cuteness, staring soulfully into his eyes, which are always tilted at just the right angle to make him look kind of sad and pathetic. He fits in nicely with this culture's obsession with cuteness, the desire to provoke an "awww" response—the pandering here isn't as obvious as the little wide-eyed alien kid in District 9, but it still grates on my nerves. Why do we have to talk down to our kids this much? Or is this stuff actually there for the adults in the audience, who need adorable protagonists to really appreciate a film? (And hey, I realize the problem isn't limited to animated films or kids' films: Look at how "adorable" most of our movie stars are. Many mainstream, supposedly adult films are just as sentimental, just as cloying and obvious. I don't go to see Sandra Bullock romantic comedies, either.)
A little spoon-feeding is OK, if there's something underneath, if there are layers of subtlety beyond the surface, as I think we both agreed there were with the Tarantino film. With WALL-E, I feel like the surface is all there is. It puts everything it has right out there, and an adult audience grasps it immediately, and then that's it. There's nothing to dig into here because the film is all sleek surfaces and easy-to-digest emotions. I mean, it's gorgeous animation, at least before the humans arrive in the second half. All those shining, reflective surfaces bend and throw back light in interesting ways; Pixar even hired the cinematographer Roger Deakins as a consultant, specifically to advise them about the ways in which real light works in a non-animated film. That realism shows through in scenes like the one where EVE holds up a cigarette lighter to her face, or where a scene from Hello, Dolly! is reflected in WALL-E's glassy eyes, or where the two robots sit together watching a fiery conflagration after EVE blows up a beached boat.
This is gorgeous stuff, no doubt about it, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the film's very real visual pleasures. I just feel like the opening scenes are designed to show this stuff off and it comes off like a series of disconnected but dazzling shots. I actually think that, in light of this sentimentality, the film is better when it sticks to gags, like the ones I already mentioned above or the sequence where WALL-E gets crushed beneath a pile of runaway shopping carts, demonstrating his persistence, as you mention. But as fine and compelling as the film is at times like this, it doesn't really hold together. There's too much preventing me from committing wholly to its vision—and we haven't even gotten to the disastrous second half yet.
JB: "Disastrous" might be too strong a word to describe the second half (I prefer "uninspired"), but I'm glad you used it, because the bleak, yes, disastrous mise en scène of the opening half is what demonstrates that WALL-E is interested in far more than adorability and digital dazzle. After all, WALL-E's cutesy gazes are contrasted by the dystopia that surrounds him. Junk. Rust. Dust. Our civilization has disappeared and left behind a trash heap so excessive that WALL-E's counterparts have expired trying to clean up the mess. If we concede that WALL-E is purposefully adorable and endearing, mustn't we also concede that the image of lifeless WALL-E clones, scattered about where they fell in the line of duty, is a haunting one? If this movie were only interested in sentimentality, wouldn't this dystopia be found on some planet other than our own?
It seems to me that for a film tagged as "family-friendly," WALL-E must have sparked some incredibly uncomfortable conversations on the ride home from the theater. This is a picture that outright charges us with destroying the planet, with accepting obesity for the sake of convenience and sloth and with becoming so plugged-in that we never look outward beyond our immediate distractions. This isn't hidden. It's overt. If you're an overweight parent sitting in the theater with a giant tub of buttered popcorn on your lap, WALL-E is using you as an example of what's wrong with society. In fact, it's essentially comparing your obesity to global warming. There's nothing "friendly" about that. And so while kids might just latch on to WALL-E's puppy-dog cuddliness, adults should find this a much more difficult experience to endure. There's no Nazi-esque villain in this picture (though, yes, there is the HAL 9000 descendent AUTO). Here the evil is us. Wouldn't you agree that this is a rather challenging theme for any movie, never mind a family-friendly one?
EH: I'd agree; WALL-E tackles a challenging theme. As I suggested above, if ambition was enough, Pixar would really be worthy of all the praise that gets heaped upon their films almost without fail. I'm not so inclined to go handing out A's for effort, though. The film's theme is certainly adult, and to the extent that it serves as a wakeup call for ecological waste and environmental destruction, WALL-E is an admirable "message movie." At the same time, in its efforts to mingle such high-concept ideas with cutesy entertainment, the film gets itself tied up in knots and does, as you say, wind up equating (or conflating) global warming, obesity, technological dependency and consumerist mania. Its mean-spirited portrayal of humanity as a race of isolated, idiotic, ludicrously obese slugs isn't so much an intelligent commentary on "convenience and sloth" as a nasty jeremiad that ridicules fat people. I don't know, maybe it's just me, but jokes about people so obese they can't even stand up aren't really the height of satire in my opinion. Among other things, the film encourages kids to laugh when really fat people fall out of their chairs. Ha? This stuff is on the same level as Michael Moore's manipulative swipes at conservatives—possibly amusing if you sympathize with the message, as I basically do in both cases, but not exactly sophisticated, either as art or as politics.
Anyway, yes, the film's first half does present a vision of ecological devastation that's very much at odds with the cuddly depiction of WALL-E himself. Picking up on your citation of all those ruined, non-functioning robots strewn around, one of my favorite moments is a little gag that the filmmakers chose to soft-pedal, perhaps because it would've been too morbid for the kiddies. There's a quick scene early on where WALL-E notices that his treads are getting worn. He stops by a fallen robot and then there's a jump cut to his newly replaced treads motoring along. It instantly reminded me of a ubiquitous scene that appears in many war movies or films about poverty, where a downtrodden man finds a corpse and takes the opportunity to strip off its boots, replacing his own with somewhat nicer ones. That's basically what WALL-E does here, though it happens so fast and is glossed over so quickly that it's easy to miss. And honestly, I can't decide if I actually like the scene as-is or not. I feel like, because this is a "family-friendly" movie, any attempts to make sophisticated jokes like this are necessarily compromised, that the filmmakers held back from making this scene too explicit, from driving home the parallels to the movie convention they're obliquely referencing. Because what's actually happening is depressing, too depressing for the kiddies in the audience, certainly: WALL-E is scavenging bits and pieces from the dead "bodies" of his peers.
Watching this scene, I have this internal tension between just trying to watch and enjoy what is, essentially, a children's movie, and simultaneously processing these ideas and scenes that clearly have no place in a traditional children's movie. What does it mean that this cute, cuddly robot who is so deliberately sentimentalized in some scenes is in others portrayed, however indirectly, as a battlefield scavenger? I mean, I get it, the filmmakers are intentionally aiming over the heads of the kids, giving the parents (and the critics, not incidentally) something to appreciate. But at the same time, why can't we just let a kids' movie be light and entertaining? I'm a big advocate of not talking down to kids, of giving them some credit for intelligence and the capacity for independent thought, but Pixar's approach is pretty much the opposite of that, balancing between mindless jokiness for the kids and hammering social commentary for the adults. Do we actually feel like our kids are learning something by sitting them in front of this? Does it make us feel better to get some finger-wagging polemical Brussels sprouts with our sugary entertainment? I submit—and I realize this will be a controversial opinion—that Pixar's ambitions can be counterproductive to the things that they truly do well. WALL-E most closely approaches greatness when it's channeling the silent comedy of Chaplin, or when it's basking in the wonder of its digital beauty, and it's at its nadir when it verges into preachy and condescending polemics aimed at the audience's overweight parents rather than the kids who are supposedly the film's audience.
JB: Obviously I disagree, not with everything you said but with the larger idea that Pixar's ambitiousness is counterproductive. I suppose that in defense of your argument one could aptly point to Ratatouille, which has the kind of lightweight moralizing that we expect from a family picture while remaining for the most part a simple story about friendship that's made powerful by some tremendous animation. (It doesn't get lost in allegory.) But I'd counter that argument with Finding Nemo, a picture so simplemindedly sweet that it's only as interesting as its visuals and thus is often boring, and also The Incredibles. The critical acclaim for the latter movie, directed by Brad Bird, has perplexed me since it was released. Often I see The Incredibles hailed as some sort of potent meditation on the midlife identity crisis, which it is for about twenty minutes. After that, faster than WALL-E leaves Earth for the Axiom, The Incredibles trades in its moody office interiors for the squeaky polish of a superhero yarn that's lackluster thematically, dramatically and visually. Indeed, as its fans readily suggest, The Incredibles might have been a step in the right direction in terms of the thematic maturation of the Pixar franchise, but it was a very small step. By comparison WALL-E is a leap.
And so I contend that the second half of WALL-E wouldn't feel nearly so "uninspired" or "disastrous" if it were true that Pixar is better off avoiding "hammering social commentary" in favor of settling for "mindless jokiness" and digital wonder. Sure enough, though its vision of American obesity is satirically biting, over its second half WALL-E too frequently becomes the thing it preaches against—a display of empty, hyperactive flash. For each minute of divine beauty, like those of the dancing sequence between WALL-E and EVE, there are two minutes filled up by hyperactive robots zipping to and fro, with lots of cutaways to ogle the Axiom's Vegas-like interior. If this fails to thrill, part of the reason is because there's no gravity to it, no heft. Indeed, I'd rather that Pixar try to teach me something, try to make me think, because that's what separates WALL-E from the mind-numbing spectacle that is Michael Bay's Transformers, for one.
On top of that, I wonder if the best way to bring about change in adults isn't to circumvent their defenses by appealing to their softer side. As Jim Henson understood, a moralizing message is difficult to dismiss when it is delivered by a character whose naked earnestness disarms us. I don't know if kids are learning anything from the finger-wagging polemics, but the adults should be. I see WALL-E as akin to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree in that its truly haunting power is reserved for those who are old enough not to need the lesson.
EH: See, I think The Incredibles is quite possibly an even better example of what I'm talking about than WALL-E—polemical sloganeering in the guise of a family entertainment, though in this case I'm much more suspicious of the message than I am of the ecological awareness cheerleading of WALL-E. This simple superhero tale, which borrowed liberally from Alan Moore's Watchmen and Marvelman before the former was adapted to film by Zack Snyder, has a not-so-buried Randian/Nietzschean subtext, one I'm hardly the only person to pick up on. It's a blunt critique of modern education and child-rearing and the liberal emphasis on equality. It's a parody of the "everyone is special" ethos, mocking modern society for suppressing difference in favor of uniformity. As speedster Dash says, "everyone is special" is just "another way of saying no one is." The film is driven by the idea that exceptional individuals shouldn't be forced to "fit in," which is the Objectivist idea at the core of Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. (Indeed, visual references to Atlas himself abound, from Mr. Incredible's battle with a globe-shaped robot to the Art Deco statue, a relative of the Atlas standing in Rockefeller Center, that appears in the background of an Olympian home.) Rand's particular brand of individualism is of course a natural fit for superhero stories, which is probably why everyone from Moore to Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko (who created two Objectivist superheroes, The Question and Mr. A) has dealt with her ideas in their comics.
The Incredibles, in nodding to this lineage, winds up falling in line with the withering contempt displayed for ordinary humanity in WALL-E as well. The villain, Syndrome, is a sniveling "mediocrity," that über-Randian word, an object of pity and hatred for the super-powered characters. Syndrome, unfortunate enough to have been born without powers, is forced to make himself superior by inventing tons of incredible technology—and this makes him pathetic, I guess, because he's not simply naturally gifted like the Incredible family. The film's ultimate message winds up being almost fascist, an endorsement of inherent (genetic?) superiority. Of course, this idea comes wrapped up in the phrasing that you should accept what you are, which is a totally ordinary message for a kids' movie like this. But when you really think about it, what the film is actually saying is that some people are naturally better than others, that there's this caste system of human prowess, and that those who are born less gifted should also accept what they are, should not strive to be any better, to lift themselves above their "natural" station. Syndrome is a villain because he dared to want to be better than his birthright. Okay, so on the surface it's just an animated adventure—and you're right, not an especially great one—but it also doubles as this weird apologia for right-wing philosophies.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying that Pixar should concentrate on making more movies like Finding Nemo, and I'm certainly not advocating for more "mindless jokiness." I just think that the studio's recent films have been over-praised for having "ideas" without anybody really bothering to examine what those ideas are, or how they're integrated into the films. The answer, in my opinion, is that the ideas in these films are blunt and overly broad and in some ways rather contemptuous towards human possibility, and that they're awkwardly grafted onto films that remain lighthearted entertainments at heart. When I think about the scenes I like in WALL-E's uneven second half, the standouts are the dance sequence, the scene where WALL-E playfully fucks with that little cleaner robot by deliberately leaving grease spots on the ground, and the diagrammatic from-above shots that recall the formalism of Richard McGuire's McSweeney's comic strip "ctrl," an obvious visual and thematic reference point for the Axiom scenes. There's heart and energy to spare in these films, but I really don't think any of the Pixar directors have yet figured out a way to harness their ambition to wholly satisfying films, films that don't sacrifice the lighter qualities of Pixar's approach.
JB: I see your point. To double back to the Randness of The Incredibles for a moment: I've always found its philosophies easy to ignore—blunt though they are—because I just don't buy them. Not as presented here, I mean. Indeed, as your description suggests, the presentation of the Incredible family as contrasted with Syndrome would suggest that we should know our place and stick to it. But the movie twists this logic by populating its film with gifted characters, from the solemn Violet to the gopher-like superhero-suit designer Edna Mole, which has the effect of conning the audience into believing that Dash is wrong—that everyone is special (not mediocre) and that the crime is when we settle for less than our innate best. Innate would be the key word there, and that would explain Syndrome's sins. But this deconstruction is never wholly satisfying even when it works on paper. Bird's movie is inconsistent as to whether the Incredibles are us or instead are shining examples of what we should aspire to be—not that we should aspire too hard, because then we make Syndrome's mistake and, oh, never mind.
I can't disagree with the notion that Pixar has yet to make a film that is wholly satisfying and also thematically challenging. As I suggested earlier, Ratatouille is the former but not the latter, and perhaps that proves your point. Except I still contend that the Pixar films are at their best when they attempt to provoke adults and not just kids. I do find the images of Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) squished into his cell of a cubicle labyrinth to be genuinely poignant. I do find the dystopia of WALL-E's opening half to be more disturbing than that of, say, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. This is subjective, of course, but all of this leads me to believe that Pixar needs to become more daring, not less. Maybe over time what we'll discover is that WALL-E falls into a transitional period when Pixar was testing its limits on its way to being something more. But I have doubts. The purchase of Pixar by notoriously conservative Disney in 2006, several years after Stanton began work on WALL-E, makes me doubt that a more provocative movie will be released by Pixar anytime soon. I hope I'm wrong.
But for now that's boring industry talk. Let's get back to the art. In fact, let's talk about the artwork. Personally, it took until Ratatouille before I came to believe that digital animation was being used in such a way that it actually exceeded the traditional cel animation (2D) of classics ranging from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to 1994's The Lion King. But I assume you'll agree with me that over the past decade-plus the animation of these pictures has significantly improved—and I'm not just talking about the amount of information packed into each pixel—so that now these worlds don't just look more three-dimensional but actually exist more three-dimensionally. Or am I wrong?
EH: No, I think you're right. The quality of 3D animation has been steadily improving, and this has been very apparent in the environment design of Pixar's recent features. The Incredibles looks good, but even Bird's next film, Ratatouille, made just three years later, is a big leap ahead of it in terms of the level of detail and nuance this animation is capable of. Check out the storybook opening of Ratatouille, that tracking shot in on a country house on a rainy evening. That one simple shot is packed with detail, from the blended colors on the leaves in the foreground to the texture of the rain to the uneven tiling on the house's roof, which looks almost startlingly real. There are shots in this film where I forget I'm even watching an animated film, which is certainly a compliment to the technical skill behind the animation. True, there are still moments when the animation isn't quite as convincing—the restaurant's kitchen is a bit too slick and smooth for my tastes—but for the most part this film looks stunning, as does Stanton's WALL-E of course.
At least, the environment design does. I have to admit I'm less enamored of Pixar's design of human characters, which are very plastic: the people in Pixar's films inevitably look like they've been sculpted from the same raw materials as the backgrounds, which of course they have. For that reason, I don't agree with you that Pixar's animation has surpassed traditional cel animation quite yet, if it ever will. The people in The Incredibles and Ratatouille have some personality and style—not so much in WALL-E, with its blob-like piles of flesh—but there's something disconcertingly artificial about them, like watching action figures move around. They lack the cartoony style of the classic cartoons, like the Looney Tunes shorts, but they're also not quite realistic either; they're in this netherworld where they're not really stylized enough to be satisfying as cartoons, and not realistic enough to truly mimic reality.
Little Remy the Rat, on the other hand, is a satisfying cartoon, with a rubbery versatility that gives him some style and personality that's not always as apparent in the human characters. This is why Ratatouille, which I consider Pixar's best (or at least most consistently good) film so far, is itself best in the scenes that take place from a rat's perspective. These scenes have a certain ground-level intimacy and energy, with the camera frequently hovering behind the head of a rat, looking up at a human-proportioned world. There's a frenzied pace to the near-slapstick chase sequences in this film, like Tom & Jerry or the Looney Tunes mice cartoons. I also appreciate the rat's tour of Paris interiors that Remy gives us towards the beginning of the film, scurrying through walls and catching just glimpses of human activity below, like the couple who go from a gun standoff to an embrace or the silhouetted girl putting on makeup for an evening out. I admire the way scenes like this blend verisimilitude and stylization.
JB: Me too. And before I move forward I want to point out that I'm still a huge fan of traditional cel animation, and I wish it hadn't taken Disney so long to get back to it. (The Princess and the Frog is set to hit theaters this December.) That said, I've never confused old-school cel animation with live action, and Pixar is reaching that level of sophistication in shots if not always full scenes. In Ratatouille this is true in those opening cottage exteriors or in the brilliant nightscapes of Paris, but it's also true in smaller, more nuanced scenes. One of my favorite moments in Ratatouille—heck, in the whole Pixar canon—comes when Linguini is looking for a place to stash his new rodent friend and momentarily considers dropping the rat in his pants. This leads to an absolutely priceless reaction shot from Remy that screams "God, please, no!" even though Remy does no more than plead silently with his eyes. I look at that shot and I'm dazzled. I'm dazzled that an animated character would ever be this subdued when most human actors would convey the same emotion by being, well, animated. I'm dazzled that Pixar could create this subtle expression so successfully. And I'm dazzled to remember that Remy isn't a real four-legged actor in that scene; he sure seems like one.
And then there's WALL-E, a robot with binoculars for a head and camera lenses for eyes. They say eyes are windows to the soul, and that remains true here. What strikes me about WALL-E is how tangible he seems, especially in his scenes on Earth. I feel like I could reach out my hand and touch him. He pops off the screen the way human actors stand out in one of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels when they are surrounded by so much computer-generated unreality. It's extraordinary! Of all the places that cinema has taken me, few places are so knowingly fabricated and yet emotionally real as that little storage unit that WALL-E calls home, filled top to bottom with his trash-heap treasures. I'm tempted to say that those images—including, of course, the signature moment with EVE and the cigarette lighter—feel painstakingly rendered, but that's not true at all. In actuality they feel effortless, as if the camera is pointed at something real, tangible.
That latter sensation isn't a mistake, of course. In fact, for all the Pixar images that couldn't be achieved on a live film set (like, say, following a scurrying rat up a drainpipe), much of the animation remains rooted in traditional filmmaking techniques. WALL-E includes lens flares when the "camera" is pointed toward the sun, for example. And in the scene in which WALL-E is trampled by the runaway shopping carts the image goes out of focus ever so briefly, as if the result of a cameraman's error while shooting a scene that's too expensive to restage for a second take. Through these gimmicks, Pixar attempts to seduce us into regarding its action as "Real," and I'd argue that these little tricks have a greater effect than most of us realize.
However, I agree with you that Pixar's animation of human characters leaves much to be desired. Ratatouille has perhaps the most creatively rendered human cast, while WALL-E has the least inspired human characters. In WALL-E, I understand what Stanton was going for in making the lethargic passengers of the Axiom look similar to fleshy infants, but that doesn't eliminate the letdown one feels when transitioning from the detail-rich robots-only opening. It's as if the animation team tired themselves out working on WALL-E and phoned it in on the other characters. A similar sensation is delivered by this year's Up, in which three gorgeously wrinkled older characters stand in stark contrast to a younger supporting cast with rounded edges like Weeble Wobbles. I don't have much doubt that Pixar has the ability to create realistic human characters, but it hasn't quite happened yet, for whatever reason.
EH: You pick out a lot of great scenes and details there. But while we've both been impressed by the realism Pixar often achieves in their most recent features, I do wonder if realism is even what animators should be aspiring to. You say you've "never confused old-school cel animation with live action," and I certainly haven't either, but is that really such a bad thing? Sure, there's no mistaking a Disney feature or a Chuck Jones short for reality, but that's because they're interested in creating their own stylized cartoon realities, especially in Jones' more out-there later cartoons like Now Hear This. Maybe it's my interest in comics and cartooning that makes me feel this way, but I tend to think the best animation is not necessarily that which imitates reality. It's the same thing in comics. Look at the way, say, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez and Kim Deitch draw people: None of them treat the human form in quite the same way, and even Hernandez, the most realistic of the three, is heavily stylized. Good cartooning conveys recognizable emotions and behaviors without actually mimicking reality itself, without trying to fool the eye into thinking it's seeing a photograph. As animation gets closer and closer to live action, it loses its specifically cartoony virtues, and I think that's something to mourn, even as I also gape at the meticulously rendered Paris of Ratatouille or the detailed dystopia of WALL-E.
So I'll ask you, do you think realism is, in itself, a noble goal for animation to work towards? What's so great about being realistic?
JB: Nothing in and of itself. But several Pixar films suffer from a sort of fashion clash when pseudo-realism shares the screen with those old cartoony virtues. In WALL-E, for example, that cigarette lighter looks like the genuine article while the Axiom's captain has only slightly more detail and three-dimensionality than a Peanuts character. The result is a stylistic disconnect. One shot suggests actual reality, the other suggests cartoon fantasy. I don't want to make it sound like these different approaches could never be part of the same film, but often Pixar creates certain expectations in one shot that it isn't ready to live up to in the next. In fact, sometimes even individual shots clash. In Up, for instance, there's a scene in which Carl Frederickson has a conversation with a construction foreman voiced by John Ratzenberger. Neither of these characters looks so "real" that these men could be mistaken for live actors, but Carl—whose light bulb nose and square jaw make his cartoon ancestry impossible to miss—possesses a 5 o'clock shadow so bristly that it looks as if it could scratch the screen. By comparison the foreman is a blank, an initial sketch still waiting to be filled in. One character inspires us to look closer, to take pleasure in every digital hair follicle. The other is better off regarded from a distance.
I don't think Pixar should strive to increase the realism of its artistry from picture to picture, but I do think it benefits Pixar to remain consistently realistic (or not) within each movie. Visually speaking, The Incredibles and Ratatouille do a pretty good job of this. WALL-E and Up, less so. Though I don't think there would be anything inherently wrong with striving for greater realism here and there, the last thing I want to do is lose the cartoon splendor of, say, the diminutive Chef Skinner and lanky Anton Ego. Ratatouille proves that cartoon virtues and photorealism can be cohesive parts of the same whole. At the same time, there are moments in the Pixar collection when it's as if Charlie Brown has walked into a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd adventure. At issue isn't really if one style is better than the other, just that the two styles don't always match.
EH: Well said. There are ways to make the cartoon/realism dichotomy work—a lot of manga and anime set off cartoony characters against hyper-realistic backgrounds, as does Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin and Jeff Smith's Bone—but I don't think Pixar has managed to achieve this balance. The different styles at work in their films don't seem like an attempt at creating contrast so much as a failure of inconsistency. These films have huge budgets and utilize state-of-the-art tech: we shouldn't be seeing images that seem half-finished, as though the details haven't been sketched in yet. After all, at their best these films display prodigious imagination and visual style, even in stretches that are otherwise lackluster: the second half of WALL-E gives the impression that the animators poured all their energy into the Axiom's coldly beautiful interiors, often displayed with the patterned formalism of Richard McGuire, while the humans are, as you say, sketches.
Of course, when Pixar's animators give a sequence or a setting their all, the results are jaw-dropping. We've already stressed how visually exciting Pixar's animation can be at its peak, but probably the pinnacle of their visual splendor, for me, is the sequence in Ratatouille when Linguini takes Remy to the river to drown him. The young man rides his bicycle down the foggy streets of Paris, passing by a cathedral whose stained glass windows shine through the thin white haze, casting a diffuse rainbow glow into the air. It's realistic, in one sense, but also almost too beautiful to be real. The whole sequence is ethereal and melancholy, and that one image stands out as possibly the loveliest Pixar has crafted to date. It's especially affecting because it's not just empty spectacle, but enhances the mood and emotions at the heart of the scene.
It's because of scenes like this that Ratatouille, with its simple, formulaic storyline and its earnest emotional core, is the one Pixar film I can really get behind, at least as an example of the studio's capacity for charming, well-crafted family entertainment. On the other hand, even this rather light film contains a faint echo of the Randian, anti-human Incredibles: Note that Linguini never does learn to cook, and instead eventually accepts his natural calling as a waiter. What's striking about Pixar's recent films (though I haven't seen Up) is how little faith they really put in human accomplishment; beneath all the cutesy flourishes and gorgeous imagery, they're very cynical films, especially for children's fare. Ratatouille is about being driven to succeed, about doing what one is best at, but as in The Incredibles the film is really about one naturally gifted being and the mediocrities surrounding him. Talent is viewed as innate; Remy doesn't even really need to work very hard to be a good chef, he just seems to know what to do because he has a superior sensibility. It's merely a subdued undercurrent in this film, but it's still troubling as an indication of Pixar's larger ideas.
JB: Indeed, the moral messaging in Pixar films doesn't always add up, which just goes to show how much Pixar assumes that audiences will identify with its main characters, coming away from The Incredibles and Ratatouille with the urge to be all that we can be and ignoring the suggestion that all that some of us can be is mediocre. In that way WALL-E is a little different. We might identify with WALL-E's desire for companionship, but mostly the trash-compacting robot serves as an escort to view our future selves. He's a mechanical Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and we are overweight, nature-killing Scrooges. The images of this future are haunting right out of the gate—those wind turbines, erected far too late, now buried in junk—and are bluntly critical of our current level of conservational (in)activity.
Some of WALL-E's detractors suggested that this vision of the future is too bleak for a movie aimed at kids, but what that criticism ignores is how tame and non-threatening Pixar movies tend to be in terms of their presentations of villainy. Just look at their recent pictures: The Incredibles has Syndrome, who seems more misguided than dangerous, in part because we only see the results of his robot-based assassinations. Ratatouille has Chef Skinner and Anton Ego, who are mean more than monstrous. WALL-E has AUTO, just a spaceship mainframe trying to do its job. And Up has Charles Muntz, who is a brave hero turned silver-haired lunatic after years of exile. (Omitted from that list is Cars, in which the only "villain" is the hero McQueen when he doesn't have his priorities straight.) All those aforementioned characters fill the "bad guy" role, and sometimes deservingly so. But in terms of evil and ferocity none of them match up with the Witch of Snow White, Cruella De Vil of 101 Dalmatians or Scar of The Lion King, just to hand-pick three cartoon baddies. Nor do Pixar movies revel in terrifying darkness as other cartoons do—Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty or (to go with a non-Disney movie) The Secret of NIMH.
My point is that Pixar has found another way of creating moralizing tales of good triumphing over evil without needing to resort to the old formula in which teaching kids a lesson meant scaring the bejeezus out of them along the way. Whether Pixar's brand of moralizing is more profound is up for debate, but the studio certainly turns out movies with a lighter spirit than the still-revered Disney classics I was raised on. Yet having said all that I don't want to pigeonhole Pixar, because if these movies are ever to transcend the "family entertainment" label we need to allow it to happen. Part of that process requires us to demand more of animated films than many of us have in the past. Part of the process requires us to demand less: If David Lynch can be allowed to create films lacking in moral and thematic symmetry, then Pixar's crew of filmmakers should be allowed to do the same.
One of the best ways to evaluate a film (though certainly not the only way) is to quiet the cynical or hypercritical voices in our head and ask ourselves this simple question: "Am I moved (emotionally, spiritually, cerebrally—however)?" With most Pixar films, my answer would be "No," or at least "Not much." But when it comes to Ratatouille and WALL-E, my answer changes. I am moved.
EH: I think this is a great criterion for evaluating a film, or any other work of art for that matter: "Am I moved (emotionally, spiritually, cerebrally—however)?" Yes, there's more to it than that, but that's a central question, and criticism is in part the act of exploring those subjective reactions. My own answer, as I'm sure I've made clear already, is that Pixar's output thus far has only moved and affected me in isolated moments, not as a whole experience. Its corporate merger with Disney notwithstanding, Pixar may yet have the capacity to craft a great movie—rather than just a great "family" movie—but so far I agree with you that their films have been variations on typical kids' movie moralizing, with their own twists on the formula.
Of course, in suggesting that Pixar's achievements so far are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, I don't want to sound like Armond White, who has been notoriously dismissive of Pixar. In his review of Henry Selick's Coraline, White took the opportunity to trash WALL-E by comparison with the Selick film. It's a typically cantankerous White piece: I frankly have no idea what he's even saying with some of his arguments, and I'm not sure why he doesn't talk more about the film he's ostensibly reviewing, instead of using Coraline's supposed greatness as a club with which to beat WALL-E. Even so, he does have a few points worth making buried in there somewhere.
His most salient point, as far as I'm concerned, is his observation that Pixar's films and others like them "keep animation infantile." He identifies the accepted wisdom that animated films are for kids as little more than an "industry convention." There are few times when I'm really comfortable agreeing with the willfully contrarian White, but this is definitely one of them. There's no reason that we should have to accept that cartoons are just for kids, not with films like Persepolis and the anthology Peur(s) du noir (which boasts a gorgeous short by the multi-talented Richard McGuire, whose comics I've referenced a couple of times in relation to WALL-E) demonstrating what can be done with the form when it's aimed at more sophisticated audiences. It's been a long time since comics won this particular fight, with artists branching out into telling stories not meant only for children, and I hope that animated films will eventually get to a similar place. It's about time we stop holding animated films to a lower standard than any other type of film.
JB: That's exactly right. And yet here's where I disagree with both you and White: Persepolis didn't move me as much as WALL-E, nor did Waltz With Bashir, another animated "for-adults" movie that White mentions in his dismissal of the "atrocious" WALL-E. Make no mistake, I was moved (if less so) by both Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir. Both movies are proud tributes to the idea that animation needn't be reserved for "family cartoons." At the same time, though, celebrating those films as genre-busting trailblazers reveals an unfortunate truth: We tend to think that "family friendly" and "adult-friendly" are mutually exclusive concepts, even though the terms suggest harmony. And so I ask the Pixar doubters: Must the child-friendly elements of WALL-E—all that sentimental sweetness—be stripped away in order for the film's more intellectual themes to affect me? Why? Why have we, as cinephiles, created this idea that animated films can't thoroughly thrill kids and adults simultaneously? Jim Henson managed to do that with regularity using puppets on The Muppet Show, and in my opinion WALL-E achieves a similar balance, if not in every scene.
That said, I concede that WALL-E's generally ecstatic critical response must have been boosted by the modest expectations of critics who were stunned to be so genuinely entertained. As White suggests, it's probably true that critics pigeonholed WALL-E as infantile fare, rather than approaching digital animation as a "legitimate art form," and then "illogically praised the film for transcending" those modest boundaries. But if that's true, couldn't it also be true that adult skepticism for family-friendly pictures is so engrained that WALL-E will never get its just due? Ed, you're an open-minded movie lover, but could you give WALL-E or the next Pixar release the benefit of the doubt that you might afford a problematic first viewing of a film by Lynch or Werner Herzog? The easy answer, I know, is to say that Lynch and Herzog have gained your trust in a way that Pixar hasn't. And that's fair. But at the same time I'm wondering if the notion that "family friendly" really means "infantile" is so engrained that Pixar would have to do the extraordinary to win over its nonbelievers.
Admiring WALL-E like I do, I admit that I consider White's desperate trashing of the film to be a badge of honor. Despite a few cogent points here and there, the underlying theme of his review is, as usual, "Other critics said it's good, so it can't be." (White even takes a detour in his assassination of WALL-E via Coraline to slam Pan's Labyrinth.) My favorite moment of the review is when White, who routinely propagates the notion that we are all mediocrities who should be cowering in the presence of his Mr. Incredibleness, decides that the same savvy consumers who would go on to make WALL-E the fifth-highest grossing movie of 2008 had "pegged WALL-E as no fun" in just three days "despite critical hosannas" to the contrary. White's proof? Going to a matinee on a no-school Monday after WALL-E's opening weekend and being one of only three in the crowd. (Apparently White thinks that the pre-teen target audience of WALL-E's marketing campaign can drive itself to the theater.)
My own theatrical encounters with WALL-E were quite different. About a month after the movie was released I saw it twice within a week. What I noticed the second time around, when I could let my attention shift away from the screen, is that during the climactic moment when EVE waits to find out if she has successfully repaired and rebooted WALL-E, no one in the audience moved. The packed crowd, split evenly between kids and adults, seemed to hold its breath. The result was an exhilarating pure silence like I hadn't experienced at the theater since making multiple trips to enjoy No Country for Old Men the year before. It was magical. And so as I left the theater, with most of the audience still in their seats, I asked myself, "What reason do I have to doubt or defile the power of this experience?" I couldn't come up with a reason then and I can't come up with one now. WALL-E is hardly perfect, I am the first to admit, but it is a masterpiece. I believe that.