[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.]
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.