Criterion Corner: WALL-E (#1161)

For a while, I’d catch all new Pixar releases at the cinema. I missed out on Toy Story, their first feature film, when it originally came out, but I remember enjoying A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, and I loved The Incredibles when it came out (though I have to confess that I never enjoyed Finding Nemo as much as most people did). At the time these were something we’d not seen before, not in this quality. Obviously Pixar’s artistry was amazing, in a genre that, when the first few Pixar films were released, was still fairly new – and with each film, the company would introduce new innovations. The fur in Monsters, Inc. (apparently there were over two million hairs on Sulley that needed to be animated), water and the way it was lit in Finding Nemo, the way musculature behaved on human beings in The Incredibles: Pixar were technological innovators as much as they were artists, but above all, they were storytellers. Their movies were technological marvels from the first, but most people aren’t wowed by textures or shaders alone: if these aren’t used to tell interesting, engaging stories, the films that use them won’t be remembered. I mean, how many people still talk about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within?

By the time, WALL-E came out in 2008, we were used to a certain level of visual fidelity in computer-animated films. Sulley’s turquoise fur and the way it interacted with other characters or with the elements was amazing because we’d not seen anything this complex yet. Same with Nemo‘s underwater vistas and the way light shone through the virtual water. What was WALL-E‘s big innovation? According to an Insider article from 2021, it was the camera system: the film’s virtual cinematography was given the look and feel of actual, physical camera work, from a looser, handheld look in the first half to something more akin to Steadicam in the second half. Certainly impressive, but not as immediately visible to lay audiences. Similarly, director Andrew Stanton and the WALL-E team worked closely with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins on the film’s complex, evocative lighting – as virtual as the camera work – but while audiences might be able to say that the film’s environments and characters look better than those of Pixar’s earlier films (let alone the movies made by their competitors), they probably wouldn’t immediately recognise it as revolutionary to the same extent as they might with the innovations of earlier Pixar films.

It had been ten years or more since I’d last seen WALL-E when I bought Criterion’s recent 4K release. While I generally have a very loose trigger finger when it comes to buying new Criterion releases, I hesitated when WALL-E became available. Sure, I liked the film at the time, a lot even, but I already had the regular Blu-ray release lying around somewhere and hadn’t really watched it in a long time. And I’d grown somewhat tired of Pixar’s brand of sentimentality in recent years. I liked Coco and Soul and Luca, but even as I enjoyed watching them a lot, they didn’t stay with me for all that long afterwards. Also, when I heard and read about all the sequels that Pixar was making, part of me felt that perhaps they’d lost some of their artistic spark. Finding Dory? Monsters University? Two Cars sequels, when even the first Cars didn’t exactly sound like an exciting proposition? I did watch some of these sequels, and clearly Pixar was still putting out quality animation, but were they still the consummate storytellers they’d been in the early days? Did they still have the same ambition to be great storytellers? And some of that jadedness had rubbed off on my memory of the earlier films. I knew Pixar were good at what they did, but their name didn’t quite have the lustre that it’d originally had.

Obviously I still bought WALL-E, not least because the 4K releases by Criterion that I’ve seen – Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, For All Mankind, The Piano – were all drop-down gorgeous. In spite of a 65″ TV, I’d found most Ultra HD releases by other companies disappointing – or perhaps it was my eyes that were simply not good enough to see the difference? – but Criterion’s immediately stood out. And that’s what I was expecting: a pretty good, fun film that would look amazing.

And Criterion’s 4K release of WALL-E certainly does look amazing: I’d forgotten just how visually stunning the film is, and the release definitely justified my buying the film again, even though I already had the regular Blu-ray release. I’d not remembered that Roger Deakins had been involved in the making of the film, but in hindsight it came as no surprise: especially the first third of the film, set on a post-apocalyptic earth, is immensely beautiful. And it’s not just a superficial beauty: there’s an amazing tactility to the desolate world the little robotic garbage collector inhabits, and you can practically feel the light filtering through the dust of a few hundred years of solitude.

But there’s more than that, even if it is somewhat ambivalent. To be honest, I don’t think WALL-E tells an amazing story throughout. The parts of the film that deal with the human characters aren’t bad as such, but they’re decidedly weaker than the rest of the film: they’re more clichéd, the humour feels lazier (much of it is variations on the same joke: Americans, amirite?), and overall WALL-E is the much stronger film when it doesn’t give its characters any actual lines of dialogue. But the way it develops its (mostly) wordless robot characters through animation alone is fantastically done. Neither of the two central characters, the little trash compactor WALL-E and the probe EVE with her hair-trigger temper, have the expressive faces of human beings with their several dozen muscles, but the Pixar animators make great use of the tried and tested means of animation – reduction, simplification, stylisation – in order to have their protagonists express not just emotion but character development. And while you also get big, cartoonish emotions, much of the animation is subtle, even nuanced: a little slump of WALL-E’s chassis here, a hesitation in EVE’s reaction there. Moreover, while I’m not entirely sold on the film’s love story in every respect (it’s no surprise that WALL-E is inspired by the insipid cheesefest that is Hello, Dolly!) and the extent to which Pixar embraces a number of unnecessarily heteronormative tropes, the way these tropes and clichés are communicated by the sweet, extended pas de deux of two vastly different robots nonetheless makes them work much better than they should, really.

Verdict: It is tempting to imagine a better WALL-E, one that does away with the human characters and their storyline and focuses only on the robots in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, that doesn’t need to deliver its eco-morality in terms as broad and facile. It is a shame we didn’t get that film – but the film we got instead is still a beautiful work of art for the most part. It succeeds on the strength of its characters, animations and ideas that range from slapstick inspired by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the poetry of WALL-E and EVE’s extravehicular dance through space. And, once again, Criterion has delivered outstanding work on a 4K release: the additional pixels and HDR colour work aren’t just a case of technological escalation, they give the beautiful work Pixar has done on lighting, cinematography and animation an additional boost, showing WALL-E for the visual masterpiece it is.

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