Something happened last night that I never thought could happen. I waited in line for a midnight showing of a G-rated movie. I stood in the lobby of the local AMC 20, next to a skinny, teenage kid dressed up as a boxy, yellowish robot with tank treads, and stared across the hall at a line of people waiting to see “Wanted,” the brash, gun-toting, slap-your-mother ultra-violent Mark Millar-adaptation. And as I watched them, I thought to myself, “Heh, losers.” Obviously they had chosen the wrong movie to see that night. How could they possibly want to see anything else other than Pixar’s newest, possibly greatest masterpiece, a two-hour-long space-opera with barely any dialogue about robots who sift through garbage? It was “Wall-E.” And it was on.
So, today, it’s “Wall-E,” Pixar’s newest advancement in computer-animated awesomeness, against the grand-daddy of them all, the first authentic feature-length computer-animated film ever, “Toy Story.” We all know the deal there — toys come to life. Done. We’re hooked. And ever since the film’s first screening, we’ve been running out of our front doors shouting “To Infinity and Beyond!” as we left for work each morning (you haven’t?). So let’s pit one set of talking inanimate objects against another set of sort-of-talking inanimate objects. Let the best merchandise win!
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Way, way back, back before “Toy Story” was produced and Pixar was the animated behemoth that it is today, Andrew Stanton created Wall-E. A small, “short-circuit”-styled robot (whose name is actually an acronym for the phrase “Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class”) Wall-E is the last of a line of robots left on Earth to clean up the mess we’ve made. Due to years of gorging consumerism, the planet has been left a giant trash-heap, too littered to possibly sustain life. In a grand gesture of social responsibility, the mega-conglomerate Buy ‘N Large Corporation has encouraged humanity to take a 5 year “vacation” away from the planet, allowing their robots stay behind and restore Earth to a livable state while we all relax pool-side. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
“Wall-E” opens approximately 700 years after humanity’s vacation should have ended and Earth is still largely a junkyard. All of the Buy ‘N Large robots have been deactivated save for our our protagonist, Wall-E, who spends his days compressing trash into neat, stackable blocks and sorting through garbage for interesting knick-knacks that he can bring home with him (Wall-E is a bit of a pack-rat.) Unfortunately for Wall-E, this job is a lonely one. Aside from his pet cockroach, he is the only real inhabitant of this forgotten world, whose experiences with love are limited to the live-action musicals he’s found amid the trash-heaps.
However, this all changes when a large spaceship suddenly lands near Wall-E’s home and deploys EVE, a sleek, flying, all-business, blaster-wielding probe, with whom Wall-E instantly falls in love. It is Wall-E’s courtship of EVE that then pushes the narrative, sending the timid little robot on an adventure into outer space and back to the humanity that had long forgotten him. The film is fun, jaw-dropping-ly beautiful and packed with some high-concept ideas, but will all that be enough to knock off a defending champ that has been called one of the top ten animated films EVER? Read on to find out!
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The Defending Champion
1995 marked a new era of cinema. Computer animation had yet to prove itself with regard to feature film, having since acted primarily as a complementary special effects vehicle and rarely as a stand- lone medium over extended time periods. And then seemingly out of nowhere, “Toy Story” happened and told the story of an outdated, wooden cowboy doll Woody’s rivalry with Buzz Lightyear, a flashy, brash space-hero action-figure over the attentions of their young owner. For the last thirteen years, this film’s been a measuring stick for the animated genre. Named by the American Film Institute (during their evaluation of top genre films) as one of the top 10 greatest animated films in the history of cinema, “Toy Story” began what has become an continuous series of successes for the endlessly imaginative production company Pixar. The words “To Infinity and Beyond” are a staple of popular culture, referenced time and again in areas ranging from entertainment to mathematics (it’s true, wikipedia it) and it is still a major favorite of children and adults today. With its breathtaking animation, smart comedy and warming-ly intimate story, it has been easily the fighter to fear when it comes to animated throw-downs.
Boasting superstars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen (you loved Home Improvement), it is a franchise to be reckoned with, one that could easily dominate not only the majority of its animated cousins, but live- ction works as well. It is pure, wonderful cinema that has been a fan-favorite for the last 13 years; a true people’s champion. But what laid the foundation for computer animated films is now being tested by a tiny, garbage-collecting robot that the founders of Pixar have been tinkering with since even before the toys came to life. Can “Toy Story” hang on to it’s title or will “Wall-E” stand on the shoulders of its forefather as the new champion of animated film? Let’s see how they stack up!
“Toy Story” set the bar for computer-animated film and laid some amazing groundwork for what future artists would continuously build upon and be inspired by. The fact that its animation still holds up 13 years since its completion, when the computer-animated film has become a mainstay in yearly releases and one that is being constantly upgraded, speaks for itself.
In terms of cast, “Toy Story” hits big. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen playing off each other as Woody and Buzz feels so right that despite hearing that Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal and others had been considered, I cannot even fathom possible replacements. Voice-acting is largely underestimated, but not anyone can make “To Infinity and Beyond” or “Reach for the Sky” pop-culture mainstays. And the talent doesn’t just end with the two stars. The whole film is wonderfully acted by a cast that only ever complements their CGI counterparts, bringing them to life so skillfully that we largely forget who it is we’re listening to. With such big stars, that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Watching toys come to life was, to use an obvious word, magical and yet the creators worked to make it simultaneously as natural an occurrence as anything else. We were transported to their world, seeing things the way they saw them and we were instantly hooked in. What is so great about “Toy Story” is that the artists brought the toys to life without trying to hard to make them seem like “real.” They were still toys, made of artificial moving parts and hinges that only work so far, largely staying true to their inherent physics. Woody wasn’t a Pinnochio, he wasn’t transformed into a real live cowboy, but always remained what he was and simultaneously something more, a wooden toy that could walk and talk when no one was watching.
And this reminder to keep the toys toys was helped out by the script, which uses gag after gag to show that despite their lofty aspirations they are still limited to the constraints of the real world, exemplified very well through the “intense” trials of the little green soldiers. We watch as they grapple with everyday objects, which now seem all the more overpowering due to our newly found vantage point, through the eyes of the little toys. Or watching Buzz’s attempt to fly, which is heartbreaking during his first failure and jump-out-your-seat cheer-inducing during the final “falling with style” moments. The teleportation to their world that we experience is something we’ve dreamt about since we were kids, when we’d use our imagination to bring our toys to life, racing cars on sofas and table tops, pretending they were giant cliffs and raceways. With “Toy Story” we actually get to ride along with them, and these everyday settings become engaging, awe-inspiring environments as we are shrunken down to the toys’ size. Their story is an intimate one and yet seems epic when seen from their point of view, making a grand adventure of the tiniest of things.
“Wall-E” is, without understatement, a masterpiece. Visually, the film is stunning. Rumored input by renowned cameramen such as Roger Deakons (No Country for Old Men, Assassination of Jesse James) has most decidedly paid off as the film feels as the lighting is breathtaking and the film feels as though a real operator was behind the lens, racking focus throughout shots, naturally moving the camera, really putting the audience into the action and life of Wall-E. I mention this first because it is here that the technical innovation that makes “Wall-E” so impressive really stands out. Usually, with animated features, we do not feel the impact that having a real camera moving around a real space subconsciously imprints on an audience. “Wall-E” has that. “Wall-E”‘s worlds are crafted so carefully, so intricately that the camera work makes us feel that we are in an actual place, transporting us there, blurring the line between animation and live-action and achieving something that genre has been reaching for since the creation of Toy Story. I was awed by it.
Coupling that visual precision is sound design unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Benn Burtt is a master, taking a film with almost no dialogue (there is some, but its minor) and creating a language for the robot protagonists that becomes their own, simultaneously natural and synthetic and that which allows us to identify them as something special and yet reachable, characters that we can connect with and understand. I personally witnessed a jam-packed theater (at a midnight showing for a G- ated movie!) fall in love with a beeping, buzzing, synthesizer-sounding robot almost as instantly as he in turn fell in love with EVE. When asked about the sound-design and the lack of dialogue, Stanton joked, “I’m basically making R2D2: The Movie.” Well, R2D2 doesn’t hold a candle to Wall-E in terms of personality and character, and much of that owes itself to Burtt’s amazing sound design. An amusing example of his mastery, which became both audience pleaser and favorite gag, was the sound that Wall-E makes when his power levels reach full charge, the dim startup chime of an Apple IIE computer. Easily recognizable, the simple sound received not only immense laughter but applause. There was no scoffing and it seemed much more a loving detail to a great character than a pop culture reference and product placement point. When a single noise is putting hands together from an audience, you know you’ve got something special.
In the end, I have to note that both these films are as near to perfect as one can find. In trying to discern a credible winner, I believe it comes down to a recognition of both projects’ strengths and an acknowledgment of the evolution of the computer-animated genre, much of which owes itself to Pixar’s achievements. “Toy Story” is a classic film and the unshakable base upon which artists can build. “Wall-E” is the hope to keep raising the bar. So which one wins out in this latest Smackdown? Let’s find out!
Though I could probably make the case otherwise, I will stand by my belief that neither the stunning visuals nor sound design would have been enough to carry this film alone and that it is their complement of an epic, yet intimate and simply dazzling script that really pulls everything together. As I stated before, “Wall-E” contains very little dialogue, a note that most studios would probably raise quite the eyebrow given the approximate 2 hours that the film runs. Much of the time, all we hear our main characters say are each other’s names, resulting in a constant back-and-forth of “Wall-E…EVE…Wall-E…EVE” that could seem rather troubling on the page. However, none of this stumbles. The characters’ relationship is engaging, intimate and layered and we are with them every step of the way. The film’s scope is epic, but the story’s heart is small and focused on the love story between Wall-E and EVE. On-the-nose material such as humanity’s progression toward mass- besity, multimedia obsession, mental lethargy and planetary irresponsibility could have called attention to themselves and drawn audiences out of the film if mishandled, but the creators never allow these ideas to overshadow the core focus of the narrative and always keep the audience with the two lovers and their relationship. And did I mention that the script is peppered with moment after moment of genius comedy?
Impossible as it may be to believe, we have a new heavyweight animated champion and action figure of the world, “Wall-E.”