A tale of robot love and man's downfall
It's not been my experience that kids get subtlety, nor have they shown much in the way of patience, which makes the first 40 minutes of WALL-E different than the first half of your usual kid flick. It's sort of like 2001 Jr., as we meet our star, the titular little robot, whose sole reason to exist is to compact trash into neat little squares. He's been doing his job consistently for 700 years, on a lonely, uninhabited planet, the reasons for which are slowly revealed. As he works, he collects artifacts of the long-gone civilzation, spends time with his only friend, a cockroach, and watches an old videotape of Hello, Dolly, a routine he repeats again and again. That all changes one day, when a spaceship arrives.
On board is EVE, a more advanced robot, who shoots around scanning everything, like she's on a search mission. Excited to see someone new, WALL-E is infatuated, and after some initial awkwardness, they become friends. What's amazing is the skill with which the creators, led by Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton, tell this story, without having the two robots speak words. It's classic silent film-making done with 21st century techniques, and results in an engaging tale. But that's just the first half of the film, as a discovery by WALL-E sends EVE back to her ship and back home, but our hero isn't about to let her go of his girl, so he chases after her.
To describe where the film goes from there is to risk spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen the film, so it's best to just say that EVE's boss represents one of Pixar's best examples of social commentary to date (and totally not heavy-handed), and the race to the finish, which includes enlightenment, betrayal and a heaping helping of romance is yet another example of the studio's brilliant brand of storytelling, which is aided by a technical presentation that shows Pixar will not stop pushing toward some unattainable level of perfection. There's such a focus on details in this movie that when you see images of humans you have to question whether it's real people or some well-crafted polygons.
Despite the strong sense of humor and fun in this film (and there are many moments that made your somewhat jaded reviewer laugh out loud,) it features some of the most depressingly bleak moments and concepts seen in a Pixar film since "Jessie's Song" in Toy Story 2. There's a touch of A.I. at work here, a film I will never watch again due to the depressing tone, but fortunately, it's almost in reverse, as WALL-E, like all of Pixar's films, is about the promise of life, even if it takes seven centuries (or 98 minutes in this case) to finally pay off. The magical streak of Pixar success remains incredibly intact.
The DVDs feature film-appropriate animated, anamorphic widescreen menus, with options to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are included in English, along with closed captioning.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track sounds incredible, as one would expect from a Pixar film set in a mechanized world full of outer-space magic, with every bleep, squeak and clank represented perfectly. The gorgeous music from Thomas Newman fills the surround speakers, while the special effects benefit from fantastic panning effects and directionality that put you right in the middle of the action. There's not a lot of dialogue in this movie, but what's there sounds solid, without any distortion issues.
After letting Cars and Ratatouille reach home theaters with meager DVD offerings, Pixar is back to its usual standard with this film. Stanton, the director, provides a feature-length audio commentary, and after spending so many years of his life dedicated to the movie, he has plenty to say, resulting in a track full of info and free of dead air and watching the screen. Though it's hard to believe some of the claims of ignorance regarding certain themes in the film (considering how well-crafted Pixar films are), it's a good listen, with lots of notes on less-obvious details. In a great touch, you can activate a subtitle track for the commentary, so everyone can enjoy it.
There's more from Stanton, as he provided video intros for four deleted scenes (22:15 in total), which, for some reason, are split between the two DVDs. A mix of animatics, in-progress material and finished film, the scenes are more like alternate paths the film could have followed, including one dramatically darker angle on one of the storylines, shown which one character in an extremely different design. What's nice is Stanton returns after the scenes to talk more about why the content was cut and his thoughts on them.
A new 7:35 short made just for the DVD features BURN-E, a welding robot who plays a minor, yet somewhat memorable part in the film. Here, we get to see what he's up to as the movie focuses on EVE and WALL-E, much like the Jack-Jack short on The Incredibles. It's an amusing little aside, with pure silent comedy, a la old comedy shorts. There's also a 9:30 collection of five shorts from the film's key corporation, Buy N' Large, including the company's history and orientation videos for its employees. On their own, they aren't all that entertaining, but they serve to flesh out the story behind the film, making them an interesting watch.
Much more fun is Presto, a five-minute short that was shown before Wall-E, which is one of the best Pixar shorts I've ever seen. The story of a magician and his rabbit-in-a-hat, it's a call-back to the fine Warner Brothers cartoons of the Bugs Bunny, with all the physical comedy and cartoon-world reality that made them so good. It's simply a fun short and technically perfect to boot.
Beyond the shorts, there's a tremendous amount of featurettes included, focusing on how the film was made, running almost 70 minutes in all. It starts with "Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up," which looks at the work of sound designer Ben Burtt, the "voice" of Wall-E, and the guy who provided the soundtrack for your brain, creating the sound of the lightsabre, along with pretty much the rest of the Lucasfilms portion of your memory. This look at foley work and sound design is fantastic for anyone who every wanted to know how movie audio works, including a visit into the Disney vaults to look at how it was done in the past.
"The Imperfect Lens" focuses (get it?) on the look of WALL-E, and how Pixar leaned on traditional film-making to make the movie look more real and less like CGI. Again, it's amazing to see the studio's dedication not only to getting it right, but to actually inventing ways to get it right. The crash course in lighting that the animators get from cinematographer Roger Deakins (A Beautiful Mind, No Country for Old Men) is particular interesting. You get to know more about how Pixar works in "Life of a Shot," which shows the contributions of all of the various animators in a particular shot. The amount of work involved is just stunning. The music gets a spotlight of its own as well, with "Notes on a Score," which shows how the instrumental sound of the movie was developed, with interviews and in-studio footage illustrating the process and Newman's unique style.
The three remaining featurettes are more about the development of the film's characters, rather than the way the film was made, starting with "Captain's Log." This is a potential spoilerish piece, as it talks about how the film had an entirely different concept for EVE's boss, one that was developed quite extensively, as the animatics and maquettes shown can attest to. That all of this work was scrapped had to be disappointing, but at least it gets to see the light of day here, along with the effort to create what's seen in the final film. It ties in to "Robo-Everything," a look at the design work that went into the many mechanized characters in the movie. Like most things Pixar, the thought process that's explained is so organic and logical, that it makes sens that the concepts would just work. That's extended to the development of the two stars, as seen in "WALL-E and EVE." This piece is all about how the two robots were built, including their personalities, looks and the technology that went into animating them, and includes footage of the real-world observation the animators did, a hallmark of Pixar film development.
As Pixar films are certainly family films, it makes sense that some of the extras are family friendly, so you get a trio of bonuses aimed at the kids. First up is "WALL-E's Treasures and Trinkets," almost five minutes of WALL-E (and EVE) messing around, playing with toys and showing off their abilities to humorous effect. It's the kind of giggly slapstick that will make a little one squeal (and make adults smile.) "Bot Files" is a gallery of bios for 28 robots seen in the movie, with short audio descriptions of what they do, and their cute explanatory names, like "THIRST-E" and "SAUT-A." My daughter just kept pointing to their icons yelling "That one!" and listening to the clip before picking another, so it was a definite hit. Oddly, there was no on-screen option to go back without hitting your menu button. The last kid-friendly extra is "Lots of Bots," a cute on-screen storybook about WALL-E and EVE. This can be viewed in read-along mode, read by Kathy Najimy, or in play-along mode with Najimy and John Ratzenberger, where you get little on-screen activities, like puzzles or Simon-like following games, to complete during the story. Either way, it's a nice extra for young ones.
That's certainly a lot of content, but we're not done, as Disc Two also includes Leslie Iwerks' feature-length documentary, The Pixar Story. This movie, which unfurls the history of the company, from John Lasseter's start as an animation fan to the success of Cars, could easily have been a DVD release of its own, but it's inclusion here is the very definition of "extra." If you are an animationaficionado and don't know the whole Pixar story, and now that I have watched it, I realize I was in that group, then this is a must-see, as the birth and growth of Pixar, including the involvement of Apple's Steve Jobs, George Lucas and the U.S. government, is a fascinating story, and Iwerks does an excellent job of presenting it via well-paced archival footage and interviews, even if it is somewhat a rah-rah piece (done with full cooperation of Pixar and Disney.) The road to the top was not an easy one for Lasseter and company, but the result is a fine documentary.
The final extra is the sole reason for that third disc, and that's the now-ubiquitous digital copy, or as the Mouse House calls it, a Disney File. But unlike some other releases, this has a firm expiration date of November 19, 2009, which is annoying.
The Bottom Line