There’s always been a “quality gap” between Pixar and its competitors producing feature-length animated films, but never did it seem as shockingly pronounced as it did last night. The screening opened with trailers for three of the most vapid, soulless, mass-market animated films it’s been my displeasure to be aware of: Bolt, Madagascar 2 and Beverly Hills Chihuahua (okay, so the last one isn’t fully animated, but the trailer is almost entirely CGI, so I’m counting it). These can’t be films produced by flesh-and-blood human beings, I thought to myself: they’re made by marketing machines, studio systems, and script-producing robots.
In contrast, the film I was there to see, WALL*E, is simply awesome. It’s not only among Pixar’s best films, but it may be the best film I’ve seen all year.
So…what is everyone else getting wrong?
To answer that question, we need to go back to 2001. Not only did Dreamworks’ Shrek and Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. rake in the cash that year – each earning over $250 million domestically – but they were actually good films too, but good in very different ways. Shrek was a kid’s film at its core, but sprinkled in a healthy dose of satire and pop cultural references for adults to get in on the action. One probably would consider Monster’s Inc. a kids film too…until you get to the end of the film. There, you’d find a chase sequence that rivaled and surpassed anything Hollywood has produced in decades, followed by a stunningly poignant final shot. Pixar had laid down the gauntlet. Shrek wasn’t their competition, nor the other animated studios: everyone was.
The problem is that Monster’s Inc. missed the zeitgeist, for whatever reason; maybe it wasn’t cute enough, or funny enough. So while Monsters has been disappointingly neglected in the years since, Shrek became the template for animated films this decade, the mould into which the competition has poured dozens of ideas and millions of dollars. Despite the fact that Pixarfollowed Monsters with Finding Nemo – their biggest hit – the competition still continued to copy Shrek instead of Pixar. And, by and large, the competition still isn’t in Pixar’s league.
Maybe they copy Shrek because it’s an easier formula to understand: take one part cute creatures, add one part zaniness, and sprinkle in some self-awareness to taste. In contrast, I bet that a studio executive would find it a bit challenging to comprehend WALL*E’s brilliance. They’d know it’s really friggin’ good – it’s fairly undeniable – but their corporate sensibilities would leave the whole experience somewhat befuddling. In fact, I bet you that if director Andrew Stanton had walked into their office and pitched them the film, they would have turned it down on the spot. I can see the conversation now:
Stanton: So I’ve got this movie idea about this cute robot…
Executive: Stop right there. I love it. Let me give you this paper bag full of money.
Stanton: No wait, there’s more.
Executive: Go on…
Stanton: Well, the robot really can’t speak English. And he’s alone on a desolate earth, so I think we’re going to make the first 30 minutes or so basically a silent film – all sorts of loneliness and visual emptiness. And we’re going to make the second half of the film a huge commentary on consumerism and the rise of corporate America – really biting stuff. And we’re going to try and get a few pretty explicit jabs in on President Bush too.
Stanton: What do you think?
Executive: …look, I’ve got another meeting. I’ll give you a call and we’ll chat, okay? (Erases Stanton’s number from his Blackberry).
The problem is that there’s so little incentive to take risks in animated film, especially when you consider children your target audience (since, you know, they’ll basically watch anything that’s bright, loud and colourful). Pixar is in the envious position where they’ve earned the credibility to be able to take risks, since every time they’ve done so – into action with The Incredibles, into French cuisine with Ratatouille – they’ve made shitloads of cash. The Disney overlords let Pixar take the risks that other studios wouldn’t touch with a ten-and-a-half foot pole.
And as such, we have WALL*E. And…that’s actually all I’m going to say about the film. Oh I could tell you about the stunningly realized post-apocalyptic landscapes, the beautiful space scenes, the genuinely heartfelt romance, the side-splitting physical comedy, and maybe the best ending credits sequence Pixar has ever done (and that’s saying something). But I’ve resorted to this whole Pixar/animated movie narrative because frankly, WALL*E left me pretty speechless. Maybe after a few more viewings I’ll have a better sense of how the film comes together, but for now, I merely marvel at how once again Pixar has put its competitors – animated AND non-animated movies alike – to shame.
Watch: WALL*E teaser trailer