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You know, for kids

16/01/2011

I’ve always loved animation. When I was a lad I used to tape films off the television on VHS (if I have to explain what VHS is you are probably too young to read my blog), breaking off the copy protect tab so I could watch them to destruction without fear of them being taped over. So many films are indelibly recorded in my memory as a result and among these there are some standout animated feature films.

Laputa – Castle In The Sky, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings, Rene Laloux’s Maitres Du Temps and Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime classic Akira all have a special place reserved in my heart as being fond highlights of my youth. They are also responsible for sparking a lifelong admiration for animated film in a way that Disney never could because they were films not merely cartoons.

These early influences led me to explore the wealth of animation available to me, from the subversive work of Bakshi to the most outlandish anime and as such introduced me to a world of cinema I might otherwise not have known existed, never mind experienced.

With this in mind then, nobody is more shocked than I that I only got around to seeing Pixar’s 2008 masterpiece Wall E yesterday. Better late than never though and on Blu Ray to boot. If, like me, you have been slow to see it consider this your spoiler warning.

Set on a post apocalyptic Earth far in the future it follows the exploits of Wall-E, a little robot who’s job it is to deal with the mountainous piles of garbage that have consumed the planet. The fall of mankind is not, it turns out, a natural disaster, meteor impact or even nuclear war. Victims of our own desire to consume we have choked the planet with our waste, bailing out into space and leaving robots behind to clean up the mess. Little Wall-E is apparently the last of his kind tirelessly compacting trash and picking out the odd trinket for his own private collection.

Seemingly happy in his isolation he fills his days with work and watching Hello Dolly on a salvaged VHS tape. That is until EVE arrives, a probe droid sent to scour Earth for signs of life returning to its barren surface. EVE’s arrival stirs feelings of love in Wall E and when she returns to her ship, mission complete, he follows her to the mothership full of the descendants of the people who escaped the dying Earth hundreds of years previously.

Its an incredibly human story despite the vast majority of it playing out between two machines. Wall-E is a sort of cross between Johnny 5 and R2-D2, inquisitive, enthusiastic and friendly trundling around with a boundless desire to complete his work and explore the world of stuff at his disposal. His exposure to humanity via videos and the assortment of bric a brac he rescues from the trash informing his desire for a relationship with another being, a desire apparently fulfilled when EVE appears (although it takes some persuading for her to feel the same way).

Its extraordinary how much character and emotion Pixar manage to get out of a character that is essential a cube with eyes. His predicament is explained without much in the way of exposition, the clues to his history are strewn among the wreckage of human civilisation. His antics are warmly funny, slapstick comedy any human actor would be proud of. To all intents and purposes, Wall-E could be a real person.

It was a bold decision on the part of the film makers to make what is essentially a children’s film with so little in the way of signposting for the plot. The first half of the film is effectively a silent movie and a lot of people predicted it going over the heads of its younger audience members. In fact the film was hugely successful, proving the Pixar model of making sophisticated films pitched to kids and adults alike and abjectly refusing to patronise their audience.

This is where Pixar can consider themselves ranked among the greats of animation. They truly belong in the company of the likes of Bakshi and Miyazaki, using animation to create proper films instead of taking an attitude of “that’ll do, kids will watch anything”. As a philosophy it is to be admired.

Its impossible to talk about a Pixar film without mentioning the astonishing technical achievements of their animation. CGI has a tendency to date quickly, imagery that at the time was cutting edge rapidly losing its lustre as it gets superceded by the next spectacular technique. Wall-E however still looks amazing despite being almost three years old. The image quality of the Blu Ray probably helps.

The vision of the future we are presented with seems real. Machines have weight, the textures of the decrepit, decaying structures are extraordinary. The contrast between the fading technology of Earth and the cutting edge technology of the space ship in deep space is stunning. The animators’ attention to detail is superb, adding a sense of authenticity to the clowning of our hero and an essential part of conveying the emotion that makes the film so enjoyable.

Its a relief to know that despite selling his company to Disney, John Lasseter insisted he be left in charge of Pixar with full creative control (so respected is Lasseter by Disney that they gave him a creative director position in Disney as well), thus preserving their reputation as the lkeading studio (at least in the West) for animated features.

They followed Wall-E with the masterful Up, a film so brimming with character and emotion it may prove to be the pinnacle of Pixar’s work. It will certainly be difficult to beat. All I know for certain is this: as long as Pixar are willing to make sophisticated, intelligent films mixing their skill for comedy and drama with an instinct for powerful moral messages then I’m willing to watch them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 16/01/2011 19:17

    I love Pixar films for precisely the things you mention in your last paragraph – they are really well made, the characters are well designed and ring true, and the stories themselves have a ring of morality without being overly emotional and sanctimonious. My favourites have got to be the Toy Story set. Not too keen on Wall-E to be honest. The tweets and twinkles instead of voices grated on my nerves within minutes!

  2. 16/01/2011 20:54

    My favourite is Monsters Inc. Up is probably their finest hour. Its the lack of dialogue in Wall-E that highlights the skill of Lasseter & Co to take a collection of pixels and imbue them with personality. Have you ever seen the early short films he did? There was one with a family of desk lamps that is full of heart and expressive emotion and they don’t even have faces, let alone voices. You can get all the shorts on dvd/blu ray, worth a look although a lot of them are available on the DVD of the film they were released with.

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