The title character in “WALL-E,” Pixar’s futuristic spellbinder, is a funky little metallic contraption that looks like a crazed blend of farm tractor and old-style CPU. A trash-collecting robot, he relies on solar power to keep going. He has forklift-like prongs for hands and binocular-style lenses for eyes. He speaks only in electronic blurts and beeps. And as far as we can tell, there isn’t an ounce of blood flowing through his clunky frame.
Yet somehow, the Pixar wizards have succeeded in endowing this curious piece of machinery with an astonishing amount of emotion, tenderness and heart. Call it animation magic.
“It’s amazing how they pull it off,” says Jerry Beck, an author and animation historian. “No matter what they’re dealing with - toys, bugs, monsters or cars - they find a way to put us in the characters. They are us. We can relate to them and the experiences they’re going through.”
It’s a life-giving process Pixar has perfected over a dozen-plus years and a remarkable string of eight consecutive box-office blockbusters. From the hilarious odd couple of Buzz and Woody in “Toy Story” through Remy, the culinary-minded rodent in “Ratatouille,” the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio has excelled at conjuring up memorable stories pegged to vibrant, vivid lead characters that leap off the screen and into our hearts.
“My rough statement going into any film we do is ‘Make me care,’” says Andrew Stanton, who directed and co-wrote “WALL-E.” “If you don’t care, we’re not there yet.”
Odds are moviegoers will care about WALL-E - or Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class. As the last sentient being on Earth (now an intergalactic waste-disposal site), he’s a lonely trash ‘bot who has no one to keep him company, save for a pet cockroach. His life takes a dramatic turn, however, with the arrival from outer space of a female robot named EVE. At that point, a very unconventional love story unfolds.
WALL-E is about as different as you can get from those computer animation trail-blazers Buzz and Woody, but he’s a charmer who appears poised to take his place alongside them in the studio’s burgeoning pantheon of classic heroes.
“Their trademark is strong, empathetic characters - people you’re going to warm up to,” says Tom Sito, a former president of the Hollywood Animation Guild. “A character can be as visually compelling as possible, but at a certain point you want to empathize with him. You want to look into his eyes and see the wheels turning, see him thinking. The Pixar people get that.”
So is there a formula to creating these engaging heroes? Pixar’s think-outside-the-box artists might scoff at the very suggestion. But while it’s true that their lead characters have varied widely in style and personality - Mr. Incredible has little in common with the clownfish Nemo - there are certain traits that tend to run through the studio’s roster.
“Whatever personality they possess, they all experience a change of attitude over the course of the story,” says filmmaker Leslie Iwerks, who wrote and directed the documentary “The Pixar Story.” “They come to the realization that they want to do the right thing. They sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”
That dynamic is certainly evident in Flik, the selfless little blue ant at the center of “A Bug’s Life,” who rounds up a ragtag bunch of bugs to fight off greedy - and frightening - grasshoppers. And it can be seen in Mike and Sulley, the “Monsters, Inc.” pals who rebel against long-standing corporate culture to change the way children are treated by their scary brethren.
Brandon Neeld, director of the fan site www.pixarplanet.com, points out that the typical Pixar lead character is no all-perfect Superman (“He has a tragic flaw”). On the contrary, he claims, they tend to be down-to-earth “journeymen.”
“They’re usually underdogs, fighting long odds, who go on a journey to find their place in the world,” he says. “You’ve got Remy - a rat who doesn’t fit in with his own kind, who wants to be a chef at a fancy French restaurant. And Buzz and Woody: They’re trying to find a place in Andy’s life. These characters want to find where they belong.”
That should be no surprise considering how, in the fledgling days of Pixar, the company was home to a band of brash upstarts looking to find their niche in a brand-new art form. And it’s worth noting that Pixar characters typically reflect the writers and directors who gave birth to them.
John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative guru, has said that “Cars” was inspired by a cross-country road trip he took with his family and his love for NASCAR racing. The father-son relationship in “Finding Nemo” has ties to what Stanton describes as the overprotective tendencies he had with his then-5-year-old son. And director Brad Bird based the suburban family at the center of “The Incredibles” on his own clan.
Along these lines, Sito says he can detect the personal journeys of the Pixar artists in their films.
“I remember when they were just setting out as a lot of mostly young single guys and so you had ‘Toy Story’ with a bunch of guys on a wild adventure,” he says. “Later, you had ‘Monsters, Inc.’ containing a dad with a toddler. And later there was ‘Finding Nemo’ with a dad and his school-age kid. And then came ‘The Indcredibles,’ pegged to a family. Now I’m waiting for the Pixar film that deals with divorce and a second marriage.”
Most discussions of the Pixar filmmaking process involve words like cutting edge and modern computer technology. But at the heart of their films, the experts say, are old-fashioned storytelling values.
“They remind me so much of the Disney productions of the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Don Peri, author of “Working With Walt: Interviews With Disney Artists.” “There’s a lot of emphasis on warmth and personality. And you see good triumphing over evil in a more traditional way. There’s a little more sincerity to their characters and films, than say a ‘Shrek.’”
But the Pixar artists have also rebelled against some of the familiar Disney tendencies that once set the tone for animated features. Thus far, they’ve avoided fairy tales and musicals. And their lead characters tend to possess adult personas rather than the childlike ones who head up many Disney classics.
“It’s almost like the kids are subsidiary characters,” Beck says. “And that’s different from a lot of Disney films where you have characters like the Little Mermaid, Dumbo, Bambi, the kids in Peter Pan and Simba in ‘The Lion King’ - classic innocents discovering the harsh realities of the world.”
Neeld agrees, but emphasizes that the Pixar “adults” still tend to exude many childlike qualities.
“They’re never too old to be kids. And they’re never too old to learn. It’s a slightly different take on things,” he says.
There is an aspect of the Pixar roster has earned some minor criticism. Although there certainly have been a few strong females over the years - Jessie in “Toy Story 2” and Mrs. Incredible, to name a couple - a female has yet to serve as the lead character.
“I do worry about that sometimes,” says Stanton. “We work very hard to make our female characters equally compelling. On the other hand, I have to be true to myself and I can’t help but see the world through my eyes.” (Brenda Chapman is scheduled to become the company’s first female director on an upcoming feature.)
Still, Iwerks insists that most moviegoers don’t make those distinctions while watching a Pixar film.
“They give us rich stories full of compassionate characters you can fall in love with,” she says. “So it really doesn’t matter if they’re white or black, male or female, fish or robot.”
‘WALL-E’ A RISKY MOVE FOR PIXAR
If they could, the pioneering artists at Pixar surely would love to extend the boundaries of animation to infinity and beyond. “WALL-E,” the company’s new sci-fi adventure, doesn’t quite go that far, but it does represent a pretty far-out venture.
The first 30 minutes of the film contain virtually no dialogue as its robotic title character emits only R2-D2-like chatter. The movie’s other main figure, a sleek gizmo named EVE, also is very vocally limited. As Time magazine movie critic Richard Corliss points out, “WALL-E” is a “futurist movie that’s a lot like an old silent picture.”
But will modern-day audiences accustomed to so much aural commotion from their summer blockbusters embrace “WALL-E”? It’s a risky move - one that could put Pixar’s streak of eight straight hits in jeopardy.
But Andrew Stanton, who directed and co-wrote “WALL-E,” insists that he wasn’t concerned about box-office booty while working on the film.
“We try to do every movie with a little more of a push, and we’ve had that mentality since ‘Toy Story,’” says Stanton, who won an Oscar for his work on “Finding Nemo.” “No matter how satisfied you are with your previous work, you don’t want to go back to high school.”
“WALL-E” was inspired by the sci-fi films of Stanton’s youth - films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “E.T.” “Those movies were filled with wonder and awe,” he says. “I was ready to feel like that again.”
While Stanton admits that the show-don’t-tell approach of “WALL-E” might be daunting to some moviegoers, he’s more concerned about winning over adults than children.
“I think the kids will hang in there for the ride,” he says. “Adults tend to overthink things.”