In 1995 Pixar Animation produced and Disney distributed "Toy Story," the first feature-length computer animated film. The story of a cowboy doll and spaceman action figure was a tremendous success in every way.
It was a moving, entertaining film, rich in the Disney tradition, that emerged as the Disney renaissance of animated films was just beginning its downward slide with "Pocahontas."
So it was Pixar to the rescue. In 1998 the studio went underground with "A Bug's Life." The following year it returned to the play room in "Toy Story 2," a sequel superior to the original. The new millennium saw Pixar get especially innovative in 2001 when it released "Monsters, Inc."
The next Pixar picture to emerge was regarded by many as the best and certainly its most visually engaging, 2003's "Finding Nemo." This hit followed with a lively spin on the superhero genre in "The Incredibles." In 2006 audiences saw Pixar at its most bizarre with "Cars," a film featuring a world of anthropomorphized autos. Finally, last year's "Ratatouille," about a rodent chef, snatched the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, earning the studio its third Oscar in the category and making it the medium's industry leader.
Expect the next Oscar ceremony to really settle the debate about who owns the world of computer animation. Pixar's "Wall-E" is the studio's crowning achievement and perhaps the best computer animated film to date.
"WALL-E" leaps 700 years into the future into a world abandoned by humanity. Light barely pierces the cloudy skies and mountains of debris dominate the landscape. Cleaning up is the task of WALL-E, the one remaining functioning robot on the planet. The little box that zips here and there on treads and continually glances around with gigantic eyes has managed to survive for centuries since he's gradually evolved to the point where he can repair or replace his busted components. He's also developed an interest in humanity and struggles with his solitude, his only companion being a friendly cockroach that acts as a pet or maybe a sidekick.
When a ship lands on earth it deploys a sleek, white, flying robot to explore. For WALL-E it's love at first site, even when EVE, as he learns she's called, shoots at him with her powerful laser. EVE at first seems uninterested in WALL-E, continuing with her mission of exploration. Gradually she begins to come around, though, as WALL-E shows her his world. When her ship returns to collect her WALL-E will not just abandon his newfound love. He grabs a hold of the ship and begins an adventure into a fascinating and disturbing brave new world.
Despite the highly visual nature of animation and the amazing things technology can create for a film, ultimately computer animated films live and die by the characters they bring to life. And WALL-E is Pixar's most compelling creation since Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The best animated characters are those that we can relate to in a genuine, way. We recognize in them a core element of humanity. WALL-E epitomizes the longing for a companion. We see in him a loneliness, living a repetitive, meaningless existence. And then he finds his soul mate. And when she's snatched up away from him he will fight with all of his being to get her back. The fact that he's not even human makes it even more significant.
Thematically the film goes into some very compelling and unexpected territory. Things start to get very interesting once WALL-E leaves the earth. If he's been busy picking up trash for 700 years then what has the human race been doing? The answer is rather disturbing. The film also does a good job of avoiding some predictable pitfalls. Rather clichéd anti-corporate, anti-consumerist, environmentalist messages could have been embedded in the picture but thankfully the filmmakers chose something less simplistic.
The film is also a visual peak for Pixar. If you thought the underwater environment of "Finding Nemo" was incredible then the outer space of "WALL-E" will blow your mind.
"WALL-E" is the year's clear winner in the animated film category. "Horton Hears a Who!" and "Kung-Fu Panda" are certainly good but they aren't even in the same league as "WALL-E" and I don't have particularly high hopes for the upcoming "Space Chimps," "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," and "Bolt." In fact I'll go a step further. It wouldn't surprise me if "WALL-E" earned the distinction of being the medium's "Beauty and the Beast;" it's got the potential to be the first computer animated film to be nominated for best picture. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
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