(Infinity and Beyond is a regular column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights WALL-E.)
How do you know for sure how much power someone has in Hollywood? For filmmakers, it can be as simple as seeing a studio greenlighting a pet project thanks to their success with big-budget blockbusters. For actors, it can be allowing them to pick and choose their preferred projects, no matter how it may look for their box-office prospects moving forward. Pixar Animation Studios is, and has always been, an entirely different beast. With the exception of Brad Bird, Pixar’s filmmakers aren’t often perceived as distinctive auteurs.
Yet as the studio’s films became consistently the highest-performing titles from the Walt Disney Company on a yearly basis, and even as they nearly moved beyond Disney entirely at the end of their initial contract, Pixar pushed the limits of how they could tell stories with computer animation. In 2008, they pushed their boundaries further than ever before or since, in telling a story about human avarice and greed, the death of Earth through pollution, and boiling it down to a love story between two robots who don’t speak English.
There Was a Lunch
If you know your Pixar marketing campaigns, then you may already know that in 1995, there was a lunch. It was that year that Andrew Stanton and a few other members of the Pixar braintrust sat down at a local cafe to talk about what they would do if Toy Story became a hit for their fledgling studio. Most of the stories that arose during that conversation became the studio’s next hits, from A Bug’s Life to Monsters, Inc. But there was one idea that stuck around long past the mid-1990s, best boiled down to one question: what if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?
The setup of WALL-E was simple enough, though Stanton said in special features for the movie’s home-media release that he never perceived the story that dark, because its representation of Earth as being piled high with stacks of trash was a childish conception of disaster. Yet WALL-E is undoubtedly, perhaps because of how matter-of-fact its depiction of life in the 2800s is, the darkest film Pixar has ever made. As distinctive and unforgettable as the opening 35-minute stretch of WALL-E is, the film always had the potential to be much darker and more disturbing.
As is often the case with Pixar, the road to development was full of obstacles. Though Stanton and Pete Docter began to work on development of the project, originally known as Trash Planet, in 1995, they couldn’t crack the second act and left it dormant. Years later, Stanton was able to build out a second act, but just as the humans in the final film looked vastly different from humans in real life, so too did the original second act, where the humans were…gelatinous.
I Want to Live
The premise of WALL-E was always the same: roughly eight hundred years in the future, Earth has been entirely abandoned by the human race, which kept on consuming until there was nothing left to consume and nowhere else to leave behind the refuse. Robots like the heroic if cripplingly lonely WALL-E are tasked with picking up all the trash, compacting it, and discarding it. When the story begins, we slowly realize that while there were many WALL-E models given this task, only one of them still remains and he’s gained a personality over a long period of time.
When we meet WALL-E, we learn that he’s doing his job day in, day out, but he’s also desperate for companionship. Conveniently, a ship arrives from the middle of outer space to drop off a sleekly designed, white-hued robot named EVE, a fitting name if there ever was one. WALL-E and EVE eventually become friendly, and her mission becomes clear: to detect if there’s any sign of sustainable life on this trash planet.