WALL-E, Pixar's lonely little post-apocalyptic robot, is quickly collecting a lot of friends. Critics have applauded the animated film all the way to a 97% Fresh rating on the movie-review website Rotten Tomatoes the year's best so far. Audiences have spent $128 million at the box office in WALL-E's first 10 days of release, placing the film seventh so far in 2008, and it is likely to climb closer to the heroes of May Indiana Jones and Iron Man as glowing word-of-mouth continues to drive ticket sales. Even though most of Hollywood's Oscar contenders have yet to hit theaters, all that critical and commercial affection is leading awards watchers to ponder: Could WALL-E finally be The One?
No animated film has ever won Best Picture. Only one Beauty and the Beast, in 1991 has even earned a nomination. Since the creation of a Best Animated Feature category seven years ago, animated film has been trapped in Oscar's cartoon ghetto, even though reviewers consistently place Pixar's movies on their best-of-the-year lists.
Cries that WALL-E should be considered for a Best Picture nod began as soon as the film hit theaters on June 27. Writers at New York magazine and sites like The Movie Blog and Obsessed With Film declared WALL-E worthy of a Best Picture, and high-profile movie critics are discussing the little robot's odds for that award among themselves.
But for WALL-E to have a shot at the big prize, Disney, Pixar's parent company, would have to foot the bill for a Best Picture campaign, and it is not clear the studio is ready to do that. "While it is certainly gratifying to know that the audience and critical response to WALL-E has sparked these types of discussions, it's premature to discuss our plans for the awards season," says Jasmine Madatian, Disney's senior vice president of publicity.
It's not just modesty that's making Disney cautious; it's history. Praise for Disney classics like Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and contemporary hits like The Lion King and Pixar's Finding Nemo didn't convince the Academy that those animated films deserved to be considered alongside live-action ones. That's because animated features enjoy scant support from the largest branch of the 6,000 film-industry pros who select the Best Picture candidates every year: actors. "Actors tend to vote for live-action performances," says Variety columnist Anne Thompson. "Lord of the Rings got to Best Picture without any heavily praised performances, but that's very unusual."
Even among nonactors, there's a feeling that animated films are somehow set apart from live-action movies. "The animated realm means an emphasis on digital as opposed to raw-grain realism, and the Best Picture realm still means more or less the opposite," says Oscar blogger Jeffrey Wells, of Hollywood Elsewhere. "[WALL-E is] a gem and a classic, but it's still hello? an animated film."
Yet there are good reasons to think WALL-E may be an Obamaesque trailblazer. Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has steadily built momentum and begun collecting Oscar nominations in more and more categories. Last year's Ratatouille set a record with five, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Score.
With its tale of a trash-strewn earth centuries into the future, WALL-E's environmental message should resonate with the typically liberal politics of most Oscar voters. The film also makes affectionate nods to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, City Lights and Hello, Dolly! "There are a lot of little olive branches in WALL-E to the Academy," says The Movie Blog's John Campea.
More important than its homages to Hollywood classics may be WALL-E's status as an example of the kind of films Hollywood rarely makes anymore: well-crafted stories for a mass audience. Filmgoers, it seems, have to choose between smart but dark, strange, independent or quasi-independent films, like last year's Best Picture, No Country for Old Men, or mind-numbing popcorn flicks, like the latest superhero offering from Will Smith, Hancock. WALL-E, however, seems to be stimulating both hearts and minds.
"Every year there's a movie that captures the zeitgeist in some way. WALL-E does that," says Thompson. "I would love to think this movie would have a chance at Best Picture. But there has to be some kind of hue and cry lasting all the way through the end of the year." And, even more importantly, a decision made by Disney to encourage that.