WALL-E: Pixar's Biggest Gamble

The animation wonder boys roll the dice on a demanding (and delightful) sci-fi robot romance

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Disney / Pixar

The last little droid on Earth is an avid collector of the treasures that humans left behind.

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And, on a technical level, sight meets sound. WALL•E's animation, especially in scenes on Earth, has a photorealistic quality; it looks like a gorgeously arid, live-action waste dump. The appointments of the Axiom, exterior and interior, are as finely detailed as those in any Star Wars or Alien film. Even if the exploits of WALL•E and EVE don't take and break your heart, you'll be impressed by the graphic design.

Add to that the amazing dimension Burtt brought to the film. Signing with Pixar after 28 years at Lucasfilm Ltd., he got this plum of a project: he'd be creating most of WALL•E's sounds, from the hero's voice (Burtt's own, which he stretched, distorted and metallicized on his computer keyboard) to the wind of WALL•E's world ("That's just Niagara Falls") and the sound of the bot driving around ("It's taken from a tank, but it's made to sound tiny").

Burtt is an audio Audubon. Much of his recording is done "on location"--in zoos, his driveway or (lots of this in WALL•E) a junkyard. The chirps needed for WALL•E's cockroach companion were provided by "a raccoon, speeded up," and the insect's clicks came from the sound of locking handcuffs. "I was recording a policeman's Taser," Burtt recalls, "and I said, 'Let me hear your handcuffs.'"

Having spent so much time with George Lucas on the Star Wars series, Burtt is used to demanding directors. But even he was sometimes perplexed by Stanton's requests. "Andrew would say, 'That sound of the motor--could we have one with more pathos?' I wonder about that for a minute. And then I see it as just another challenge and say, 'O.K., I'll get ya one!'"

Pixar, at its best, invents its own challenges. The typical director worries that most people will see his movie at home, their fingers on the fast-forward and stop buttons, so he makes every element instantly understandable. That's why most movies seem as if they were made for the passengers of the Axiom. But WALL•E plays without safety nets or spoon-feeding; it reinvents the delicate, potent behavioral language of silent-film comedy, of the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films.

"We don't want to contribute to the dreck," Stanton says of the Pixar team. "We want to sustain the love of going to movies. After Finding Nemo, I thought, Now is the time to push open the door--to broaden the palette, increase the possibility of what a good movie is in the audience's mind." Will they have to open their receptors? Fine. "If they discover it on their own, they'll enjoy it so much more."

Pixar has taken its biggest gamble, but it's moviegoers who'll be the winners.

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