Dec 2 2008 4:32pm

Wall*E and the Animated Ghetto

Thanks to the Academy ghettoizing animated films, one of the best pictures of this (or any other) year probably won’t be recognized with an annoying montage introduced by a teleprompter-dependent celebrity come February. Instead, I expect that Wall*E will get its fifteen seconds of Oscar screen time next to Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa and Bolt, both of which it will resoundingly and unsurprisingly leave in the dust as Andrew Stanton accepts his second award for Best Animated Feature.

By the time that Stanton’s likewise exquisite Finding Nemo trounced the competition in 2003 for that particular award, the travesty that is separate-and-inherently-unequal segregation of animated versus live-action feature films had been in place for two years. While, as a fan of Japanese animation, I am pleased that the Best Animated Feature Oscar afforded Hollywood the opportunity (long overdue) to recognize the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki, this does not forward the cause of animation as a serious film medium.

Animation is a medium, not a genre. Animation is simply one way of telling a story. All the traditional caveats of live-action filming—direction, cinematography, editing, performance—are still present in animation; they require different means to achieve excellence, but the ends are the same. This is something that Pixar, the company responsible for three of the eight Best Animated Features, understands and promotes.

And they are something that Wall*E has perfected. Wall*E arrived in theaters last June as something of an oddity among even quality Pixar films. Commercials didn’t offer punchlines—the film boasted exactly one celebrity voice (Sigourney Weaver)—which is appropriate given the premium placed on sound for the movie’s first half. (Even its partnered short film, “Presto,” hadn’t a single line of dialogue.) Freed from the cacophony, Wall*E’s first startling image—the universe, in all its HD, Hubble-worthy beauty—popped all the brighter for the jaunty musical introduction, which was, apropos of nothing (as far as the audience knew to that point), a keenly earnest song from Hello, Dolly! The juxtaposition of something old being something new (few in the audience would have seen the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! that the titular character idolizes) eases us into the distinct-but-familiar dystopia Wall*E inhabits.

Minus the grinding of humanity, the planet is surpassingly quiet. Our hero, this fussy, finicky cataloger of human oddities finds something precious in all of our leavings, yet he is wise enough to preference recordings of music and gaiety over the omnipresent advertisements for the conglomerate responsible both for the fact of and need for his existence. (Wall*E is a Buy-N-Large product built to clean up the refuse of Buy-N-Large profligacy.)

This is a clever conceit: the ads serve a narrative function in that they explain where the humans have gone (they, too, are drawn by the siren lure of space), but their existence (as soulless by-products) better demonstrates the absence of humanity than their mere content. By association, Wall*E is all the more remarkable. The film was assailed as being heavy-handed in its ecological message but only by those who missed the hope in Pandora’s opened box: the world of Wall*E is bleak, but Wall*E himself is a miracle, and it is on miracles that film concentrates. The marvels of advanced technology are regarded as boring; the miracles of life, love, and loyalty are paramount. Wall*E tends to his fracturing treads only to spare his cockroach friend a bumpy ride on their way home from work. He saves as his most precious treasure—the invaluably wonderful sapling that drives the film’s plot—not because it will have value to the humans he hasn’t seen in seven hundred years (not even to please his future love interest, not at first), but because he recognizes it for the improbably fantastic, hopeful thing that it is. The plant is another voice in Wall*E’s world. He will never tire of it any more than of Hello, Dolly!

When Wall*E meets the sleek and marvelous EVE, it is his determined devotion to what is important to her (her directive), rather than awe of the world from which she comes, that makes the film’s heart skip a beat. Even when we follow Wall*E to the ship where humans live in luxurious squalor, there is no humanity except in Wall*E and EVE’s gentle courtship—most of which comes across in the varying ways they say one another’s name. (And who hasn’t called out a name of a loved one to different ends? In joy or in irritation?) True to form, the film wrings the most laughs and true feelings of joy out of relationships in which people hardly speak at all but communicate volumes just the same: John and Mary, humans who discover life beyond their video screens; the Captain and the plant; EVE and Wall*E. Hell, Wall*E and everyone he meets—the robot he teaches to wave; MO, the frustrated sanitizing robot chasing him all over the ship; the rogue robots who come to his defense; poor Burn*E, who, in his own animated short (set to take place during the events of Wall*E), labors at a Sisyphean task more resolutely than the Coyote for just about as much reward. (Pixar pays homage to the enduring, often dialogue-lite humor of Looney Tunes both in “Presto” and in Burn*E’s story.)

Comedy is hard, metaphors can be labored, and messages seem heavy-handed in the post-ironic, cynical world. So it is the deft hand that can juggle all three in a film that feels simultaneously profound and deliciously airy and sweet. If the point of Wall*E is that being human is not a prerequisite of possessing humanity, why shouldn’t animated features be extended the courtesy of proving themselves the equal of live-action ones? Why do live-action films widely rumored to be in contention for the Best Feature Film Oscar nomination (Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Australia) get a pass on the fierce competition they would have from Wall*E? Because they would lose?

Sean Fagan
1. sef
There's nothing that prevents Wall-E from being nominated for Best Picture. It's less likely given the Animated category, but it's not prohibited -- and the movie is strong enough that it may actually make it.

I'm hoping so, because I also think it was a fantastic, lovely movie.
Josh Kidd
2. joshkidd
I think it's a stretch to suggest that the Academy would be nominating Wall-E if only the Animated Feature category didn't exist. The Academy has never been overly fond of animation and, at least, the category allows them to recognize it in some way.

But here's the real question: Who cares? The Academy likes a very specific kind of film. A kind of film that I happen not to like very much. I can count the number of best picture nominees that I've seen in the last four years on one hand. I can count the number of best picture winners that I've seen in the last four years on one fist. (I did, however, quite like the best picture winner in 2004 and I've seen four of the nominees from that year. An off year, I guess.) It's not that Best Picture nominees are bad, per se. They're just not my cup of tea.
Ben HM3
3. BenHM3
If sef's point (#1) is correct, then I'm torn. I truly loved Wall-E.

I'd like it to win a singular honor, but being the 1st animated film to lose "Best Picture" is not what I'd choose. (We've such short attention spans, no one remembers 2nd place.)

Still, the "animated" ghetto will disappear and this whole debate will seem quaint.
Irene Gallo
4. Irene
I stopped watching the Academy Awards when Hoop Dreams wasn't nominated. They should just call it the "best live action fiction" award...but even at that, "Best" is suspect.
D. L.
5. shortride
3: Second. Beauty and the Beast was nominated as well, losing to The Silence of the Lambs.
René Walling
6. cybernetic_nomad
BenHM3 says

Still, the "animated" ghetto will disappear and this whole debate will seem quaint.

What makes you say it will disappear?

Don't you know all film is animated, you just happen to capture the images as the same speed as you subsequently project them

FWIW, I think several of the Best Animated features won over better films and too often much better films never even make it to the list (I still can't believe Persepolis didn't win.

I haven't closely followed the Oscars in years, the Annies are much more interesting if you like animation.

But then again, I haven't seen any Award focusing on animation that does a consistently great job of rewarding the best films. (I still haven't gotten over this year's OIAF winner for Best Feature...
Dayle McClintock
7. trinityvixen
sef said:
There's nothing that prevents Wall-E from being nominated for Best Picture. It's less likely...

Therein lies the problem. If the Oscars are a horse race, any handicap at all can drastically change the odds that one horse does as well as another. With the opportunity for Wall*E to have a consolation Oscar ("You're good enough for animation, but you're not quite there with real film yet, kids."), it's being hit for being animated twice (the first time being that it is, as I said, animated). So long as they can clap hands and go "YAY EVERYONE IS A WINNER!" the Academy is going to keep denying animation center stage.

#2,4: I care because its the Oscars. They are a referendum on film that is much ballyhooed. Yes, the Academy adheres to an ugly, outdated sort of elitist dogma about what is or is not "Oscar-worthy." Regardless, the Oscar label is a valuable tool for many distributors and studios and auteurs. I'm not claiming that Pixar is in danger of being ignored the way many short-subject, documentary, foreign et al. films are. But there is a conspicuousness to the Oscar that validates the films that receive it. The Academy's opinion may not carry weight with those who are ahead of their curve (that would be us), but it does with the mainstream. Anything that gets animation into the head of Joe Q Public as a serious medium is a help.

Also, I really, really loved this movie and I want it to get more than the pat-on-the-head, aren't-you-sweet-for-trying prize. The more and more films come to rely on digital effects to tell, effectively, their stories, the less sense a separate "Best Animated Feature" Oscar makes.
Torie Atkinson
8. Torie
@ Irene

Hoop Dreams! That movie is heartbreaking and wonderful and so real. Have you ever seen Mai's America? It's my other favorite documentary.
9. L.C.McCabe
Disney has decided to pursue nomination for Wall*E in both the animated category as well as Best Picture Category.

See the Pixar blog:


I wish them well on that, because I agree with your assessment that Wall*E is deserving of the Oscar for Best Movie of 2008.
Dayle McClintock
10. trinityvixen
L.C. McCabe said:
Disney has decided to pursue nomination for Wall*E in both the animated category as well as Best Picture Category.

That excites me immeasurably, you have no idea. I suppose I should have checked their blog before ranting, but hey! At least Disney knows they've got a winner. And they do! I mean, it helps that the live-action field has, mostly, fizzled out this year. (There are no stand outs yet in the Best Picture category--not in live action anyway.)

Oh, this is me, doing my happy dance!
Irene Gallo
11. Irene
No Persepolis! Then I'm double not watching the awards! Persepolis was fantastic. And one of the few cases where the movie is as good as the book.
Ben HM3
12. BenHM3
cybernetic nomad said:
What makes you say it will disappear?

Don't you know all film is animated, you just happen to capture the images as the same speed as you subsequently project them

The "animation ghetto" will disappear when the outrageous costs of live-action capture are no longer worth it. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say "When the digital actor is cheaper than the real one." (Let's not degenerate into a debate about quality or realism: the sheeple have demonstrated a desire for convenience over quality every time. EG: 44k digital audio, MP3, MPEG and H323.)

No, all "movies" are not animated. You have chosen to misconstrue the effects of persistence-of-vision and frame-based display with the source-material for those frames.
Dayle McClintock
13. trinityvixen
BenHM3 said:
The "animation ghetto" will disappear when the outrageous costs of live-action capture are no longer worth it. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say "When the digital actor is cheaper than the real one."

I wonder if this is true. I mean, certainly, it will be cheaper in some cases, but not all. One of the things I found remarkable about Wall*E was that it, unlike any major studio's animated film (Pixar included), didn't rely on expensive, famous actors to voice characters. I would like to think Wall*E is proof that those actors/actresses aren't necessarily required for a hit. (They certainly aren't required for a quality film--that Wall*E did prove.) However, I don't think we're entirely ready to let go of famous actors/actresses for voice parts, much less live-action roles just yet.

It doesn't help that some of the more notable animated characters in otherwise live-action movies have been less than stellar (Jar-Jar Binks) or have been brought to life by gifted actors working in real life to assist motion capture (Andy Serkis and Gollum). Animation isn't "there" yet enough. People still find alarmingly realistic animated actors featured in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or The Polar Express or Beowulf to be less vibrant than if the same people had just been filmed doing the scenes and edited slightly. After all, we accept "photographs" in magazines that have obviously been altered (to smooth out wrinkles, fat, lighting issues).

So, while I agree that cost/benefit will push towards more animated actors in the future, it is still a long way off yet.
14. jhwoodyatt
p1. The principle villain of the picture wasn't even voiced by a human. It was a voice synthesizer.

p2. My almost 3-year-old son loves the film, so I've seen it quite a few times now. Like Miyazaki's films, it gets better through many repeated viewings. It's also very nice to be able to introduce your toddler to a real science-fiction film that won't A) terrify the hell out of him, or B) utterly bore him to death.
Dayle McClintock
15. trinityvixen
jhwoodyatt said:
The principle villain of the picture wasn't even voiced by a human. It was a voice synthesizer.

Auto was definitely the antagonist of the piece, but I can't find it in my heart to call him a villain. He was only doing his job, as he understood it. Well, at first, anyway. Once you start mutinying and almost killing other robots you get a little more villainly, but I don't entirely fault him. He's not bad, he was just programmed that way.
David Lev
16. davidlev
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I remember hearing that a comedy hasn't won Best Picture since Annie Hall. Also, another great movie this year (The Dark Knight) almost certainly won't win and might not even get nominated (altho I have a feeling Heath Ledger might). I watch the Oscars every year and I enjoy doing it, but I'm often frustrated sometimes when the people who should have won lose to uber-serious crap
Dayle McClintock
17. trinityvixen

Technically, comedies have won since Annie Hall. That is, if you are forgiving and consider Shakespeare in Love a comedy. It was, on the whole, pretty light-hearted. But straight up comedy? Not recognized by the Academy. It's hard to imagine right now, given how overplayed the character has become, but when Johnny Depp first transformed himself into Jack Sparrow? I thought for sure he had a lock on the Oscar because that was the most transfixing bit of acting I'd ever seen. But it was double-whammy against him that it was both a comedic role and one in a Disney blockbuster. Which is why I fear for Wall*E.
18. rogerothornhill
I love Wall-E too, but in my aesthetic heart of hearts I can't really say that it was one of the five best pictures I've seen this year. It's not as bizarre as Synecdoche, New York, etc.

So the real question here is: if one is going to limit oneself to widely popular films, are animated films going to left out?

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment