Almost everybody has their favorite film from Pixar Animation Studios. And it’s not surprising; no other studio has enjoyed Pixar’s mind-boggling brand of success. Of eleven feature films, every single one has been a hit. The master storytellers at Pixar have an uncanny knack for appealing to every demographic, and all of their films are true visual marvels. While at least half of their movies could be considered genuine masterpieces, all of them are at least above average (even Cars, which many might consider their most derivative and predictable work).
For me, the pick of the Pixar crop is Finding Nemo, the first movie I think of when I think of beautiful animation (an art form I’ve always loved, even in its current CGI phase), and a story that resonates for me personally, as a father. But there are two other Pixar masterpieces that vie for second place on my personal chart of the Best Pixar Animation Studios Films, and they are two of the studio’s most daring. Step into the Reel Rumbles ring for a journey into gorgeous visuals, thrilling adventure and powerful emotion as we pit WALL·E vs. Up.
Following the success of such commercially-viable hits as Toy Story and Cars (and before – last year and this summer – heading back to sequels to those films), Pixar entered a three-film phase of really pushing the creative envelope. The result? Three of their greatest films. And even though they didn’t feature shiny talking cars or toys coming to life, they were hits nonetheless, proving the power and appeal of Pixar storytelling. The first of these three films was Ratatouille, a charming tale in which a lowly rat strikes up an unlikely partnership to become the greatest chef in all of France. The next two films were just as unique, and even better.
In WALL·E, the titular robot (whose name stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class) and his cockroach companion are seemingly the only animate creatures on a deserted Earth overrun with waste. Day after day, WALL·E dutifully carries out his programming: collecting trash and compacting it into cubes that he stacks in refuse towers of mind-boggling size. Over the centuries, however, it is apparent that WALL·E is developing a programming glitch: an amusing case of personality. And as he gathers curious items for his personal collection, we see him entertain himself in hilarious ways. But it’s when WALL·E views an ancient copy of Hello, Dolly! that we realize this quirky little character is becoming quite lonely… and all he really wants to do is hold someone’s hand. Of course, here enters EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), the slick offspring of several iPods, on a very important mission. Of course, WALL·E completely falls for her, and when he follows her off-planet, he begins an adventure of immense proportions.
Meanwhile, Up is a good chunk of the life story of Carl Fredricksen. We meet him as a young boy, idolizing adventurer Charles Muntz and dreaming of the days when he will head out to conquer far-off, unexplored lands. Soon, he meets Ellie, a girl with a similar penchant for adventure who will later become his bride. After Carl and Ellie form an immediate bond, the story segues into one of the greatest film montages of all time, perfectly capturing Carl and Ellie’s life together, and their dream of shipping off to see Paradise Falls (incidentally, Charles Muntz’s last destination before he was never seen from again). Alas, life gets in the way of Carl and Ellie’s big adventure, and Ellie passes away, never having seen this particular dream come true. Widowed and alone (he and Ellie were never able to have children), balloon salesman Carl faces having his house taken from him in favor of a major development project, and thus decides to – implausibly – set his home aloft on thousands of helium balloons, and take it to Paradise Falls. And so, like WALL·E, Carl finds himself on a whirlwind adventure.
Both stories are amongst Pixar’s greatest, and both strike true emotional notes. (In fact, at least until Toy Story 3 came along, both tugged at the heartstrings like no other Pixar films before them.) It’s tough to choose which might be superior, and so, round one ends in a draw.
On close examination, these two films actually feature a startlingly similar narrative structure. They both start with long sequences of zero dialogue, in which the heroes are firmly established, and then segue into fantastical adventures for the second and third acts. WALL·E works without benefit of the spoken word for longer (almost a full half of its running time), while Up presents an extremely moving montage to music that perfectly encapsulates Carl and Ellie’s married life.
In fact, while both of these films are quite epic in their third acts, they both feature outlandish goings-on that rely on spectacle over the emotional connection made to the characters in the openings. However, it is no doubt that – particularly in the case of Up, where there is such craziness as talking dogs piloting biplanes – the audience is able to go with these crazy adventures precisely because they are already so invested in the characters.
But while Up stays focused on its main character, WALL·E comes dangerously close to sermonizing with it’s obvious “save-the-planet” undertones. It’s certainly not as ham-handed as, say, Avatar, but the message is definitely clear, and manages to take center stage over the personal WALL·E/EVE relationship for much of the final act.
They’re both cautionary tales, in a way: Up tells us not to forget to live. WALL·E tells to clean up our acts. Up is humbler in its aspirations, but what it does, it does with beautiful simplicity, and so takes this round, 10-9.
In an animated film, “performance” really covers two areas: the voice acting, and the animation. It is well-known that Pixar’s animators are the cream of the crop; their characters are always fully believable: They take the silent montage at the beginning of Up and create a lifetime’s worth of emotions for Carl and Ellie to experience. And in the case of WALL·E – when the title character never actually does “speak” – the animators create a fully fleshed-out and believable character who’s as wonderful a silent actor as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton ever was.
But, setting aside the animation, here’s the thing: WALL·E is not a triumph of casting. It is an ultimate tour-de-force of sound design.
Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt is best known, aside from WALL·E, for creating the sounds for the Star Wars saga. This is the man who created the distinctive “whoosh” of a lightsaber. But more than that, he gave Chewbacca his roar. And he created the amazingly emotive beeps and whistles of another famous robot, R2-D2. And what he does in WALL·E with the main character’s electronic warbling is nothing short of amazing.
There’s a little bit of the same sound design magic done in Up – with the hoots and honks of the giant bird, “Kevin” – but it relies far more on speaking characters than WALL·E does. Edward Asner and Jordan Nagai are perfectly cast in the lead roles of Carl, the curmudgeonly widower on a mistaken quest to fulfill his late wife’s dream, and Russell, the precocious kid who tags along for the ride. Christopher Plummer provides great menace as Charles Muntz, the obsessed villain of the piece. But it’s Pixar’s own Bob Peterson – who had previously given voice to characters such as Roz in Monsters, Inc. and Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo - who truly steals the show, in the dual roles of the dogs Dug and Alpha. Coupled with that truly amazing Pixar animation, Peterson absolutely nails the essence of “dog”, as the canines’ collars give voice to their thoughts.
There’s no denying that the robot characters in WALL·E absolutely steal the show, but, by contrast, the few human characters are fairly bland and generic. The one exception is Fred Willard, who actually appears in live-action footage (a Pixar first) as the long-dead CEO of the Buy-N-Large corporation. The few other human characters with speaking roles (including the obligatory John Ratzenberger role) are fairly forgettable, even the captain of the Axiom, voiced by Jeff Garlin. Ultimately, by the end of the film, the audience doesn’t care so much whether the humans return to Earth; they just care about the fates of WALL·E and EVE.
In the end, it’s perhaps an unfair distinction to make – especially given Pixar’s achievement at bringing unspeaking robots to life – but because Up‘s speaking roles are so perfectly cast, and WALL·E‘s are ultimately generic, we can use it as a way to determine the winner in this round: Up, 10-9.
Directors Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were both previously responsible for Pixar hits. Docter’s Monsters, Inc. lost the first Best Animated Feature Oscar to Shrek (robbed, in hindsight). Stanton’s Finding Nemo not only won that award, it became the first animated film to out-gross The Lion King at the box office, and remains my personal favorite Pixar flick.
This battle isn’t about Monsters or Nemo, but those past films do inform this battle, in a way. Like WALL·E and Up, those past Pixar hits balance zany fun with heartfelt emotion. (In Monsters, Sulley has to be separated from his new friend, Boo; Marlin spends the entire movie searching for his abducted son in Nemo.) I think, however – despite the fact that I call Nemo my favorite animated film – that Docter actually handles the “fun” parts better than Stanton. Yet the emotional bits also register.
One has to give Andrew Stanton credit: WALL·E is a master class of animated story telling, much of it without dialogue. But in the final act, the action veers somewhat away from WALL·E himself, and focuses too much on the human characters (particularly the Axiom captain). I would also argue that the action bits aren’t nearly as fun as they are in his previous effort, Nemo, or in his competition here.
Pete Docter, by contrast, keeps the focus firmly on his hero, Carl Fredricksen. Many of Up‘s detractors comment that nothing in the rest of the film can match the powerful emotions stirred by the ten-minute montage at the beginning. To a degree, that’s true. But it is precisely because the audience becomes so invested in Carl that we are able to go with the craziness of his adventure. As Carl drags his home behind him through the jungle, we root for him, and hope that he will succeed. Then there’s the fact that most of Up‘s action sequences are just crazy fun. There’s a heart-stopping chase as our heroes try to outrun Muntz’s dogs while dragging the house behind them. And the literal “dogfight” – involving a zeppelin, a floating house, canine-piloted biplanes and a leafblower – is spectacular.
WALL·E gets a little lost in the shuffle, and though he has his own great adventure, it just doesn’t seem quite as “fun” as Carl’s. Up just manages to squeak by the competition in this round, 10-9.
Critics of either of these films might want to point to the fact that they “run off the rails” a bit in their third acts, never again approaching the power of their emotional first acts, and falling into silliness. I think that’s true of neither film. But while I was able to accept all the absurd happenings of Up because I had become so emotionally invested in the characters, the final act of WALL·E does shift a bit away from its main character, and borders on becoming a “save-the-planet” sermon. Both films are genuine masterpieces, and I know this outcome will be controversial. But for that one major reason, the winner of this bout – by a nose – is Up.