The Legacy of Pixar’s Wall-E, Now a Member of the Criterion Collection

The Legacy of Pixar’s Wall-E, Now a Member of the Criterion Collection

It’s hard to even imagine. A world ravaged by climate change. People totally consumed by technology. Mega corporations in control of everything. Robots performing menial tasks. Wait, did we say “hard” to imagine? We meant we’re literally living it. The “it” being Wall-E, Pixar’s 2008 Oscar-winning masterpiece co-written and directed by Andrew Stanton.

The tale of a lone robot left to clean up the Earth who finds himself on an intergalactic adventure to protect the future of the planet wowed audiences when it was released and is considered to be one of Pixar’s best films to date. Since then, Wall-E has only gotten more poignant and been more revered, so it’s only fitting that, on November 22, it becomes Pixar’s first film ever released by the Criterion Collection, a company specializing in the best, most comprehensive, obsessive Blu-ray releases around.

To mark the occasion, Gizmodo sat for a video chat with Wall-E’s director to find out how the film made it to Criterion, what his favourite special features are, what he thinks about our world being so close to Wall-E’s, and whether there was ever talk of a sequel or theme park ride — as well as his work on Obi-Wan Kenobi and For All Mankind. Check it out.

Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: So how did you find out that the movie is going to be a part of the Criterion Collection? Because that was a big deal and it’s Pixar’s first movie.

Andrew Stanton: I approached them. I pressed them as a filmmaker. This was not a studio thing. It was me asking as a favour to Alan Bergman, who is the president of Walt Disney Studios, and saying, “Look, I’ve been out in the world making TV shows for about seven years. I’ve met so many people in the industry now, filmmakers that I revere, filmmakers that are budding, that really sort of get the cinema DNA and inspirations that were in the molecules of Wall-E.” I made it with such a love of cinema. It was great to see that it had that effect on on a lot of peers and I felt like there’s something there that qualifies it to possibly be in their library. And so I said, “Can I ask them?” Because I know it breaks precedent with what Disney does so, it was a bit of a favour, and he said, “Well, if Criterion bites, yeah, we’ll see if we can make it work.” And so that was in 2019. Then the pandemic hit and everything just paused. They said yes. But it was very frustrating because then the world just stopped. Then it was really last year that we got very serious about it.

And the real question was “What’s the Criterion angle on this?” We’ve done such a good job and a thorough job of showing the behind-the-scenes on other DVDs. So I really left it up to them. And [Criterion producer] Kim Hendrickson and the rest of their wonderful team really just drilled down. I let them lead about “What is interesting to you guys? What is it you guys want to know?” So that really led the angle on all the doc materials and the booklet and everything. I’ve been a consumer of Criterion since they existed in the late ‘80s. So I was pleased as punch to see everything from the cover to what their perspective was and what was interesting to them, because I feel a lot of the times [Pixar] DVDs get used as a babysitter, and they’re not necessarily going to the crowd that we want to talk to, because I would love to talk to other people that love film as much. And so I feel like, “Oh, this is finally for an audience that I would be in.” 

Image: Criterion
Image: Criterion

Gizmodo: Yeah, it’s my favourite Pixar movie, so going through the disc and exploring a little bit was excellent. Now, you buy a Criterion for the transfer, the sound, but mostly the features. And here there’s just so much. So, if someone buys this disc, they watch the movie — but after that, what’s the first thing they should go watch and why?

Stanton: Well, it’s hard for me to know if there’s a better order, but I find it fascinating to be able to finally do a Master Class and just talk about the actual under-the-hood work that we do [at Pixar], and how much we really control and work on and nuance the story down to a beat-by-beat level. I mean, I could have done that with any scene and any other filmmaker in the studio could have done that with their movies and their scenes. And so it was a chance to slow down and actually have a literal Master Class. And then I also loved being able to talk about all the cinematic influences because again, we’re such filmgoers first and filmmakers second that — any one of these films, but I think particularly Wall-E — had such deep, deep, deep influences from some of the earliest cinematic movies. There really was such a major Keaton and Chaplin influence. So I think it’s great to sort of see how cinema from any era keeps inspiring the latest films. That it just keeps passing it on.

Gizmodo: One of the things I did watch was the Master Class and it was really, really good. And I also watched the “Wall-E A to Z” feature that you guys did for this.

Stanton: To me, we could have gone A to… If that alphabet was twice as long we could have kept finding things.

Gizmodo: Oh for sure. I bring it up though because I found it interesting how it really spoke to the way Wall-E was ahead of its time, or at least forward-looking with a lot of things — technology, the terrible world we’re in. So out of all those things that our world has in common with Wall-E, does anything, in particular, stand out, for better or worse?

Stanton: Well, I certainly didn’t expect to be seeing the dire state of the world climate-wise in such a short amount of time. Didn’t want to be right about that! And I’ve noted back at the time of press for the movie when it originally released, that wasn’t something that I was preaching. I just sort of leveraged off of the truth of what I’d always thought. I was raised in the ‘60s and ‘70s not to pollute and that the environment is fragile. That was always in my world and culture. So I just went with that logic to get this robot alone. I wasn’t hoping to be right. I wasn’t being a Lorax, but I was not anti. So I’m horrified that I was right in that regard. 

The other thing that happened, equal or greater, than I expected, was the siloing of everybody and their technology. I knew I was right about that. I was one of the first adopters of an iPhone and I was like “This is like smoking cigarettes.” I can’t stop it, you know? I just knew. And I was just sitting getting coffee this morning in New York and watching everybody pass by on their way to work and counting. And it was like one in every six people was looking forward and everybody else was just looking at their iPhones and not navigating. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m sitting on the Axiom right now.” 

Image: Disney/Pixar
Image: Disney/Pixar

Gizmodo: That’s hilarious-slash-terrifying. But ok. The movie has this distinguished legacy but it’s also one of the few Pixar movies from that time that didn’t get a sequel. I get that the credits are kind of the sequel but did Disney ever pressure you guys to say like, “Hey, any thoughts on a sequel?”

Stanton: I’ve been getting this question since 1995.

Gizmodo: [Laughs]

Stanton: And everybody wants Disney to be the big bad guy. And I’m sure that they sometimes are on things. But for [Pixar], they’ve always said is “Whatever you guys want to do, we just would love a sequel whenever it comes to you naturally.” Economically, [Pixar] wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have our third feature be Toy Story 2, and if we didn’t continue to try and find other ways. So we try to find them organically and we try to find them honestly. And we certainly don’t want to spend four years working on a lesser-than product because that’s just too much of your life. And, frankly, having been behind several sequels, after about six months, it’s an original. Anything you think you gain from it, it’s sometimes even harder to crack.

So there’s never pressure from them like, “We need exactly this at this time.” We’ve never had that. But we’ve had our own private pressure of like, “How do we keep a balance so that we can keep the lights on?” or else you guys don’t get to watch anything ever again. It’s always been that. So there’s not any “If you left us alone, we’d never make a sequel.” But Wall-E just never felt right to me. I mean, I’m not anti and I’m very sober to the fact that I don’t own this movie. They can do whatever they want with it. And if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, who knows? But it doesn’t feel like it’s asking for that. And on the success chart of our movies, it wasn’t one of the bigger moneymakers. So I don’t even feel like the crass business guy is going “We need another one.” So it kind of protects it a bit.

Image: Pixar
Image: Pixar

Gizmodo: One of the other things Disney likes to do, obviously, is theme park rides and pretty much — not all of them, but a lot — of the Pixar movies from that era are in theme parks as an attraction. Wall-E obviously has a million things merch-wise and it’s honestly a little bit more pessimistic towards the world, at least at the start, but were there ever talks about bringing the movie into the parks as a ride?

Stanton: Again, that’s a direct reflection of it wasn’t that big of a box office movie. It did that sweet spot of it did just well enough that nobody’s embarrassed by it, but it did just low enough that everybody is like, we’re just going to let that move on. And it’s kind of stayed pure in that sense.

Gizmodo: Gotcha. Now, you said you approached Criterion for this. You were a fan. So were there any features or materials you had been sitting on in case something like this ever came to pass?

Stanton: No. I think the thing that was frustrating though, still even on making this disc, is we shot so much behind the scenes [footage]. We just let the cameras run in so many meetings and I think our Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson saw more than I’ve ever seen. And she said that they could have made a whole box set of just watching how we make the doughnuts, you know? Which is frustrating because there’s so much stuff that we do that uses other materials. Like sometimes other music and we’ll never be able to show it because we don’t have the rights to the music. It’ll always be a bit of frustration that we can never really, really, really, really show a Get Back, behind-the-scenes talk.

Image: Pixar
Image: Pixar

Gizmodo: Yeah that would be incredible. OK, I’ll come back to Wall-E but as you can see [from the art] behind me, I’m obviously a huge Star Wars fan. And you helped write the final two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi which have some really crucial moments in Star Wars history. So I want to know, what’s the process for that? Obviously, you want to tell a great story. But also with Star Wars, it’s got to fit in with all the canon and everything else. So how did that work out?

Stanton: That was the blessing and the curse of it. It’s like one, you’re geeking out that you get to type “Vader says” this and “Kenobi says” that. You pause and say “I can’t believe I’m actually getting paid to type this. I can’t believe these words may be said.” But then another part of you, it has to go through such a rigorous like “Does that fit the canon?” And I feel like it’s bittersweet. [The reason that happens is] because people care, but it also kind of doesn’t allow, sometimes, things to venture beyond where maybe they should to tell a better story. So it can sometimes really handicap what I think are better narrative options.

And so I was frustrated sometimes — not a lot — but I just felt it wasn’t as conducive to [the story]. So I love it when something like Andor is in a safe spot. And it can just do whatever the heck it wants. But I felt, you know, Joby [Harold, Obi-Wan Kenobi co-writer and executive producer], to his credit, kept the torch alive and kept trying to thread the needle so that the story wouldn’t suffer but it would please all the people that were trying to keep it in the canon. But I got some moments in there that I’m very happy with.

Gizmodo: Yeah, that sounds like a tough balance. Thank you. The other show you’ve been working on in the last couple of years is For All Mankind, which I recently caught up on and loved. What is it like working on something that is obviously so good, but it’s a little under the radar — and then also, did any of your space knowledge from Wall-E translate over?

Stanton: Well, we had a lot of NASA consultants at the time for Wall-E. And so it felt like I’d done a little bit of research. I mean, [For All Mankind’s] stuff is so thoroughly vetted by the writers’ room and the showrunners, and we have a consultant on set and an astronaut that’s actually there. And so you know that usually by the time you’re shooting and you’re reading what the scene is, that it’s already been vetted. But I just geek out and want to do it correctly. I love as a storyteller, working within those limitations. Like this is what would really happen, there wouldn’t be a window here, they float at this moment, they wouldn’t float here. I just love that challenge of just going, “OK, then how do you tell that moment?” It’s such a great crew and show and I was pleased as punch to be able to come back and work with the same family again.

Image: Pixar
Image: Pixar

Gizmodo: Oh it’s the best. Finally, to wrap up back on Wall-E, it was a critical hit. Now we have this Criterion disc. Over a decade later, when you look back at it, what are you most proud of with the film?

Stanton: That you get just as caught up now. That’s all I care about. That’s the drug for me, still. I just want the lights to go down, and I want to be fully engaged and forget where I am, forget who I am, and then the lights come up, and I was just 100% in. And that’s really all it is that I’m trying to find again with every movie I buy a ticket for, and trying to do with every scene if I’m behind the telling of something. And I could tell I was hitting a real pure vein for so much of Wall-E. And it’s nice to come back to it now and feel that that hasn’t faded. You can just get just as caught up in it as you did on day one. It’s like having a song where everything’s just harmonized so well and you pick the arrangements just right. You don’t see a way to improve it. Plus, it’s a hummable tune. It’s something that your foot taps against your will. I feel like you don’t get to say when you’ve found songs that are that strong, and the same with movies, and I thought I did at the time. And it’s nice to look back and go, “Oh yeah, I did.”

Yes. Yes, he did. The Wall-E Criterion Collection disc is out November 22.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.