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Monday, November 24, 2008

DVD Review: Wall-E.

Posted by Erik Henriksen on Mon, Nov 24, 2008 at 11:38 PM

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Wall-E came out on DVD last week, and it's still the best movie I've seen so far this year. Hit the jump for details on the three-disc DVD release, and one big reason why anyone who cares about movies should check it out.

The three-disc edition of Wall-E is crammed with special features, from deleted scenes with introductions by director Andrew Stanton, to two short films, to a look at Ben Burtt's astonishing sound design, to a featurette about how cinematographer Roger Deakins and effects maestro Dennis Muren helped Pixar refine Wall-E's astounding visuals, to a collection of "BnL Shorts"--mini-infomercials that fill in the blanks about Wall-E's massive, all-powerful corporation. And a lot of this stuff is fantastic, and just about all of it's well worth watching.

But there's one reason to pick up this DVD above all others, and it's Leslie Iwerks' feature-length documentary The Pixar Story--a film that follows Pixar from its earliest iterations as a technology think tank to its current status the only studio in the world whose name actually means a damn, not to mention pretty much the only studio in history that has yet to release a lousy movie.*

"We wanted to be different," Toy Story and Cars director John Lasseter says about the early days of the studio--which started not as a studio at all, but rather as a bunch of ambitious nerds playing around on computers. "A lot of people have asked, 'What is the secret formula?', as if there's some magical calculation," says Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, about Pixar's reputation. "I say, 'It's really pretty simple: Everyone here loves films, and they just want to make something that they themselves want to see.'"

The Pixar Story starts of with a cheesy synopsis of animation through the ages, but then it cuts right into the facts and gets really good, examining everything from Lasseter's first experiments with computer animation, to the unfortunate, pre-Pixar Disney monopoly of 2D animation, to Pixar's current status as all-around geniuses.

Interviewing the major players from Pixar--including early cheerleaders/investors like George Lucas and Steve Jobs--The Pixar Story is utterly engrossing and unexpectedly emotional: When a young Lasseter gets fired by short-sighted Disney execs who don't understand the potential of computer animation, or, years later, when Pixar gets unfairly blamed for the shuttering of 2D animation houses, the film packs a candid, earnest punch.

The doc's also crammed with footage from early Pixar animation attempts, and weird marginal stuff like Lasseter's animation test for Where the Wild Things Are--a potential Disney project that combined computer and hand-drawn animation and never went anywhere. As anxious and excited as I am for Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, tell me a version like this, given some polish, wouldn't have been just amazing to see:

For a special feature being released by Disney, The Pixar Story is surprisingly upfront about the rocky relationship between 2D and 3D animation, and also about Pixar's sometimes acrimonious relationship with Disney (a situation that's since been remedied, much in Pixar's favor). But ultimately, The Pixar Story is notable for how well it sums up one of the most notable chapters in recent film history: In the space of a few years, Pixar has gone from being misunderstood and marginalized upstart production house to one of the most powerful studios on the planet. Along the way, they've made a bunch of great films, but they've also opened the doors for, hopefully, other dedicated animation studios to follow. For now, though, Pixar's king of the hill--and so far, Wall-E is the best thing they've produced, which is saying quite a bit.

*Cars always gets brought up whenever anyone mentions how bulletproof Pixar's track record has been, but seriously, think about it: Cars might be the crappiest Pixar film yet, but it's still quite good, and it leaves stuff like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda in the goddamn dust.

ALSO, POST-SCRIPT: In a sort of An Inconvenient Truth-esque enviro-marketing ploy, Disney's releasing the Wall-E DVD in "100 percent recyclable" and "earth (and space) friendly eco-packaging," which is something I was thinking was pretty cool, until I opened up the cardstock packaging to find a whole booklet promising "out-of-this-world savings!" Does it still count as being altruistic if you release an anti-consumerist film, then use the DVD release as an excuse to cram in ads for action figures and sales pitches for vacuum cleaners? ("Want to help clean up Earth? Start in your living room.")

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