Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Every once in a while, a film comes along that so pushes the boundaries of its genre that it redefines and elevates the form of commercial cinema itself. 'Wall•E' is just such an event. The seventh theatrical release from Pixar Studios, it is a bold and audacious work, one that challenges the audiences' intelligence to embrace and explore daring existential ideas, while melding it's ambitions with an emotive narrative that is truly universal in its appeal. It's rare to find a mainstream motion picture -- one entirely CGI-animated and about robots, no less -- that works as both entertainment and as art. 'Wall•E' is a truly groundbreaking achievement.
The first act of 'Wall•E' is told almost entirely without words. We meet the titular robot, a lowly but studious clean-up droid who has been left behind on a polluted Earth after humankind has left to explore other worlds. Centuries have passed, with little Wall•E alone in collecting trash and, in the process, finding treasures of a lost civilization (among them a much-loved copy of "Hello, Dolly!", just one of 'Wall•E's many clever touches). Though Wall•E occasionally ponders the aloneness of his existence (a quick glimpse of the stars between parting clouds here becomes a revelatory moment), he is essentially content.
It is at this point in the story that 'Wall•E,' and it's conceptualist and director Andrew Stanton (who previously helmed 'Finding Nemo' for Pixar), transition the story from the merely inspired to the level of existential masterpiece. Wall•E's entire life has, up until this point in the story, been entirely routine. But then a spaceship arrives, and with it a female probe named Eve. Wall•E is more than intrigued, he is in love. And with the arrival of Eve comes an expanding of his consciousness. For the first time, Wall•E realizes he is lonely, and that newfound paradigm shift forces him on an adventure of spiritual dimensions.
After the spaceship returns to take Eve back, Wall•E must then confront what has become of us humans. Now mere blobs who are waited on hand and foot, we have become a physical product of our own laziness (and, the film controversially argues, our disuse of the Earth we have pillaged and abandoned). 'Wall•E' then becomes an exciting adventure tale, as Wall•E must decide if he will leave his life of banal contentment and follow Eve, as well as leave to explore new worlds. It's a coming-of-age tale, but also a story of the human condition itself. The conclusion, and Stanton's ultimate statement on our evolutionary dreams and desires, is one of the more intelligent examinations of such heady existential questions I've seen in a mainstream Hollywood film.
Visually, 'Wall•E' is a wonder that rivals Pixar's best -- no small compliment when you consider the studio has produced such masterpieces as 'Finding Nemo' and the 'Toy Story' films. The abandoned Earth that Stanton has imagined is as vibrant and detailed as anything seen in such sci-fi classics as '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'Blade Runner.' The nods to pop culture sprinkled throughout (everything from a found Rubik's Cube to a special appearance by Fred Willard) are not gimmicky, adding a richness and texture to the vision that at times borders on the haunting. And little Wall•E himself is perhaps the most expressive robot in cinematic history -- think a cross between the blips and burps of R2-D2 with those expressive eyes of No. 5 from 'Short Circuit.' That Wall•E and Eve, are two of the most fully-realized and three-dimensional characters seen in any movie this year (and are, in fact, far more human than most of the actual humans we see onscreen) only further speaks to Pixar's genius in fusing the technical with the emotional.
'Wall•E' is ultimately wondrous because it tells an exciting and involving tale while exploring the very nature of what it means to be human. The film is a masterpiece on all levels -- storytelling, characterization, narrative construction and visual acumen -- and it never steps wrong. If there have been any lingering criticisms of the film, it is that it barely conceals some of its more political and environmental concerns (read: it's too "liberal") and thus borders on the didactic. But I found it far from heavy-handed, and the messages not so much overt as simply inherent in the film's themes and story. 'Wall•E' a humane and challenging film, but also a highly entertaining one, and -- amazingly -- suitable for the entire family. I would rank it as Pixar's finest achievement yet, and also one of the best films of 2008.
Pixar and Walt Disney Studios have been hyping the Blu-ray of 'Wall•E' for weeks now via press releases and an extensive marketing campaign, and with good reason. This is a stupendous high-def presentation, one guaranteed to rank as a new demo disc of choice. This is easily one of the best examples of an animated film I've seen on Blu-ray, and stands head-to-head with previous Pixar Blu-ray releases 'Cars' and 'Ratatouille.'
'Wall•E' gets a direct-to-digital transfer presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video at 2.35:1. Pixar has crowed that there is not a pixel out of place, and the hyperbole is justified. 'Wall•E' is a visual masterpiece, and the sparkling surfaces are as sharp and clean as any high-def image your are going to see. Much of the animation is photo-realistic, and the level of detail to the picture is five-star. A good portion of 'Wall•E' takes place on dusty planet surfaces, so there is some intentional diffusing of the picture, but it's absolutely appropriate to the intended look of the film. Shadow delineation is also superb, with even the darkest areas of the picture revealing the finest of textures still visible.
The color palette is expansive, and one of the best examples I've seen yet of the improvements high-def offers over standard-def. Comparing the Blu-ray and standard DVD editions of 'Wall•E' (Disney was kind enough to supply us with both), it's clear how much smoother fine gradients of color are in high-def. Hues are also richer, especially primary colors. Fleshtones, as they are, are also accurate. But most impressive about 'Wall•E' is the sense of depth to the picture. This is as close to 3-D as you are going to get without wearing glasses, and on a large screen the effect is magnificent. Predictably, the encode is rock solid, with no artifacts, edginess or moire patterns, and an absence of noise. For my money, 'Wall•E' is the new reference standard for an animated presentation on Blu-ray.
A DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio track is offered for 'Wall•E,' in 6.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). (Note: The track is incorrectly labeled as 5.1 Surround on the packaging.) There are no other mixes offered (not even standard Dolby Digital or any other foreign language dubs or subtitles. The audio is superb, delivering a fully immersive experience that is sure to dazzle.
Animated films are always a treat to enjoy on high-def because their soundtracks are constructed wholly in the studio, from the ground up. Every element sounds in the right place, with an expert balance of effects, music and dialogue. The added surround channel helps open up the rear soundstage wonderfully, with excellent seamless pans between all channels. Discrete effects are numerous, and subtle ambiance is almost always sustained. The score is also perfectly integrated and bled throughout.
Dynamic range is rich and robust, with excellent clarity and attenuation across the entire frequency spectrum. Low bass is as tight as a drum and never overpowering to the rest of the mix. Though 'Wall•E' is surprisingly light on dialogue (particularly the first half of the film), the spoken word isn't given short thrift and the mix is always perfectly balanced. Finally, it's no surprise, given that this is a Pixar film, how well-recorded 'Wall•E' is. The mix never sounds artificial or processed, and the source is as clean and slick as a newly-waxed floor. 'Wall•E' sounds as good as it looks.
Previous Pixar Blu-ray releases 'Cars' and 'Ratatouille' were chock full of supplements, but 'Wall•E' outdoes them both. There are two discs here packed full of material (plus a third platter with Digital Copy) and this is another fine example of quantity and quality. All video materials are presented in full 1080 video, and subtitle options are offered in English on the video-based materials.
- Audio Commentary - The standard DVD edition of 'Wall•E' includes an audio commentary with director Andrew Stanton. That commentary is presented here in a Cine-Explore mode that also includes picture-in-picture visual information. There's an option to switch off the visuals, however and listen to the audio-only portion. As the commentary with Stanton is identical on the DVD and Blu-ray versions, check out the exclusives section below for a review of the track.
- Short Film: "Burn•E" (HD, 7 minutes) - A beautifully-animated and whimsical Pixar short is included, called "Burn•E." The short is also viewable in a PIP mode that includes running storyboards for the entire short.
- Short Film (HD, 5 minutes) - An additional Pixar short is included, for an imaginative and visually-gorgeous little magician's tale called "Presto." I liked it even better than "Burn•E."
- Theatrical Trailers (HD) - Finally, there are a ton of trailers for other Disney titles, including 'Pinocchio,' 'The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,' 'Earth' and 'Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure,' as well as a 'Disney Parks' promo spot.
The extras on disc two are divided into two sections, first "Robots," then "Humans." All materials are in full 1080 HD, with English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and subtitle options.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 23 minutes) - The "Humans" section kicks off with four quite meaty scenes here, which you can play individually or as a group (with introduction by Stanton). The scenes are a mix of wholly completed and rendered scenes, and some in more raw states of completion. The four scenes are: "Garbage Airlock," "Dumper," "Secret Files," and "Docking."
- "Behind-the-Scenes" Featurettes (HD, 9 minutes) - This three-part documentary gives us a fairly thorough visual overview of the conception and production of 'Wall•E.' Interviews with Stanton and most of the main Pixar crew are intercut with extensive making-of footage shot during the story development, animation, and post-production processes. "The Imperfect Lens: Creating the Look of Wall•E" (14 minutes) covers the beginning stages of visual design. "Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up" (19 minutes) dissects the creation of the film's entire soundtrack, which was constructed completely in the studio. Finally, "Captain's Log: The Evolution of Humans" (8 minutes) goes in-depth into the conceptualization and rendering of the film's human characters.
- BnL Shorts (HD, 9 minutes) - Full-length versions of the three short films watched by Wall•E in the film are presented here uncut and fully-animated. The three shorts are: "Captaining the Axiom," "Operation Cleanup" and "Meet the BnL Bots."
- Gallery (HD) - These extensive still galleries are divided into four sections: "Character Design," "Layouts & Backgrounds," "Visual Development" and "Publicity." The images are quite extensive, and including both conceptual art and more fully-rendered drawings. In total, I counted over a hundred different images. (Note there is also a "Play All" function that will automatically advance you through all the stills in the gallery.)
- Documentary: "The Pixar Story" (HD, 88 minutes) - Curiously, the best extra of this entire set is practically hidden in the disc's menus. It's in the "Humans" section, but on a second page that you have to scroll down to even access -- is Pixar trying to hide it?) Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Leslie Iwerks, this is a fantastic documentary on the history of Pixar Studios. I bet Disney could easily have sold this as its own Blu-ray release -- it's really that good. The entire birth and growth of the copmany is chronicled, from their beginnings in 1979, through early experimental shorts and commercials, to the juggernaut we know now today. Fresh interviews are included with all of Pixar's chief artists, as well as such luminaries as Roy Disney, Tom Hanks and Steve Jobs. A must-watch.
- Vignette: "Wall•E's Treasures & Trinkets" (HD, 5 minutes) - The "Robots" section begins with this oddity. I must admit, I didn't quite get it -- it appears to be a montage of Wall•E doing cute little things but not much else.
- Sneak Peek : "Wall•E's Tour of the Universe" (HD, 1 minute) - This mock preview spot is a cute promo for the walle.com website.
- Bot Storybook (HD) - A sort of bizarre, animated interactive game, this can be viewed as a short stand-alone montage, or a "Play Along" mode allowing you to interact with the visuals on the screen.
- Bot Files (HD) - This is essentially a still gallery, with individual animated visual files for 28 different robots seen in the film. Each robot gets a 360-degree visual spin of the robot, with a narrator filling us in on some interesting facts about the machine.
- Trailers (HD) - Finally, four trailers for 'Wall•E' are included - three domestic, and one French-Canadian promo.
- Digital Copy - Finally, a third DVD disc is offered that contains a DisneyFile (aka Digital Copy) version of the film in 480p standard-definition. The DisneyFile copy is compatible with PCs, PSP and iTunes.
'Wall•E' is a wonderful film. It's majestic, emotional, thought-provoking, and wildly imaginative. It's also quite a risk for Pixar, as it mingles existential mediations on human existence with the lightness and whimsy the studio is so well known for, and it all pays off. This Blu-ray is a stunner, too, with five stars across the board for video and audio. Throw in a Digital Copy of the film on a third disc and a host of supplemental and exclusive content, and you have a new reference-standard Blu-ray. This is a must-own.
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