You can have your comic donkeys and your chop-sockey pandas. Andrew Stanton, who once cast Albert Brooks as a clownfish, isn't having it.
"My God, I can't take one more one-liner from an animal," he says. "Why would anybody want to go see another animated film done the same way every other talking-animal animated movie was done? I go to the movies to see something different."
Granted, the director of Finding Nemo does have a movie about robots coming out. But these aren't those Robin Williams-joking robots of Robots. In WALL-E, the latest from Pixar, Stanton dares to give us robots that do what robots do, and that doesn't include talking. WALL-E is a comedy of gesture, sight gag and sound effect. It's almost totally nonverbal. And that is, Disney-Pixar watchers say, a gamble.
"What're you talking about?" Stanton explodes in mock outrage. "It's com-pletely verbal. It's just non-English speaking, non-human. In my mind, these characters, these robots, are speaking from frame one of WALL-E. Every sound they make was planned to convey a certain emotion or thought."
Ben Burtt, sound designer for Star Wars, came up with all the robot beeps and burps for WALL-E. But it's not exactly "We'll always have Paris."
"There was a lot of concern among Pixar fans earlier on when it sounded as if the film had little to no dialogue," says Ben Simon, editor of Animated-Views.com, an animation blog. "But that's also what Pixar does best, if you look at many of their short films."
EXACTLY, says Stanton. He was an animation student at Cal-Arts when he saw Pixar's company-defining short film, Luxo Jr. (1986), the one about two lamps — parent and child.
"It's innate in us, I think, that we want to give inanimate objects a soul," Stanton says. When the idea for WALL-E was first pitched, "the thing that told me this story might work is Luxo Jr.... To see this little lamp, the minute it moved, it had me. There's a real power to giving life to an inanimate object."
Stanton, 43, presided over Pixar's biggest hit. But even as he was "under enormous deadline pressure to finish Finding Nemo, I kept procrastinating, thinking about this robot.
"When the story for this was first brought up, at that famous 1994 Pixar future-film-ideas lunch [recounted in The Pixar Touch, by David A. Price], it was, 'What if everybody had left Earth and there was just this robot left behind forced to do the same job, cleaning up, compacting the trash, forever?' That sounded like the loneliest, saddest character ever. That was so abstract that I didn't think anybody would ever let us do it."
But they did. The gamble wasn't limited to the dearth of dialogue. The movie's anti-consumerist bent seemed a little less of a sure thing when production kicked off four years ago. "Who knew attitudes would change as much as they have in four years?" says Stanton. "I have no agenda, no message. But I don't mind tapping into truths."
WALL-E wouldn't just be "this romantic idea that a machine whose desire to live was stronger than anything anybody in the human race has." It would be a metaphor for humanity, which in the film has evolved into passive porkers who live only to consume what they're told.
"So the thing I wanted to push was this idea that these programmed robots are trying to break free of their directives, something the humans aren't willing to do. Irrational love defeats life's programming."