The new Pixar animation film WALL-E is released soon, and there has been much made of how the virtually dialogue-free film, about a lonely robot left alone on an earth that has been vacated by humanity, is like a silent film. Without having seen it, I can’t judge, but its debt to silents is acknowledged by director Andrew Stanton, in this interview with the Baltimore Sun:
Even for Pixar, a company that thrives on new frontiers, WALL-E is a gutsy next move. It’s the first dystopian parable that’s actually ecstatic fun. It’s also the closest Pixar has come to making a full-length silent movie.
The choice of hero is audacious: a beeping, whirring Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, or WALL-E. For long, unbroken, startlingly seductive stretches, we see him navigate an abandoned American city all by himself. (He does have a pet cockroach.) Thanks to him, towering ziggurats made of trash compacted into cubes have sprouted up among malls and skyscrapers.
WALL-E‘s director, Andrew Stanton says he didn’t let the silence of these sections stymie him.
To Stanton, “WALL-E is not a silent movie that just happens to have sound, it’s a regular movie that just happens to use unconventional dialogue. My methodology, from the script on, was no different than it was approaching any ‘regular’ movie. It’s like I was dealing with a hero who spoke French all the time.”
Squat and scrappy, with binocular-like eyes that are as warm and eloquent as Bambi’s, WALL-E looks like a cross between R2D2 and a Cubist portrait of a geek. He’s the sole and surprisingly spirited survivor of a mammoth cleanup operation.
After Earth grew clogged with trash, the all-consuming Buy N Large corporation sent the human population into outer space and left behind a mechanical janitorial super-service to make the globe inhabitable once again. But these plans went awry (if they ever were sincere at all), and the one trash-compactor left is WALL-E, who has developed curiosity, survival skills and surprising wells of emotion – and expresses them with little more than a crook of his articulated elbows or a shift of his bifurcated head.
Stanton’s love for silent movies gave him confidence. “You just want to make sure the visuals and the acting carry as much information as possible because people’s senses are going to be a little more focused on them without dialogue.”
Stanton wrote the script with Jim Reardon, an old friend and college classmate who directed 35 episodes of The Simpsons.
“We put dialogue in brackets: We knew we would be swapping it out with something else to convey it. … so I wrote what I expected them to ‘say.’ ”
The influence of silent films on Pixar has been pronounced from the beginning. When I interviewed Stanton 13 years ago at Pixar’s old Point Richmond headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area (the company has since moved to nearby Emeryville), he told me, “Buster Keaton is God.”
Despite Stanton’s devotion to Keaton, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp may be the silent clown who hovers over the plucky and poignant WALL-E. Stanton agrees that in addition to “hundreds of other films,” WALL-E has a touch of Chaplin’s Modern Times: in content, as “an indirect comment on one possibility of the automation of humanity and losing your soul.” And in style, too – Modern Times (1936) was a silent made in the sound era, with a music track, sound effects, gibberish and only a smattering of English.
And just as Modern Times, despite its mordant view of modern industry, became Chaplin’s cheeriest film because of the Tramp’s romance with “a gamin” (Paulette Goddard), WALL-E became Pixar’s most piquant and satisfying film because of WALL-E’s courtship of EVE, the svelte Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator sent from the Buy N Large mother ship to see if plants have started growing again on Earth.
EVE helped Stanton locate the core of the movie and also simply added to the pantomimed fun: “I already had one ‘person” who spoke a different language than I did, and now he’d fall in love with someone of a different nationality who spoke another language.”