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Andrew Stanton revisits 'WALL-E' on Criterion and evaluates the state of Pixar today

Andrew Stanton takes us into the WALL-E archives for the Criterion release. 

By Tara Bennett
WALL•E (2008)

In Pixar's 27-year history of making theatrical animated films — 11 of which have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature — only one has been given the coveted Criterion Collection treatment: WALL-E. Fourteen years after its release, the Criterion edition of WALL-E, out on Blu-ray and 4K on Nov. 22, augments the already substantial home video release given to the film by Disney in 2008, adding a host of extra features led by co-writer/director Andrew Stanton. 

Stanton remains a vice president of creative at Pixar but he has detoured frequently from the day-to-day running of the studios to build up his live-action directing resume, which includes his theatrical adaptation of John Carter (2012) and television series like Stranger Things, Better Call Saul, Legion, and most recently Obi-Wan Kenobi. An unabashed cinephile, Stanton tells SYFY WIRE that those jobs in the "outside world" suddenly made him aware of just how much WALL-E  "spoke to other filmmakers" for the reasons he made it, so he asked Alan Bergman, the President of Walt Disney Studios, if he would be allowed to pitch Criterion the movie getting a release. And he approved.

SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with Stanton to ask how the new release evolved, what he still wanted to share now that he had some distance from the making of WALL-E, how Pixar has evolved and what he's working on next.

WALL E (2008) Box PRESS

How did Criterion respond to your pitch and what sort of planning was there for this release?

Yes, they were [interested], and that was the biggest punch in the arm! Then it went to how do we make this worthy? Because, we were such fans of Criterion, but Pixar already did all the backstory things. We were like, is there something else to say about this? Some of it benefited from time passing and being able to look back at it. But another was being able to humanize it as all our films come from a singular filmmaker, who has very specific influences as to why they express themselves the way they do, and what they were trying to do with that film. And because [WALL-E] had such cinema roots both in tone and source, I just felt like that was something that most of the people that were buying the earlier Disney DVDs weren't interested in. That [release] was being used like a babysitter half the time. [Laughs.] And so I said, now maybe the crowd that I'd love to speak to with this film is going to be the audience for this DVD.

One of the exclusive features is your personal Tour of the Pixar Living Archive which is an incredible archive of everything saved from developing all of Pixar's films. What was it like going in there for the first time to film this segment?

I stepped away from making animated films for so long that it made me appreciate something that I'm sure I had taken for granted by that time which was just the amount of artistry and talent and effort in "no stone left unturned" in both the research and execution that goes on in our films. It's way more extensive than most projects get. I kind of knew that but now I really appreciate it and just the quality of everything from every possible study and detail. You're just humbled.

I've always wondered — was there ever a version of the WALL-E that remained an almost silent film featuring the robots and never introduced speaking humans to the narrative?

I think if we had had four more years on it, we might have ultimately stripped it down to what you're pitching. But, the initial idea was that it would be an alien race that we wouldn't even know was human. They would speak another language, so that the whole thing would be in a foreign language. I was deep into production in the first year of it, with two years to go [until the release], suddenly finding out that that's not going to work. People have fatigue listening to a whole new language 30 minutes in. And the imperialistic royal court that we had created... We had achieved more legitimacy and authenticity than I had ever expected that we'd get in the first pass, so it felt like you dumbed it down when it got, basically for lack of a better word, cartoony. It was a big rethink. When you're already afloat, halfway out to sea, you don't have the time to go, "What's my ideal scenario? How do we shift this without upsetting the entire applecart?"

What helped you creatively pivot to shifting to lazy humans in space who are inspired to go back and fix what they destroyed?

It was right at that point that an adviser for NASA [specializing] in long-term residency in space told us about people getting osteoporosis and how their bones atrophy, which is they didn't know how to solve getting to Mars, because we turn into blobs. Then it was like, 'Oh, my God, we have an actual scientific, legitimate excuse to lean into!' We can kind of go with facts and we can allow people to speak English. It suddenly simplified everything and allowed us to at least keep the spotlight on the robots amongst this human world. That was enough of a we can shift and keep moving and keep shooting. Basically, I think anything more extreme than that would have caused a bigger upset. But "woulda, coulda, shoulda." I'm very happy with what we did. It's much better than what we started out with. But I think there will always be a greediness for like, how much simpler could we go?

This release also includes a Master Class dissection of the scene, The Plant, which you still classify as your pinnacle directing achievement. How does that sequence still inform what you've done since?

I'll use a sailing analogy: you go out trying to have a perfect sail every time. But the jazz of it is like, I don't fight the weather, I let the weather decide whether we're going left or right. And then you find the grace in that. Every once in a while things align perfectly and it's the most beautiful, effortless moment. Other times, you're glad you survived it and conquered it with all the lumps and bumps. And that's kind of the drug is just not knowing. You just get on stage and play. There's more of it, frankly, for me in live action where more Kismet happens. Animation is nothing but planning. If you don't have a good scene, you basically planned a bad scene. It gets really hard to not fake fault for something that's not working because you kind of have all the time in the world to adjust it and to fix it, comparatively. You can get drowned by the details and by all the other bodies that are involved, so I don't say it's easy. But I'm saying you do have time on your side to adjust. But there's something about live action where between action and cut, you're just sailing and everybody has to go with their instinct. And I think the odds increase about you putting on a better show. I don't know what it is, for me at least.

You directed several episodes of AppleTV+'s For All Mankind, which put you back in space again. Are you returning for the next season?

I didn't get asked back this time — no offense, as we're all friends. I think the schedules were not working. But, I'm just psyched to have been a part of it and psyched to have been a part of it twice, especially since I didn't get to do any space for the first episode. But I ended up doing stuff I love. Some of my favorite scenes are in some of those episodes. But I got space up the wazoo on Season 3 and it's not always as fun to shoot as you think because it's all about wires and green screen.

During the pandemic, three Pixar films went direct to Disney+. Was that particularly rough on the creatives making those films?

The cinephile side, of course, is bummed. But after witnessing the Lightyear harshness of the box office and me coming off of John Carter 10 years ago, I now see how unfair that is. There's something wonderfully democratic about just letting the movie drop online and then everybody gets to watch it and you have your opinion, and it doesn't make or break the existence of that film, or tattoo it for the rest of its life. I wish that same kind of atmosphere existed when a movie was released theatrically. And I certainly hope everything goes back to theatrical. But at the end of the day, you have to just take the lowest common denominators and thank God we get to make stuff that people see.

What's next for you?

The live-action film, In the Blink of an Eye.

WALL-E the Criterion Edition is out Nov. 22. 

Stream lots of great sci-fi movies on Peacock.