Director Andrew Stanton On The Legacy Of ‘Wall-E,’ His Feelings On A Sequel, And Its New Criterion Disc

Wall-E came out in 2008 and seemed almost like a warning of sorts, as in, this is where we are headed with the planet if we don’t change things quickly: a desolate wasteland of junk, survived only by one robot (our hero, Wall-E) and a cockroach. Now, watching today, (on the brand new Criterion 4K that comes out Tuesday), it seems almost optimistic. Wall-E‘s director, Andrew Stanton (who also directed Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, John Carter, and For All Mankind) was somewhat surprised to hear that assessment. But even he admits he never imagined then how bad things would get now. And also admits at the time his bumbling president played by Fred Willard seemed, “too far,” but, again, that was 12 years before we had a president suggesting we inject bleach to kill a virus.

The new Criterion 4K of Wall-E is gorgeous. But, first, how did a Disney-owned film (they are pretty protective of their movies) get a Criterion release in the first place? Stanton himself led the charge because, well, frankly, what director doesn’t want their film part of the Criterion Collection? Ahead, Stanton takes us through that process. He reflects on the film itself and how it works today versus how it worked back in 2008. Also, Stanton is pro sequel in general, but his feeling toward a Wall-E sequel are a bit more complicated.

I watched the Criterion 4K yesterday. I always think of this movie as beautiful, but this is another level. You have to be happy with how this turned out.

Well, it’s funny. We put such high-res detail into everything we do, it’s almost like the world finally caught up to what we get to see in private, on most of the level of details that we work on. We have a saying at Pixar where we sand the underside of drawers. We do details that nobody will ever appreciate, but now it feels like the world can, you know?

What did you pick up on this time around? Like, I forgot we did that?

Well, for me, it’s the details in the shelves. Those shelves rotate and they’re made to rotate a hundred percent. So that means anything in the depth on any one of those shelves, those items were made and detailed and surfaced. In other words, all those props exist inside that virtual world. So there are elements that, if you want to pause and look. So much of this movie, for as much as it gets labeled as a silent film, is dependent on all the audio storytelling that’s happening…

Oh, by the way, the sound on this disc is incredible.

We worked very hard on that. It was a difficult movie to design, sound-wise. Not design, but to mix, sound-wise. Because I think your ear is doing extra work than it normally does on films because it’s picking up on atmospheric details because it’s not usually filled with dialogue. And so we had to control all that. Like really, really, really go to a level of control that was frustrating at times, but the results were great.

So, rewatching, I couldn’t help but think this movie is a little more optimistic than I remember.

[Laughs] I haven’t heard that.

Well, there’s a bonus feature where you say, on climate change, at the time you were just trying to be “a good stewardship.” And that you never thought it would get this bad. For me, it went from, “this could happen,” to, “this might be the best-case scenario.”

Well, I’m showing my age, but I was raised on the Don’t Litter campaign of the United States in the late Sixties, early Seventies, and the air pollution. So it was always in your face and in the schooling, and down to Sesame Street to preschool. It was always “be good to your environment.” It just got more detailed and worse and dire as we got older. So it’s not like it was something new in my life. And so it shocks me that it’s become politicized because it’s always been an issue in my life.

Remember the ozone layer problem in the ’80s? All the nations kind of got together and fixed that.

Yeah, exactly.

When Reagan was president even. I’m not sure that would happen today.

Right. And of course you don’t wish for things to be this dire. My agenda was not to go, “Be careful guys, this is going to happen.” But I just picked an obvious thing that I’m like, well, this will happen if we don’t address it. Usually something about the world got worse, whether it’s technology or the environment, whatever, and how does humanity navigate through the future problems? And so that’s always sort of a format of the storytelling. But I just needed an excuse that you would buy within minutes so that I could just have you invest in somebody that was all alone on a desert island. So I just needed something that was logical and quick.

So I think I said it’s optimistic because at least they could come back and repopulate. I’m not sure that’s going to be a future option.

Well, what’s crazy, and I guess optimistic, or proof that we could do something, is when the pandemic hit and how much of the pollution went away so quickly and how much of the wildlife came back within months. I mean, it really was kind of living proof of like, you can make a difference if you really want to.

That’s an excellent point. Also, does this movie play different to you now that the pandemic has happened?

Yeah. I mean, it’s that and also just the technology consumption. And the technology blindness, I guess, if you want to call it that. Or where we’re siloed. That’s a common term now that we’re bubbled, we’re siloed. Those words weren’t around when I made that movie. The iPhone came out in the middle of making that movie-

Right. Wall-E has a video iPod...

I joked like, “Oh, this will be short-lived, probably by the time this movie’s out.” I thought I was being funny and it did. It was gone. Like the 8-track player.

Also in the bonus feature, you mentioned how you thought you went too far with Fred Willard as the president. And that, little did we know…

Yeah. I remember thinking, “Is this a little too cartoonish?” I mean, we can get away with it, but is it pushing it? And, no, it wasn’t.

When he announces that everyone is on their own and outs on a gas mask and walks off, that seems a little better advice than injecting bleach.

Most comedians are commentators on just human nature and the cultural observations, and we certainly were coming from a slightly comic standpoint. But you’re pulling from what you see, what you’re witnessing. Somebody will be right about something else they’re projecting right now in 15 years from now.

Does this movie work better today than it did then?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m the one to answer that.

If not you then who?

Well, I mean, it’s lasted. Just from a selfish filmmaker standpoint, you tell stories in the hopes that somebody will still want to watch it way past all the history of it. When we started Pixar, we wanted to be in the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Godfather club where you kept pulling that movie out no matter what was going on. And we called that the Grandkids Club. You want to show it to your grandkids, or your grandkids find it on their own. They don’t know any of the things attached to it. I’ve been out in the field doing a lot of TV for the last seven years, and so I’ve been with a lot of little different clubs and camps of filmmakers and stuff. And they all love this film, particularly for its cinematic sources and angle. Because it’s a different beast than of the other animated films. It’s kind of made from a love of this weird hybrid love of sci-fi and arthouse cinema.

It’s funny because those movies you just mentioned, most have sequels, and some very good ones. I’m surprised we haven’t had one for Wall-E yet. I’m curious how often that’s brought up.

I think I’m safe because it didn’t make as much money as all the other Pixar movies. So if you’re just ranking it there, it doesn’t look like a cash cow to somebody. So it’s kind of protected.

That’s interesting. It did really well, but just not well enough so you have to deal with that every two years, someone going, “make another one.”

The definition of “well” is who are you? If you’re an executive, you’re like, “How big was the box office?” I could care less about that stuff. I just want to be able to get the chance to make another movie. I’m more like, do you want to watch this thing, you know, much later? Which is way beyond box office wakes and stuff like that. So I feel like it’s protected because it was low there, it was low on that level.

And I’m sure you’ve addressed a million times, but I assume the story’s over for you.

I’m not anti-sequel. I make sequels…

I know. Just with this one, it sounds like you don’t want to.

This one I didn’t…. Every child’s different and this one I didn’t see it. It’s a lot of chatter. People are going to make what they want to make. If you lived long enough, you’ve seen remakes of things you thought nobody would ever dare remake. Memories are short. People that are young coming into the industry don’t know the history and don’t care. It’s just going to keep happening, so it’s kind of a wasted air to worry about whether there’s going to be sequels or prequels. It’s always been part of the world and it always will be.

How does this happen with Criterion? Because I’m under the impression Disney is very protective of their properties.

Well, it’s because I asked. I went to Alan Bergman and he said yes. It was a filmmaker’s specific personal request and he said, “Let’s see if there’s a there.” And I love that Criterion thought the film was worthy, but we’ve been working on it for years. The pandemic kind of interrupted it and we really got serious last year. It’s a sort of an off-shoot scenario.

When did this first get agreed on?

I want to say mid-2019.

So the National Film Registry happens in between. Is that right?

Yeah, which was a great punch in the arm of like, “Let’s do this still.” Because the pandemic drifted everything.

I didn’t want this to look like filmmaker hubris and there’s no way that I won’t be accused of that to some degree. What filmmaker doesn’t want to be in the Criterion Library? But I wanted it to be earned. I just really thought, it was so born of the movies, some of them directly that were in their library that I just thought there was a fit. So I’m fortunate that they thought so too.

How much do you pay attention to social media?

Not at all.

When this was announced I saw a pretty overwhelmingly positive reaction.

Yeah? Good. Because I feel it is, too, and hopefully if you watch all the dots, there’s more confirmation for why. For how it was born and where it comes from.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.