WALL-E : Why Pixar is More Valuable Than General Motors

The trailer's been on YouTube since December, 2007.

Disney ran a commercial for it during the Super Bowl

A bunch of previews followed, including one shown during the last game of the pro basketball finals.

And yet I knew nothing about WALL-E until it opened to astonishing reviews. Reading them, I quickly moved past my need to go to the clue store and got excited about a "family" movie that wasn't just for kids. This produced an unusual field trip: both parents taking our daughter to the movies, doing our small part to bring the first weekend's ticket sales to $62.5 million.

Pixar's animated film, for those who have missed the tsunami of praise, "stars" a robot known generically as WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). He's small and square, with "eyes" that suggest a cross-breeding between binoculars and the lamp that is Pixar's symbol. His job: gather debris and compact it.

WALL-E is old and beat-up. It's been 700 years since people left the earth, and he's got the dings to show for his dirty, tedious work. He's also got a personality --- he has a sharp eye for collectibles and a deep longing for companionship. So when a robot called EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) comes to earth, romance ensues --- a nearly wordless love story, a ballet of gestures and looks that will be familiar to anyone who's watched the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton.

WALL-E will surely inspire no end of critical pokes and prods. Is it an ecological parable? What is its political message? Does its depiction of a mega-corporation called Buy n' Large suggest that unrestrained, globalized capitalism can't be stopped? If the future of earth is dust-covered wind turbines on a ruined planet, what, on the deepest levels, does the film call on us to do? And how does an apparent indictment of consumerism spawn a full set of robot products, from the inevitable WALL-E Lunch Box to the MP3-compatible iDance WALL-E?

Interesting questions, but not for me. The experience of watching a film this smartly conceived and executed left me appreciating it on the primary level: as a love story about the power of even the small and marginalized. One silly robot, one small plant, a catalytic emotional connection --- they change the world. Excuse me: they save it. Which is exactly the movie that Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed the film, wanted to make: "Irrational love defeats life's programming."

It's as a cultural product, though, that I'm most interested in WALL-E.

In 2006, Disney bought Pixar. But by all accounts, Disney didn't devour --- and devalue --- Pixar. It left Pixar alone, to go on as what Stanton describes as "a film school with no teachers; everyone actually wants you to take risks." Those risks may have consequences, but no matter. "I never think about the audience," Stanton says. "If someone gives me a marketing report, I throw it away."

I have seen --- time after time --- how marketing departments and senior executives can't stop themselves from "improving" programming. They smooth the edges, make the message general, find the inoffensive middle. In the process, they remove surprise and originality.

And not just in Hollywood.

So it strikes me as no accident that the best commercial I've seen this year is will.i.am's "Yes We Can" video for Barack Obama, which was made on no budget by a passionate amateur. Or that the best film is WALL-E, created by a cadre of fiercely independent filmmakers at a studio that values independence.

And I don't think it's coincidental that Disney paid $7.4 billion for Pixar in 2006 and that the stock-market value of General Motors is now about $6.5 billion. Pixar challenges and delights, and those ingredients, plus a bit of luck, are the recipe for creating value. General Motors plays it safe and bets on old formulas --- and erodes its value. Perhaps a pundit might like to chew on that.

At the end of WALL-E, I didn't want to leave. The Peter Gabriel song was part of it, and maybe the tears of joy streaming down my cheeks had something to do with me staying in my seat. And then there's the fact that the creativity didn't end when the credits began--- there was a lot to watch after the movie was over.

Because I stayed, I saw something many may have missed --- the film's dedication to Justin Wright (1981-2007).

I googled Wright as soon I got home. I learned that he was born with a badly defective heart, and, at 12, got a transplant. His doctor saw he loved to draw and took him to visit Pixar. And there, he saw his destiny. After college, he got in as an intern. Later, he scored his dream job: storyboard artist. "People might get mad at me if they knew how good we have it here," he wrote on his blog. Sadly, not for long: In March, he had a heart attack and died.

I thought it was sweet of Stanton and Pixar chief John Lasseter to dedicate the film to Justin Wright. Then I saw it another way --- that this 27-year-old kid was much like WALL-E. Resourceful. Imaginative. Courageous. And totally fulfilled when he could express himself.

Lot of kids like that out there. Lot of grown-ups like that too. In a dark time, Pixar has given all of them a shaft of light.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]