Slapstick after Fordism: WALL-E, Automatism and Pixar’s Fun Factory

by Paul Flaig University of Aberdeen, Department of Film & Visual Culture, King’s College, Taylor Building A, Aberdeen AB24 3UB, Scotland.

“In this article, I will explore another instance of slapstick nostalgia, turning like Crawford to a digitally animated work released by the Walt Disney Corporation: Andrew Stanton’s 2008 feature film, WALL-E”

WALL_E image link

In 2805, Earth is abandoned and largely contaminated with garbage, with its people evacuated by megacorporation Buy-N-Large on giant starliners. BnL has left behind WALL-E robot trash compactors to clean up, however, all have since stopped functioning, except one unit who has gained sentience and is able to stay active using parts from other units. One day, WALL-E discovers a healthy seedling, which he returns to his home. Later, an unmanned spaceship lands and deploys an EVE probe to scan the planet. WALL-E is infatuated with EVE, who is initially hostile but gradually befriends him. When WALL-E brings EVE to his trailer and shows her the plant, however, she suddenly takes the plant and goes into standby mode. WALL-E, confused, unsuccessfully tries to reactivate her. The ship then returns to collect EVE, and with WALL-E clinging on, returns to its mothership, the starliner Axiom.

The Axioms passengers have become obese and feeble due to microgravity and reliance on an automated lifestyle, including the ship’s current captain, McCrea, who leaves the ship under the control of the robotic autopilot, AUTO. EVE is taken to the bridge, with WALL-E tagging along. McCrea is unprepared for a positive probe response, but learns that placing EVE’s plant in the ship’s Holo-Detector for verification will trigger a hyperjump back to Earth so humanity can recolonize it. However, AUTO orders his robotic assistant GO-4 to steal the plant to prevent this from happening.

With the plant missing, EVE is deemed faulty and taken to Diagnostics. WALL-E mistakes the procedure as torture, and in intervening accidentally frees a group of malfunctioning robots and causes both EVE and himself to be designated as rogue. Frustrated, EVE takes WALL-E to an escape pod to send him home, but they are interrupted when GO-4 arrives with the plant, placing it in a pod set to self-destruct, which WALL-E enters just before it is jettisoned. WALL-E escapes, saving the plant, and he and EVE reconcile and celebrate with a dance in space around the Axiom.

EVE brings the plant back to McCrea, who watches EVE’s recordings of Earth and concludes that they must return. However, AUTO refuses, revealing his own secret no-return directive A113, issued to BnL autopilots after the corporation concluded years earlier that the planet could not be saved. He mutinies, electrocuting WALL-E and deactivating EVE and throwing them both down the garbage chute, then detaining the captain. EVE reactivates and helps WALL-E bring the plant to the ship’s Holo-Detector chamber; AUTO tries to close the chamber, crushing WALL-E when he struggles to keep it open, but McCrea is able to overcome and disable him, and EVE inserts the plant to activate the hyperjump.

Having arrived back on Earth, EVE repairs and reactivates WALL-E, but finds that his memory has been reset and his personality is gone. Heartbroken, EVE gives WALL-E a farewell kiss, which sparks his memory back to life. WALL-E and EVE reunite as the humans and robots of the Axiom begin to restore Earth and its environment.

What is Slap Stick Comedy?

“Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy. The term arises from a device developed during the broad, physical comedy style known as Commedia dell’arte in 16th Century Italy.” Reference

What is Fordism?

“A manufacturing philosophy that aims to achieve higher productivity by standardizing the output, using conveyor assembly lines, and breaking the work into small deskilled tasks.

Whereas Taylorism (on which Fordism is based) seeks machine and worker efficiency, Fordism seeks to combine them as one unit, and emphasizes minimization of costs instead of maximization of profit. Named after its famous proponent, the US automobile pioneer Henry Ford (1863-1947).” Reference

What is Taylorism?

Production efficiency methodology that breaks every action, job, or task into small and simple segments which can be easily analyzed and taught. Introduced in the early 20th century, Taylorism  aims to achieve maximum job fragmentation to minimize skill requirements and job learning time, separates execution of work from work-planning, separates direct labor from indirect labor replaces rule of thumb productivity estimates with precise measurements,  introduces time and motion study for optimum job performance, cost accounting, tool and work station design, and  makes possible payment-by-result method of wage determination.”


Writer and Director of Wall-E: Andrew Stanton

BIO: Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton was raised in Rockport, Massachusetts. He was educated at The California Institute of the Arts (or “CalArts”) in Los Angeles, where he studied character animation. After graduation, Stanton began working as a writer on the TV series Mighty Mouse, the New Adventures (1987). In 1990, he became only the second animator and ninth employee to join Pixar Animation Studios.
Stanton went on to help establish Pixar as one of the world’s leading animation studios. He was designer and writer on Toy Story (1995), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. He went on to write and direct such worldwide hits as A Bug’s Life (1998), Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL·E (2008), the latter two both winning Oscars for Best Animated Feature. Stanton also dabbles in voice work, perhaps most memorably as Crush, the laid back turtle, in Finding Nemo (2003). Reference Link

Andrew Stanton

In the Article, Flaig as looked deeply into the creation of Wall-E and how Andrew Stanton has used Slapstick comedy not only in the title character, but the entire look of the film. As quoted in the article:

“Andrew Stanton has admitted a range of slapstick influences on not only its title character – an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth class – but on the film’s entire look and feel as what he has called, on the film’s DVD commentary track, a ‘pantomime’ film. Especially interested in how to tell the story of characters whose spoken vocabulary is programmatically limited, he and his collaborators watched numerous Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton films, interested in both comic gestures and gags as well as how to guide both the audience’s understanding of plot and empathy for its robots-in-love with minimal verbal exposition.” (Pg 63)

WALL-E seems to fulfill Crawford’s longing for a return to slapstick as a remedy for virtual disembodiment. In the dystopian future of Stanton’s film, produced by Pixar, human beings have so removed themselves from the world that that world itself has been destroyed, laid waste by endless trash. What remains merely phenomenological in Crawford’s account becomes literal in WALL-E, as humans depart the planet for outer space, leaving their former home to be cleaned up by trash-compacting robots. Understood by its makers as well as many of its critics as a speculative satire of what Crawford calls, in the subtitle of his book, ‘the age of distraction’, WALL-E provides a glimpse into the future of the Disney Channel’s audience, especially if they are conditioned to expect a Toodles at every turn in their future lives at work or play. Stanton and his team infuse their eponymous protagonist – the last surviving trash-compactor – with the very human condition foregone by humans, who have turned into gigantic babies incapable of action or thought. WALL-E is an avatar of slapstick’s uniquely materialist phenomenology, one which he offers to the film’s infantilized humans as well as to the off-screen at risk: those watching the film in cinemas, on television or as one of a plethora of options on their own Toodles-esque screens.” (Pg 60)

References throughout the article

Flaig quotes on many books, essays and journals relating to his topic but there are a few I believed to have a good argument or example to his points or he keeps going back to a particular book throughout.  Here are some of them, I have included parts of Flaig’s article with relating quotes aswell as the books information and a little about each.

Paul Flaig begins by examples of slapstick comedy,  and offers a brief explanation of how Wall-E has been modelled after the likes of Charlie Chaplin, yet offering a twist in humanizing a figure of Fordism.  He explains how the article “focuses on the film’s revitalization of slapstick traditions within the context of recent debates about post-Fordism, the future of automated labor and the transformation of working human bodies” Abstract (pg 59) before diving into a discussion on the use of slap stick comedy. The author Matthew B.Crawford was mentioned frequently during this, quoting his book below:

Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin (2010), The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction and  by Matthew B. Crawford (2015)  Image links

In this brilliant follow-up to The Case for Working with Your Hands, Crawford investigates the challenge of mastering one’s own mind. With ever-increasing demands on our attention, how do we focus on what’s really important in our lives?
“Exploring the intense focus of ice-hockey players, the zoned-out behaviour of gambling addicts, and the inherited craft of building pipe organs, Crawford argues that our current crisis of attention is the result of long-held assumptions in Western culture and that in order to flourish, we need to establish meaningful connections with the world, the people around us and the historical moment we live in.” Quote Amazon

Quoting Matthew Crawford, Paul Flaig discusses how Crawford opposes “digitally induced distraction, he insists on confronting the contingencies of an obstinately material, nonhuman world, one that rudely insists beyond our representational schema and cognitive certainties.” He mentions an example of Crawford using Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. He talks about the contrast between the Mickey Mouse of today to Mikey’s first adventures in the 20’s and 30’s.  ‘the most prominent source of hilarity is the capacity of material stuff to generate frustration’ . In Crawfords article he emphasises on the importance of slapstick comedy and how the ‘real physical grace’ of the characters avoidance of disaster. He gives the example of Donald Duck, but I would also associated the TV show Tom and Jerry to slap stick comedy. As show below:

TOM AND JERRY. Image Link 

“Benjamin’s famous “Work of Art” essay sets out his boldest thoughts—on media and on culture in general—in their most realized form, while retaining an edge that gets under the skin of everyone who reads it. In this essay the visual arts of the machine age morph into literature and theory and then back again to images, gestures, and thought.

This essay, however, is only the beginning of a vast collection of writings that the editors have assembled to demonstrate what was revolutionary about Benjamin’s explorations on media. Long before Marshall McLuhan, Benjamin saw that the way a bullet rips into its victim is exactly the way a movie or pop song lodges in the soul.

This book contains the second, and most daring, of the four versions of the “Work of Art” essay—the one that addresses the utopian developments of the modern media. The collection tracks Benjamin’s observations on the media as they are revealed in essays on the production and reception of art; on film, radio, and photography; and on the modern transformations of literature and painting. The volume contains some of Benjamin’s best-known work alongside fascinating, little-known essays—some appearing for the first time in English. In the context of his passionate engagement with questions of aesthetics, the scope of Benjamin’s media theory can be fully appreciated.” Info Link 

Paul Flaig looked at ANIMATION AND COMEDY, quoting parts of Henri Bergson’s Essay:

“If Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd’s films mechanically encrust bodies, things and spaces while still finding implicitly human resolution through heterosexual union, WALL-E would seem to both reverse and extend this logic. Henri Bergson’s (1911[1900]) text, Laughter, a necessary if necessarily contestable starting point for the slapstick scholar, insisted on comedy’s interweaving of the human and the machine. Bergson argues as a first premise that ‘the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN’ but also claims that this same comedy appears only through the laughable appearance of a mechanical inhumanity: ‘Our starting-point is … “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” Where did the comic come from in this case? It came from the fact that the living body became rigid, like a machine’ (pp. 3, 49).”

Bergson H (1911[1900]) Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. London: Macmillan. 

Bergson’s thinking typifies a peculiarly Gallic tendency to rationalize the apparently ephemeral and subjective (in this case, humor), discussing it in exquisitely rarefied language in order to assert that which defies common sense (a funny hat is not funny, laughter expresses no emotion, no one laughs alone) but partakes nonetheless of a logical inevitability. Laughter, first published in 1911, clearly draws upon the early years of European modernism, yet also prefigures the movement in some ways. In recognizing the comic as it embodies itself in a “rigid,” absentminded person, locked into repetitious, socially awkward behavior, Bergson–even as he looks backward, primarily to Molière–seems to be spawning the sophisticated visual and physical comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd”. An Abstract from Laughter, an Essay on the meaning of  the comic (pg 1)

Image link 

Catmull E and Wallace A (2014) Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York: Random House. 

“As a young man, Ed Catmull had a dream: to make the world’s first computer-animated movie. He nurtured that dream first as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, where many computer science pioneers got their start, and then forged an early partnership with George Lucas that led, indirectly, to his founding Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986. Nine years later and against all odds, Toy Story was released, changing animation forever.

Since then, Pixar has dominated the world of animation, producing such beloved films as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E, which have gone on to set box-office records and garner twenty-seven Academy Awards. The joyousness of the storytelling, the inventive plots, the emotional authenticity: In some ways, Pixar movies are an object lesson in what creativity really is. Now, in this book, Catmull reveals the ideals and techniques, honed over years, that have made Pixar so widely admired—and so profitable.” Reference amazon

Creativity, Inc. is a book for managers who want to lead their employees to new heights, a manual for anyone who strives for originality, and the first-ever, all-access trip into the nerve center of Pixar Animation Studios—into the story meetings, the postmortems, and the ‘Braintrust’ sessions where art is born. It is, at heart, a book about how to build and sustain a creative culture—but it is also, as Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull writes, ‘an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.’

Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being (Volume 50 issue 4) By Vivian Sobchack

This essay explores the shifting historical etymology and vexed meanings of ‘animation’ as the term entails both movement and life (one often, but not always, the sign of the other) and is expanded by its encounters with technology. Indeed, the distinction between movement and life becomes increasingly ambiguous as animation is transformed first by automated mechanical processes that replace human movement and labour and then by what seem to be autonomous electronic technologies that also appear to have lives of their own. In this regard, Disney-Pixar’s computer-animated WALL-E (2009) serves as a particularly apposite and complex tutor-text. Nostalgic for human life and movement yet dependent for their reanimation and redemption on two robots in a future that will have been, WALL-E dramatizes (often self-reflexively) the dialectical entanglements of moving images and animate entities, the constitution of life, liveness and liveliness, and the shifting of agency from increasingly inert human bodies to increasingly energetic and inventive machines. Reference Link 

Gurevitch L (2015) From Edison to Pixar: The spectacular screen and the attention economy from celluloid to CG. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 29(3): 445–465.

This article argues that Pixar’s computer generated (CG) animated features of the past 15 years sit at a crossroads in both the conceptualization of viewers and their socialization to the contemporary digital screen. Embedded within a new aesthetic visual form, almost all of Pixar’s movies feature, and talk back to, the emergence of the mythical astonished cinema spectator. At the same time, Pixar’s features question the future of digital spectacle and the position of the screen subject. In the contemporary context of the social network and the online video, CG animated features do not simply prepare young viewers for a world of consumer behaviour, they prepare them for a multilayered world of digital screens in which they must learn to function as objects of consumption as well as consuming agents. Beyond this, however, and in contrast to previous Disney features, Pixar movies prepare young consumers for a changed production landscape in contemporary culture. Moving beyond notions of Fordist production that structured previous discourses of the viewing and socialized child, the spectacular specificity of Pixar movies is now structured self-reflexively according to the logic of the attention economy. Abstract link


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