It doesn't matter if the characters in his films are toys, insects, monsters, fish or robots. Andrew Stanton wants all of them to be as "human" as possible.
Take, for example, the main character in his latest, the digitally animated, science-fiction/comedy "WALL*E." He's a trash-compacting robot that's been left to fend for himself on a deserted, futuristic Earth.
"After spending all that time alone on the planet, WALL*E has become very lonely, which is obviously a very human trait, not one that you necessarily equate with a robot," Stanton said. "So that becomes our way to get people into our story, to get them to relate to the poor little guy."
Curiously, WALL*E is also shown to be a bit of a romantic. Among other things, the movie shows he has an appreciation for old Hollywood musicals and other movie classics. (He is obsessed with a clip from the 1969 film version of "Hello, Dolly!")
"Hey, what can I say? He also took on a few of my traits," Stanton said with a chuckle.
The 42-year-old filmmaker co-wrote the hits "Toy Story 2" (1999) and "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and directed "A Bug's Life" (1998) and "Finding Nemo" (2003). He was in town recently to promote his new film, the latest pairing between Disney and the very successful Pixar animation house.
Stanton was candid about loving robots, saying he has a soft spot in his heart for artificial life-form characters. That includes Johnny 5, the robot featured in the "Short Circuit" movies to which WALL*E bears a passing resemblance.
"There's something that's not quite human about them. And yet, you can't help but love them," he said. "That was really what we were going for with WALL*E. So hopefully we were able to do that."
And when it came time to cast the voice for the character, there was only one person on Stanton's wish list: Ben Burtt, who created the voice and other sound effects for robot and alien characters such as R2-D2 in the "Star Wars" movies.
"Ben is the man when it comes to robot voices and sound," Stanton said. "There was never any doubt that we had to get him for our movie."
Burtt provides the "voice" and sound effects for the main character, as well as his supposed love interest an advanced robotic scout named "EVE" and other characters, including "M-O," a disgruntled cleaning robot that steals a few scenes in the movie.
Like many at Pixar, Stanton refuses to do what he calls "stunt casting." While the "WALL*E" voice cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Garlin and Pixar regular John Ratzenberger, it's not filled with big stars.
"I've always believed that if you need to get a big-name actor in your movie to get people to see it, then there's a problem with it," he said, adding that the "Toy Story" movies still would have worked without Tim Allen and Tom Hanks.
Speaking of those earlier films, Stanton said he originally came up with the idea for "WALL*E" back when he was working on "Toy Story 2."
"Fortunately, I'm working for a company that lets you really develop an idea before it's hatched," he said. "It took me nearly 10 years to match my story with the original vision, so being able to take my time with it was nice."
A few early reviews of the movie have mentioned some messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental concerns. But Stanton said it was his intention to tell a "good story."
"Those things certainly are story elements here, and I guess you could interpret them that way," he said.
"However, I think one of the worst things you can do with filmmaking is make it all about the message. I'm certainly not trying to bash anyone over the head with political and personal statements, unless it's to say that everyone needs love in their lives."
In addition to his filmmaking projects, Stanton is also a vice president at Pixar. And he already has his follow-up to "WALL*E" in early development: a feature film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars book series.He said a final decision has not been made as to whether the film will be animated or live-action but observed that "Technology now allows us to make landscapes and characters that look photorealistic. I'd be crazy not to take advantage of that in some way."