What Does Wall-E Means for the Criterion Collection?

by Paul Deeter

It's a great time to be a collector. Specifically a great time to be a physical media collector of Blu-rays, 4Ks and yes still, DVDs. Why? Well the traditionalists who enjoy lined shelves of blue and black disc cases will argue that there's nothing quite like the quality of a physical print. Sure streaming has killed a lot of business (quite literally Blockbuster's) but there's a never ending niche love of physical media that's not going away too soon. And because of the demand for physical releases, companies like Shout! Factory for one amid many others are happy to provide remasters and releases of new and classic films on disc. And while Shout! and other media companies have leaned into the cult and horror classic, nothing can topple the King of Classics: The Criterion Collection. With the collection hitting 38 years of age after a long history of Laserdiscs, DVDs and yes, even VHS releases, thousands of titles have gotten the so-called "Criterion Treatment" since 1984. What is the Criterion Treatment though? The mission of the Criterion Collection as its currently defined on its website is: Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. No matter the medium—from laserdisc to DVD, Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD to streaming—Criterion has maintained its pioneering commitment to presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film. The medium being the only ever-changing factor in restoring and keeping up with the modern technology required to adapt its quality content; the overall mission of the collection has been the same for decades. Sure its fallen into some controversy: the 1999 release of Michael Bay's Armageddon is still a laughing matter for some. But all in all, the breadth of choices and collections has honored the mission for quite some time.

These choices range from foreign and independent features to old (and older) classics of historic times for cinema. It's no surprise to see Akira Kurosawa in the collection for his incredible breadth of classic releases, but some might be surprised to see John Waters' Pink Flamingos in the same collection. But these are films with history, and my love for the history of this collection dives even deeper into the history of this website. Once titled "The Criterion Challenge" the goal here was to make good on seeing 100 Criterion films a year (which is still something I aim to follow through on the side) but I've extended Purely Kino significantly into the horror territory that I've fallen for, and my appreciation for contemporary film as well. While the scope of Purely Kino has broadened and changed, the Criterion Collection has done its best to adjust itself to the growth of the medium as well, while not shaking the fanbase of true followers that crave lining their shelves with as much as can be offered. But what recent changes the Criterion has seen (only just this year adapting to 4K film) the biggest jump in a new direction came just this last month, with the announcement of Criterion's first Disney collaboration: 2008's Wall-E. Yay! Or Nay?

There's certainly a lot of discussion going on about the announcement of this merge. Polygon writer Tasha Robinson notes Criterion, a curation company that preserves, restores, and releases movies of particular cultural impact and importance from around the world, has almost no animated movies in its roster...WALL-E is the only CG animated film currently in the company’s library. The limited history aside of animated film features, Criterion does not make an effort to lean into animated territory; some may see this decision as high and mighty or ultimately preserving the name itself. But that's not necessarily a problem in my eyes, and I wouldn't go so far to gatekeep or condone the decision to put a film of such significance into the collection. Let me back up, to 2008. When Wall-E came out, I was a high-schooler who was obsessed with film but impartial to Disney Pixar. Pixar was breaking bank and critical records at the time, and Wall-E came out just in Pixar's heyday, too some of the most rave reviews the company has ever seen. I was one of those viewers who were blown away by the visual achievements the film had mastered that no animated film has gone so far to accomplish just yet. The scene where Wall-E and Eve are looking at a lit flame from a lighter is still one of the most photo-realistically stunning images I can think of in any CG film. And oh boy did I sob. The ending was one that wrecked me emotionally at the age of 17. And I still think that that's an effect the movie will have and has had on audiences of any ages. For that alone I can understand the Criterion's decision and first choice from Pixar. But first doesn't by far mean last.

The first 4K Criterion release Citizen Kane did not mean the only release, but it also didn't make every following release exclusively 4K. I may be stretching with the comparison, but my point is that Criterion (much to the rabble its caused) is not making a deal with the devil here. Disney is one of the biggest conglomerates in film history and one that's expanded to tourism, toys and other ventures. If anything it was only time that Criterion and Disney held hands while watching the world crumble around them like Wall-E and Eve. Too much? The point I'm making here is not that Disney is the end all be all change that Criterion has in its lifespan. Neither are going away, and there were no sharks jumped. But the addition to the collection has created quite a fuss, one much bigger than the #oscarssowhite issue that included the argument that Criterion was not honoring its share of black cinema. The addition means something huge for the company, whether Criterion sees it or not. Just as the establishment of Disney and Marvel, physical media may see a big change here.

With the news out some are making lists of desired Disney additions to the collection already. The Disney brand may bring a bigger crowd to purchasing these physical discs, but its a tough sell. Every Disney fan probably has Disney Plus, so the main allure of the release lies in the large amount of deleted scenes, extra short films and overall bevy of extra features. But the Criterion fan in me is concerned that this could lead to a demand for more Disney in quantity over quality in the collection. Do we really need Ratatouille in the Criterion, when it means a choice not to remaster a classic Arronofsky instead? I'm just speculating here, but the desire for more Disney in Criterion may mislead buyers from continuing to support the Collection's choices and steer away to other publishers.

With the decision to release Citizen Kane as Criterion's first 4K physical release it shows that the CC has listened to its fans in more ways than one, and kept up with the times and technology of today. While I'd understand that there's also a desire for more animation in the collection, did that extend to a need for Disney's additions as well? Wall-E was my favorite Pixar film when I was a teenager, and today still consider it a favorite film. It's a perfect choice of an honoring of classic animation, and old enough to warrant a re-release. But its so much more. Its a question of what next? It's a cautionary maybe to more of that Mouse. But lets not be afraid of our big eared overlord, as extended as he may have made himself into our niche. This is a big move, but not necessarily a bad one. And its proof that to this day, Criterion will keep us guessing.

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