Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Peter Docter, and Jim Reardon
Starring Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Sigourney Weaver, and Jeff Garlin
For Pixar, selling their next movie is as easy as putting the phrase “From the makers of __” on a poster with the implicit promise that it’s going to entertain as much as Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. Like clockwork, it invariably does, and it’s hard to stress enough the fact that these people never simply coast by on the reputation of their brand. Since I’m prone to exaggeration, I could compare the firsthand enjoyment of Pixar’s decade-long hit parade to what it must’ve felt like to listen to each of the Beatles’ albums as they were being released. If you think of WALL-E in that context, it’s more Magical Mystery Tour than Sgt. Pepper. It may not hang with the best of its peers, but it’s more than worthy of induction into the Pixar canon.
The film begins slowly and stays that way for a good 10 minutes, and I mean that in a very good sense. We’re introduced to the planet Earth through a series of drifting birds-eye shots of dusty, abandoned skyscrapers. Clearly, it seems, we’re dealing with some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario, but in reality the human race simply ran out of space to put its crap. As live-action video billboards proclaim, everyone’s gone out on extended vacation while the retail conglomerate “Buy ’n Large” does some planet-wide tidying. For whatever reason, all that’s left of this massive housecleaning force is the titular protagonist, a precocious garbage-compacter robot who takes the junk cubes that plop out of his chest and stacks them into massive towers day in and day out.
The wordlessness of our introduction to WALL-E makes the film initially come across as one of Pixar’s animated shorts extended to feature-length. It’s so gorgeously shot, however, that I really couldn’t complain. Some of the most memorable sequences for me were the ones where WALL-E scoots serenely past the wreckage of our civilization sprawled across a sun-blasted wasteland. I was worried that I might hate how precious the little guy would come across as, but his personality quirks are genuine and endearing. WALL-E’s fascination with Technicolor showtunes on VHS is adorable while his blasé attitude towards cannibalizing fallen comrades for body parts is both funny and disturbing.
A plot has to arrive sometime, however, and it comes in the form of a human-sent probe called EVE that sparks a longing within WALL-E’s circuit-board heart for her companionship. The romance is as believable as robot love gets (though a little heavy on the “WALL-E!” “EVE-UH!” back-and-forths), and the ensuing spaceship adventure is a visual feast for the eyes. But neither aspect of the story quite hits a home run with its payoff.
The human race is eventually encountered, but the tone with which they’re depicted is muddled. They are a little too easily redeemed for my taste given the catastrophe they created back on Earth and ignored for so long. Without giving too much away, I think it’s a missed opportunity for the film to portray humans as victims of their own technology (too ingenious for their own good) instead of creatures with a disappointing tendency to do or create anything that fosters a sense of blissful ignorance. WALL-E makes a couple cute 2001 homages here and there, but it neglects the deeper, darker Kubrickian theme of humanity as a race paradoxically bent towards its own demise.
Obviously, this is supposed to be a kid’s movie, but it’s not like Pixar hasn’t set a precedent for family movies with more subtle undercurrents. One of my favorites, Toy Story 2, grappled with the concept of immortality through the lens of a puppet cowboy’s decision to stay with his owner instead of being enshrined in a museum. In the case of WALL-E, the ending is a little too tidy for its own good. Pixar may have erred a little on the side of more broad appeal at the expense of that extra layer of poignancy that has elevated some of their movies in the past.
That said, there are a few areas in which Pixar cannot be beat; namely, their attention to detail and brilliant sense of humor. Just watching WALL-E’s camera-lens eyes twitch and calibrate, or seeing the obsessive-compulsive maintenance-bot zoom his view onto a spot of un-scrubbed dirt, is a joy. Try this for an exercise as well: watch anything but the characters in the foreground. The world that Pixar has put to screen is so completely and creatively realized that I guarantee you’ll still find something to entertain you.
The original teaser trailer to WALL-E gave a glimpse into its genesis way back in 1994 alongside those of such Pixar classics as Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life. That vignette not only reminds the viewer that, yes, this movie is going to be as good and maybe better than those movies you love, but that all these movies represent the artistic vision of a small nucleus of people like Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter who are willing to stamp their name as director of an animated film just like it was any other kind of film and proceed accordingly. Thanks to that creative ethos, those films are often better than any other kind. WALL-E isn’t the best Pixar film, but that’s the only way in which it doesn’t succeed, and I can’t think of any other family movie in recent memory that’s made the entire audience sit through most of the credits solely out of respect for what they just saw.