WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
During most of the first decade of this century, Pixar movies were something you waited for with an equal mix of excitement and trust; because they opened the millennium with two of the most charming films of that time, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo and then proceeded with one of the most brilliant, The Incredibles, there was a time when the studio’s work seemed a utopian mixture of popular appeal and heartfelt, idiosyncratic independence. Their films were consistently surprising and seldom seemed to take the easy or obvious route. With storytelling paramount, they displayed a harsh resistance to cutting corners. After the ascendancy of celebrated director Brad Bird to the top of their ivory tower, it seemed they would soon add to this a level of singular artistic ambition that had long seemed impossible in the context of mainstream, big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, animated or no. Hordes of people identified with Pixar, took their work seriously and considered their brand a mark of quality. When all this happened, they were a corporation. Soon they were owned by a larger corporation. Smart and at times great Pixar’s work may have been, deserving it may have seemed ten years ago of the near-religious fervor it generated in regular people (the person writing this included), but there’s a truism repeated across decades upon decades of conflated art and commerce: if one gives one’s heart to a corporation, one can expect to have it sold back to them — ugly, boxed up, drained.
The writing and production (but not release) of WALL-E predates what now seems a crucial turning point, the buyout by the Walt Disney studio of Pixar, and in sequence it follows their masterpiece, Bird’s deft, exuberant, Lubitschian Ratatouille. In 2007 and 2008, anticipation for this film reached a fever pitch. Auteurists looking closely at the obvious directorial voice Bird was permitted to retain in his two films for the studio were perhaps even more tantalized by the idea of what Andrew Stanton, who’d worked on every early Pixar feature and had helmed the almighty Nemo, would be doing with this strange robot picture of his — an idea generated from the same ancient-history story meetings that produced the merry band’s first several blockbusters. The premise was simple and immediately appealing: a robot alone on a deserted planet. What was the robot doing there? Where was everyone else? Pixar kept tight reins on such matters for a long time. The remarkable early teaser trailers introduced the adorable design of the title character but revealed very little about the film itself. Rumors began to emerge from advance screenings and sundry chatter that WALL-E was quite an ambitious movie — largely free of dialogue, purely visual, driven by dreamlike romance.
The more one heard of it, the more it sounded like an audacious stunt for what was now Disney/Pixar — a movie that would very likely stretch the boundaries, artistic and technical, of what family fare and American cartoons really comprised. It was compared by early reviews not to other Pixar films or even to classic Disney fare but to science fiction hallmarks from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars to Blade Runner to the less celebrated but cult-beloved Silent Running. In a very strict sense, these comparisons are all valid. Like Blade Runner, the eventual film comprises a, well, cartoonishly bleak view of a dystopian future. Like 2001, it displays an appreciation of the broadness, vastness of space and at times renders everything subservient to such beauty and majesty as suggested by that. From Star Wars it inherits self-conscious cuteness, from Silent Running desolation.
The film even lives up to some of that awestruck fanfare: it does indeed run through a bit less than half of its length with next to no dialogue — essentially a silent film, successfully sold to a mass audience in 2008. This Pixar fan was overcome with excitement at this idea alone. But when finally seeing the film he, despite knowing many people moved to tears by the film, felt empty, unaffected. After seeing Ratatouille for the first time I felt bouyant and ecstatic for days. My grumbling after WALL-E grew more and more pointed. It was an uncomfortable position; having been a passionate Pixar supporter for years by then, it was bizarre to dissent at a moment when nearly everyone else was more enthused than ever. Whether you take it as a follow-up to Ratatouille or to Finding Nemo, the film is a letdown. (However, the maudlin pre-title opening of Nemo, which should have been excised, somewhat predicts the wrongheaded tone of this movie.) It’s not the weakest Pixar film to this point, but because it attempts far more artistically than did Cars, it seems much more deeply flawed. The disconnect between Stanton’s style of directing and Brad Bird’s is mildly humiliating (the same has to admittedly be said of Bird and John Lasseter, whose Cars looked distressingly quaint between Bird’s two features). Nemo worked because of its storytelling, and it was as personal a project to Stanton as this, so what makes this so unsatisfying, for all of its Chaplinesque yearning to mean something and to touch us?
To begin with: WALL-E is really not much of a cartoon, in the sense that it just barely qualifies as an animated narrative that actually uses its medium to explore an emotional arc. Because the two major characters (and those closest to being fleshed-out, although that too is problematic for obvious reasons) are both robots, they are finally engineered as special effects. To be sure, WALL-E is a massive achievement in effects animation. The title character in particular is a marvel, certainly the most expressive robot we’ve seen, whatever the medium. Even at that, however, the limits of that expression when the film is also committed to photorealism are obvious. Much can be done to muck around with straight lines and metallic structure, but in the end the animators can’t do much to convincingly relay WALL-E as a complete being. That goes doubly for Eve, his “female” counterpart who shows up at his back step to hunt around for vegetative lifeforms; everyone tries to let her suggest anger, sadness, compassion through movement only of winglike arms and very simply programmed eyes, but as with WALL-E, most information is imparted through Vocodered audio approximations of sub-verbal communication. That simultaneous obsession with emotional directness and with “reality” is one of a few contradictions that nearly derail this picture. (If you’re hiring Roger Deakins to determine how to make your cartoon look more like live action, why exactly are you making a cartoon?)
This is an audacious and technically masterful film, certainly, and its stark environmental message is endearingly strong and unfiltered, if clumsily expressed. The title sequence, a montage of a decrepit, trash-stacked Earth soundtracked with elegant irony by Michael Crawford singing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” is one of the most politically charged moments in a mainstream film from the Bush era. Upon this hallowed ground of 700 years of piled-up garbage, smog encrusting the air, sits the lone remaining operational WALL-E unit, a single-function ‘bot still faithfully crushing piles and attempting to make order from chaos. When Eve shows up it sets off a chain reaction: having gradually acquired an emotional — if simplistic — inner life involving VHS tapes and resilient cockroaches, he loves having company and eventually charms the heavy-duty, sleek, single-minded (and irksomely named) Eve enough to take her to his sweet pad filled with weird acquisitions, which at this moment happens to include… a plant. Eve shuts down, having completed her mission, and her transportation is quick to arrive, leading to much chasing around a gigantic space station called the Axiom to acquire, reacquire, eventually keep the hotly disputed plant, which is an indication to juggernaut Walmart-like corporation BUY’N’LARGE that it’s time to send the now fattened up, devolved human beings aboard the Axiom back to their home planet for sunshine and nourishment and like that. There’s some nonsensical conflict about the ship objecting to this, a lot of which feels like third-act script class, and some suspense about WALL-E and Eve’s continued relationship — but not a thing you don’t set out pretty much expecting.
The script by Stanton and Simpsons expatriate Jim Reardon is full of easy moralizing that clashes dreadfully with the film’s emotional center. The inherent problem of the story as they’ve structured it is that it sets up a central conflict — a City Lights-like imbalanced romance, the promise of a long quietly searched-for heart of gold abruptly going silent — then decides it has an entirely different one, which is only peripherally related to the characters we’ve spent half the film now getting to know and appreciate. It operates like two concentric circles that somewhat vaguely operate on the same plane, and as a result the secondary story that becomes the crux of the film is something we haven’t been set up to care about — and therefore really can’t. Were the humans more believable or convincing than mere caricatures, perhaps it wouldn’t matter that their plight is so belatedly introduced to us and thus seems a rushed collection of half-baked ideas about identity, survival, evolution, dehumanization, ruthless commercialism, the Greater Good. It’s emotionally counterintuitive, rather like what might have happened if Up only announced in the third act that Carl once had a wife, or if Dr. Strangelove didn’t show or mention the action on Major Kong’s plane. It’s considered a miracle when people greet one another and touch in this world; if that’s the case, how are they continuing to breed? If their visibly grotesque lifestyle has rendered them incapable of individuality and feeling, why are they so easily able to respond to and be enchanted by entities (WALL-E and Eve) they barely know?
This puts aside the suspension of disbelief element, which is nevertheless problematic here. Pixar sold us on talking toys, rats, cars (sort of) and fish, but like so many before them, they have a tougher time with an emotional robot — especially, in this case, a glorified assembly line machine like WALL-E. Assuming you can accept — from the likes of Blade Runner, A.I. and Star Trek — that emotions can be programmed into a robot at some indeterminate future point, there would still be no reason to add such empathetic capability to a WALL-E unit whose sole purpose is to crush and move trash. Stanton eventually claimed that the idea was that his protagonist slowly developed compassion and feeling over several centuries. But if you hide a solar-powered calculator in a kitchen drawer, it will not — 700 years hence — become C3PO. And yet in the end, the larger problem is that no one seems to honestly know what the movie is about. If we do accept WALL-E as a character, and the Pixar people do a fine job of essentially forcing us to do just that, it’s a cheat for them to then ask us to care about an agenda (the plant and the return to Earth) to which the robot (and thus the audience) has no connection. It’s an ill-conceived story structure, but even if one is able to accept the complete turnaround in narrative thesis, the entrance of humans into the story still renders everything unexpectedly boring.
In essence, then, although the entire movie exhibits some suspicious story fallacies and asks us to crane our necks farther than we should need to, WALL-E cops out by betraying the beauty of its early portions and indeed of pretty much everything that was appealing about its premise and style in the first place. As in so many other children’s films from 1980 or so onwards, the determination to introduce artificial “conflict” at every turn renders the script eventually just shy of incoherent — and the fun must then become Fun. The central silent-movie love story is quite priceless filmmaking, and the moment near the climax when it winds up and Eve realizes how much her annoying hanger-on has done for her is indescribably touching. The sweep and pure cinema of their strange union is remarkable, owing a considerable debt to the apparently carefully studied Modern Times; compare, for instance, the lengthy sequence of Chaplin and Paulette Goddard roller skating around in a deserted department store to WALL-E and Eve’s splendidly romantic spaceflight scene, a nearly perfect encapsulation of the most blissful moments of a budding romance or connection.
Indeed, the best parts of the film are the exploits among the robots aboard the Axiom: not just the floating around outside but the perfectly attained tone of pathos, unrequited affection and mutual love put across in simple, direct big strokes without the aid of either real facial expressions or actual dialogue. And while the chase scenes owe everything to the way Bird engineered The Incredibles and especially Ratatouille, Stanton nevertheless deserves credit for the intense, rapid and fluid way he navigates his “camera” across the ship without ever losing the audience. Sure, as far as wordless exchanges of emotional and visceral impact go, Up destroys all this in a matter of five minutes, but the fact remains that even with reservations about the way the robots themselves are handled, most every moment in this film works — as long as a “human” is not presently onscreen.
“Human” is in quotes because honestly, the only thing lazier than their designs is their flat, meaninglessly vapid characterization, which like the film at large takes a broad stab at a social comment it then cannot wrap itself around. The reason WALL-E fails as a piece of science fiction is that there is no real subtext or complexity to the idea it tries to present; shortcuts are at every turn once we find ourselves on the Axiom. The human beings aboard the ship are hapless, naive little nothings who we’re first expected to believe have been fully recommissioned as do-nothing, worthless lifeforms who live and die in a state of meaningless, perpetual stasis (a cripplingly simplistic plot device), then that they are somehow equipped to begin civilization anew, apropos of seemingly nothing except that they offer themselves up as stand-ins for the audience oohing and aahing over WALL-E and Eve’s antics.
The final copout is a nasty and desperate one, though — WALL-E steps right up to a potentially incredibly poignant conclusion (a true mirror of City Lights and Manhattan, both explicit inspirations) and then just lets it slip away in favor of further cheapness in a toothpaste commercial smile of a “happy” “ending” not many blocks away from the Cars fiasco. How could an inexplicable wake-up at death’s door on WALL-E’s part be considered actually preferable to Eve having to face up to his unfeeling, mechanical emotional absence, something that would have heartrending real-life application to anyone who has dealt with a broken-down relationship or a lost partner? This final cheat on top of a cheat (pizza plants, indeed) indicates WALL-E doesn’t deserve a place at the table with impassioned, relevant if ultimately flawed films like Blade Runner but rather with any number of cutesy, preachy kid-targeted ’80s sci-fi snoozers like Cocoon, Short Circuit and *Batteries Not Included (which incidentally was coscripted by Pixar’s own Bird, at a career low). It ends up making the film feel a bit pointless, thanks to the fact that when the earthlings revisit their home and start talking about farming, we feel absolutely nothing, despite Peter Gabriel’s best sledgehammer efforts.
Stanton wants everything both ways: he wants us to engage in hushed silence at the deep seriousness of his story, but he also wants to score simple and cheap laughs at people standing up and falling down — look, dude, either decide that it’s significant or don’t. It has to also be acknowledged how difficult it is to swallow a film from The Walt Disney Company shaking its finger at the audience for their rampant consumerism. The truth is this is only a way to make the movie more commercial and mass-adored; most of the crowd enjoys the cute toys onscreen and the evocative visuals, while the others feel smug and morally self-satisfied that they aren’t destined to become like the slothful humans on the film’s space station, because they recycle or drive hybrids or participate in cancer walks or what the fuck ever. (I’m reminded of Roald Dahl, a prolific writer for television shows including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and eventually host of his own anthology series, wailing about the worthlessness of TV for pages in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
Considering that the movie seems to long for such importance, it certainly doesn’t force any comeuppance for the irresponsibility of anyone: the evil corporation, the government that allowed itself to overtaken by said corporation, the people who have become grotesque, etc. It all just Works Out. It’s understandable that Stanton and the Pixar brain trust wanted the story to matter, to have a large bearing, but I’m not convinced that there was not a more elegant, emotionally complex film under their noses here that they couldn’t quite justify risking. City Lights and Modern Times were separate films for a reason. The filmmakers’ hearts are obviously in the right place, but that doesn’t excuse the egregious errors that make WALL-E such a richly tantalizing disappointment.
[Expanded from a… well, more of a rant than a review, posted in 2008. My feelings about WALL-E are even more complex than is suggested by what’s above, because of some things it happened to coincide with in my life. To this day, when I see the film or even parts of the film, I have an automatic reaction of both wistful longing and uncontrollable disdain that I suppose I will never quite unpack. Associations are something.]