In a barren wasteland of endless towers and canyons of refuse, a single creature stirs: a small robot chugging tirelessly about, almost imperceptibly bringing order out of disorder. His boxy body is a portable trash compactor into which he scoops load after load of the sea of trash stretching in all directions, producing cubes of compressed detritus which he neatly stacks in heaps growing to the scale of skyscrapers. He is the last of his kind, and “Wall‑E” (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is effectively his name as well as his make and model.
Wall‑E has a job, but he also has a life — an inner life. He works with his body, but he lives with his mind. Amid the rubble he efficiently disposes of, Wall‑E finds oddments and curios worth salvaging: a hinged ring box, a plastic spork, a Zippo lighter. The pride and joy of his collection is an old VHS copy of Gene Kelly’s Hello, Dolly!, which wouldn’t be many people’s top choice for a desert-Island movie, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Actually, the naïve enthusiasm of “Put On Your Sunday Best,” which Wall‑E plays obsessively while acting out Michael Crawford’s hoofing, ideally expresses the robot’s spirit of hopeful wonder — probably because he absorbed it from the film in the first place. Isolated for centuries amid the rubble of human waste, Wall‑E has become a wide-eyed romantic. Such is the ambivalent legacy of mankind in Pixar’s Wall‑E, directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo).
Without warning, Wall‑E’s world is shattered from outside by an event as incomprehensible and momentous as the appearance of the primordial monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Awe, panic and ecstasy pull Wall‑E hugger-mugger in all directions at once. All is changed. The words of Dante catching his first glimpse of Beatrice apply: Incipit vita nova (Here begins the new life).
The new life is irrevocable; to go back to being no more than a salvager of curiosities and compactor of trash would be unthinkable. When, to his alarm, Wall‑E realizes it could come to that, he unhesitatingly turns his back on his whole world, risking everything for what he has found. Love has opened the universe to him, in all its splendor, terror and ugliness.
Although I suppose most readers will have seen at least the trailers if not the film, I recount the import of these events without mentioning specifics, in part because I figure viewers who know what happens don’t need me to tell them, and the few who don’t deserve a chance to see these scenes for the first time as I was lucky enough to, not knowing what was coming.
Beyond that, though, it’s the import, the effect, that is so striking, that is worth highlighting. Slapstick, adventure and love are all familiar elements in animated family films. Awe, existential themes and wholesale world-building are not, at least in mainstream American animation.
Even Pixar has never attempted anything on a canvas of this scale. From Monsters, Inc.’s corporate culture to Finding Nemo’s submarine suburbia, previous Pixar films have never strayed too far from the rhythms of real life. Wall‑E creates a world that, despite clear connections to contemporary culture, looks and feels nothing like life as we know it, with unprecedented dramatic and philosophical scope.
True, animation master Hayao Miyazaki has done all this and more, with vigorously imagined worlds as evocative and haunting as Tolkien’s Middle-earth. On the other hand, Wall‑E’s achievement is realized with fable-like simplicity, with little dialogue throughout and virtually none at all for the better part of the first hour. In addition to recalling 2001, the nearly wordless first act also recalls the childlike wonder of early Spielberg and the silent comedy of Chaplin, with Wall‑E’s blend of curious naïvete and pathos at once reminiscent of E.T. and the Little Tramp. (Wall‑E’s “voice,” such as it is, is created by sound designer Ben Burtt.)
As the story transitions from this magical beginning into the very different second act, in which we learn more about the fate of the human race as well as the cause of the Earth’s sad status, it’s not immediately clear that the film will be able to live up to the perfection of the first act. In a sense it doesn’t quite get there, though continual invention, creative boldness and visual wonder keep the bar high.
One of the best conceits involves Wall‑E’s quirky destabilizing effect on other robots he encounters, such as M‑O (Microbe Obliterator), a fastidious little ’bot determined to sterilize every surface grimy Wall‑E has marred. There’s also a lovely, balletic outer-space pas de deux between Wall‑E and Eve (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, voiced by Elissa Knight), the sleek probe droid with big blue eyes and a deadly draw.
Here’s the thing: Wall‑E’s lonely life on Earth had a level of science-fiction realism to it. When we finally meet mankind, Wall‑E turns broadly satirical, targeting mindless consumerism with savage, Swiftian hyperbole.
Now living in a corporate space cruiser, mankind has completely succumbed to the total lifestyle package of the all-powerful BuyNLarge (or BnL) corporation, degenerating into a grotesque parody of couch-potato conformity so debilitating that the human spirit is effectively comatose.
Despite one touch with a reasonable sci-fi basis, this conceit doesn’t bear scrutiny. For one thing, the human spirit is pretty irrepressible; for another, a 100% couch-potato society wouldn’t be economically sustainable. As Swiftian satire, though, it’s a bold, vivid image.
In the person of the Captain (Jeff Garlin), Wall‑E does give mankind a chance to improve, a little, and to take some baby steps on the road to redemption. While I might have liked a more textured vision of humanity, ultimately the story belongs to the robots, especially Wall‑E and Eve.
Though the film’s themes of consumerism and environmental carelessness are unmistakable, unduly political spin on the film is probably more related to election-year hypersensitivity than the film itself.
Wall‑E is not about left or right, liberal or conservative. Rather, it is about living thoughtfully, about what traditional Christian language calls good stewardship of resources and the environment.
If the filmmakers demand a lot of themselves, they have high expectations of their audience, too.
As with Ratatouille, Pixar has decidedly not set out to make the most broadly audience-friendly film they could have. This isn’t Kung Fu Panda, or even Cars — not by a long shot.
Will kids sit for long stretches of visual and aural storytelling with little or no dialogue? Why not?
As I write this review, my three older kids are watching a silent Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler on DVD. Will viewers be willing to immerse themselves in a story with bleak, oppressive surroundings, without familiar parent-child or other domestic relationship dynamics, without fuzzy protagonists, without familiar lessons about believing in yourself and so forth?
Those who do will be rewarded with one of the most enthralling, exhilarating films in years.
P.S. Presto, the new Pixar short playing with Wall‑E, is as brilliant and hilarious as anything they’ve ever done.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Mild animated menace.