Does Wall-E Deliver on the Pixar Promise?

 Posted by on 21 July 2008 at 12:52 am  Film
Jul 212008

Okay… I’ll admit it. I anxiously anticipate each new Pixar film. Not only that, I get tingly just thinking about the pre-feature short animations that inevitably precede each Pixar release. And when the lamp in their logo hops across the screen, I can’t help but grin.

Things haven’t always been this way. When Pixar started working their magic back with Toy Story, I was less smitten with animated feature-length movies than I was with the sundry amusements of adolescent boyhood. But by the time Finding Nemo hit the theaters in 2003, I was ready to give ‘cartoons’ another shot. I’m glad I did. When The Incredibles followed a year later, I was a bit skeptical at first… did the world really need another superhero movie? Prior to seeing it, I couldn’t have even begun to suspect that Pixar’s superheroes were not just struggling against an evil villain, but also against an egalitarian culture marked by disdain for achievement (and a legal system in serious need of tort reform). To me, The Incredibles was another delightful Pixar surprise. And while I found Cars, their next movie, to be a vacuous disappointment, Ratatouille renewed my enthusiasm for the Pixar brand. In light of all their recent successes, Pixar’s future seemed promising.

Wall-E, Pixar’s latest film, was released on June 27th. For those of you keeping track, that was just about the time that OCON 2008 got underway, so I didn’t get a chance to check it out on opening weekend. This past Sunday my girlfriend and I found the time to head off to the multiplex and give Wall-E a proper viewing. In what follows, I’ll provide an indication of why I regard Wall-E as an enjoyable but deeply flawed movie. And just so you know, my comments are basically spoiler-free.

As you may have been able to gather from the media buzz, Wall-E is a movie about a robot. A robot trash-compactor. More precisely, it is a movie about a “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class,” or “WALL-E,” for your anthropomorphic convenience. (I’ll henceforth use the all-caps “WALL-E” to refer to the robot character, and “Wall-E” to designate the movie itself). According to Wall-E writer-director Andrew Stanton, the original spark that ultimately gave rise to the film was a scenario in which the last robot on Earth toiled away in lonely isolation, longing for companionship and social fulfillment. Indeed, this is how Wall-E begins. After briefly surveying a horrific, almost post-apocalyptic landscape, the viewer is introduced to WALL-E who is busy performing his characteristic task: compacting and organizing trash. After another extreme wide shot or two, the magnitude of WALL-E’s project becomes clear, as his stacks of trash reach towering heights alongside abandoned skyscrapers and other similarly massive pillars of industry.

The bleakness of this world is expertly rendered by Pixar’s typically stunning animation and audio work. The stylistic excellence and technical proficiency that made Ratatouille burst with lush colors, textures, and sound effects, are also evident in Wall-E, though they are for the most part utilized to portray a world of trash. As unappealing and valueless as a world of trash sounds, WALL-E takes it upon himself to collect (rather than compact) those items that he finds to be of interest. After all, one human’s trash is another robot’s treasure. It’s comical to see what WALL-E chooses to collect and what to discard, though perhaps his most cherished possession is nothing to laugh at. What is it? A copy of Hello Dolly on VHS that he found amidst the refuse of civilization. Of particular value to WALL-E are the numbers “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” both ostensibly about companionship and love. Hearing these songs played by the last, lonely robot on Earth serves to heartbreakingly accent the tragedy of such radical isolation.

I’m getting misty just thinking about it.

But WALL-E’s isolation doesn’t last too long, as another robot (EVE) is soon on the scene. After EVE arrives, WALL-E finds a new purpose for himself in the quest for companionship. And this is really what the rest of the movie is about, about WALL-E attempting to gain and keep the attention of EVE. In other words, it’s a robot love story. And it’s a pretty entertaining one, at that. But given that the principals are robots, there is a sizable barrier in telling a convincing story about their relationship: robots don’t have language. Prior to this movie’s release, I remember there being some serious concern about how audiences would respond to a movie whose main characters engage in basically no dialog. Fortunately one of Pixar’s major virtues (at least in the Pixar movies I’ve seen) is that they go to great lengths to actually show the viewer what’s going on, to demonstrate the plot without having to unnecessarily explain events as they’re unfolding. At least in this respect, Wall-E is an excellent movie. Though little is said, little need be said; the data are there for the viewer to infer the movie’s meaning without superfluous exposition or hand-holding.

Although the Pixar team is able to dispense with dialog without sacrificing intelligibility, they unfortunately sacrifice something else: depth. Since language is not a big part of how Wall-E is told, characterization is primarily achieved through action. That is, we know WALL-E not by his words (not by his stated convictions) but rather by his deeds. The same goes for the other main characters. We don’t see them engage in deliberation. We don’t listen to them make choices. We don’t explicitly know what motivates them. And, perhaps most importantly, neither do the other characters of Wall-E know such things. WALL-E cannot verbally communicate his desire for companionship to EVA, just as she cannot verbally communicate her intentions and purposes to him. What this ultimately means for WALL-E’s romance with EVA is that while these robots are capable of showing one another THAT they are attracted, they cannot communicate WHY. Although viewers can probably create a story as to why EVA means so much to WALL-E, it’s doubtful that EVA could herself construct such an account. Because of this, the romance in Wall-E is superficial. Of course, that shouldn’t suggest that the story isn’t touching. It just isn’t reflective of the values (and the expression of values) that I take to be indicative of a truly great cinematic or literary romance.

To summarize thus far, Wall-E is an enjoyable but limited success insofar as one considers it as a love story. But when one looks beyond the romantic element of the movie, there are much larger issues looming in the background that threaten to swallow the love-narrative wholly. In my judgment, these issues represent serious aesthetic deficiencies that diminish the artistic value of the movie as whole. Let’s now take a look at them.

I first heard about the premise of Wall-E in an interview between writer-director Andrew Stanton and Terri Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” (The interview is available here.) Terry Gross lead into the interview by noting that Wall-E is set after a consumer-driven environmental apocalypse has made Earth uninhabitable. Upon hearing this, I was half-way down the road to disgust, but Stanton quickly responded by saying:

I [chose this setting] very reluctantly. I sort of reverse engineered my decision. It was all based on character and emotion. The conceit that got me interested in this movie was: the last robot on earth doing its job forever, not knowing that it was a waste of time. And I thought that was the ultimate definition of futility – I completely was seduced by that. And so, in my mind, that’s what was so charming – the last robot on earth – so I had to just come up with SOME conceit that would make that situation. Just to get this kind of character, I was forced to come up with a scenario…

At the time, Stanton’s response calmed me down a bit because the gist of it was something like: “Look, environmental destruction isn’t an integral part of the movie; it’s extra-thematic, and is only there as a pretext to allow the characters I wanted to represent to come out into the open; I had to set the context SOMEHOW, and this was just the most convenient device to allow the movie to come together.”

If this represented how the movie finally turned out, I would have been okay (though not delighted) with abstracting away from the setting and focusing in on the somewhat shallow love narrative. But in the final analysis, the setting for Wall-E is not unessential to the themes the film ultimately expresses. I haven’t mentioned any human characters yet in this review, because they’re basically irrelevant to Wall-E‘s plot. But let me digress for a moment to give you a brief indication of the type of human being you’ll encounter in this film. In doing so, I hope you’ll gain a sense of why Wall-E is the mixed bag that it is.

All the humans we see (in non-flashback form) in Wall-E are obese, weak-willed, ignorant adult-children who have been carted around their entire life by robots. Every human in the movie is a passenger on a 700+ year space-cruise that was necessitated by the environmental apocalypse. The planet was dying, so the humans went on a cruise while all the robots cleaned up. These people spend their entire lives sprawled out on moving robot hoverchairs watching computer screens, drinking meals from cups, altogether unconcerned with the need to think, work, or make decisions. Did I mention that they’re so unconcerned with physical activity that they’ve experienced severe bone loss? Moreover, the people aboard the cruise ship are altogether anti-social in that they rarely (if ever) stop to talk to those around them, but instead interact through virtual social networks on their robochair-mounted screens.

If you were to ask a contemporary neo-Marxist to draw a caricature of contemporary American “consumerism” (whatever that is), it is doubtful that the result would be much different from what is presented in Wall-E. Perhaps the best thing one might say about Pixar’s handling of the people in Wall-E is that they’re presented as relatively sympathetic creatures. That is to say, they’re not presented as drinking crude oil from their Big Gulp cups (though their ancestors apparently drank up all the oil long ago) and they aren’t shown clubbing baby seals. But they are docile, complacent, fat. Watching screens. Living a lifestyle that destroyed the world.

While viewing the film within the confines of my northwest Ohio theater, I dimly wondered if the film was intended to insult its audience.

To say that Wall-E’s presentation of humans was distracting is to say the least. To the extent that humans are involved in the narrative at all, they have been crammed into characters and roles determined by the “lonely-robot context” requirement. Simply put, Wall-E’s humans have been dehumanized so its robot could gain the shallow appearance of humanity.

Artistic license does not carry a “by any means necessary” clause; it does not entitle one to ignore or degrade genuine values (like the life-giving power of commerce) for the sake of portraying one’s pet character. If one wants, at root, to convey a story of love borne out of tragic isolation, this does not require one to invent an alternative future in which particular societal arrangements have been destructive of life as we know it. The inclusion of any such claim is not to be taken lightly; it is an indictment that certain practices are massively disastrous and deserving of moral condemnation.

To build such a claim into the setting of a children’s movie, and to do so simply for the sake of gaining plausibility for an empathetic character, is more than distracting. It’s obnoxious.

I’m not the only viewer who took notice of Wall-E’s apparently didactic, anti-industry sub-theme. In the interview mentioned above, Terry Gross read Stanton excerpts from two prominent reviews, one liberal and one conservative. The liberal review amounted to the endorsement that Wall-E was more in tune with current political issues than candidates on either side of the debate platform; the conservative-leaning reviewer felt that the movie assaulted him with environmentalist propaganda. Responding to these reviews, Stanton said:

Sadly, I’m not surprised. But I tried very hard not to have any kind of a [didactic message about environmentalism or consumerism]. I just went with [the] logic of how you could be in this scenario so that I could tell the story of a lonely little robot.

Leave the supposed logic of the situation aside. As an artist, one’s primary concern is the presentation of a theme, one’s central idea and vision. If a film’s theme concerns a “lonely little robot,” viewers shouldn’t exit the theater wondering how they can do their part to stem the coming post-industrial holocaust. And sadly, I think that’s what many people (especially children) will do.

I believe Stanton was sincere when he said that he didn’t intend for his movie to have a didactic message. I don’t think he intended to brainwash children into joining radical environmentalist movements. (In this respect, Wall-E is obviously superior to Fox’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest.) For all Stanton’s intelligence, he seems to have simply made a mistake in constructing his story. The fact that multiple reviewers paused to note that his film has strong political/policy undertones is indicative that he let his theme get away from him. This is the main reason I regard Wall-E as a major disappointment.

As it stands, the movie is too thematically disjointed to qualify as great art. The doom and gloom of the sub-theme end up distracting the viewer from what’s really supposed to be important. Regardless of how one evaluates Wall-E‘s anti-industrial elements, they unnecessarily divert attention away from the screenwriter’s primary concern. At some points it seems as though a polemic against consumerism is of central importance, with the romantic element being a mere interesting side-issue. In light of Stanton’s stated purpose of creating a love story, the movie fails to effectively communicate what is supposed to be essential to its theme. And unfortunately, Wall-E is overly successful in emphasizing elements that are inessential to Stanton’s central message. While watching, it’s too easy to forget that even robots can fall in love.

What a shame.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha