We're Gonna Find Adventure in the Evening Air
WALL-E / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | June 27, 2008 | Comments ()
As if Pixar didn’t have enough to be proud of already, their latest CG-animated film, WALL-E, is their greatest achievement yet in terms of pure storytelling. It has all the things that are now expected to come with the Pixar brand — likeable characters, engaging stories, and an unshakeable feeling of warmth and hope — but it’s also phenomenal in the way inanimate objects are imbued with personality, physicality, and genuine souls. The animation firm first started to break ground with a short about a Luxo lamp come to life, and that same sense of breathing life into everyday objects, or at least objects that shouldn’t be able to move, gives WALL-E a refreshing and almost pioneering feeling, as if the animators dared themselves to see just how much they could convey onscreen without dialogue. And as is often the case with a Pixar movie, the filmmakers have surpassed their goal, creating a film full of humor and character that can be enjoyed by children but whose emotional complexities and heartbreak will only truly resonate with adults in the audience.
Written and directed by Andrew Stanton — who co-helmed A Bug’s Life and flew solo for the first time on Finding Nemo — WALL-E opens in the distant future on an Earth whose atmosphere is surrounded by a blanket of debris and whose land is covered in towers of human waste. The camera glides through space and then over the ruined planet as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! plays, acting as the emotional soundtrack for the yearning hero about to be introduced and also offering a sad juxtaposition between the nature of exploration and the wreck of the world that was left behind. The song shifts source, going from non-diegetic to emanating from a speaker on a small robot idly wheeling through the trash. The robot, whose markings identify him as a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth class, spends his days compacting trash and stacking the cubes into ever higher skyscrapers of waste. WALL-E is the last remaining drone tasked with cleaning up the planet after the human race left for cleaner pastures. All of the robots that will appear in the film have personalities to a degree, but WALL-E’s is by far the most vibrant: He’s kind to his surroundings, including a cockroach that accompanies him on his clean-up jaunts; he’s curious, sorting through the refuse and keeping the bits that interest him, whether it’s a lighter or Rubik’s cube or rubber ducky; and he’s also deeply lonely, able to forget his programming and directives just imagining what it would be like to be in contact with other people or robots. One of his rescued artifacts is an old VHS copy of Hello, Dolly!, which he watches regularly and uses to practice his dancing and learn about the kind of blissful love only really attainable in musicals. Aside from WALL-E’s assorted chirps, voiced by sound designer Ben Burtt, there’s no dialogue to speak of in at least the first third of the film, and it’s here that Stanton and his crew work wonders with nothing more than an adventurous robot. Pixar’s animation is so advanced that their color palette, focusing, physics, and everything else are so brilliantly done that they feel completely real, and it’s within this world that the filmmakers turn their considerable skill on WALL-E, giving the robot a multifaceted personality with nothing more than a few key gestures and the way he moves through his environment. I say “he” because “it” is too impersonal and would deny Stanton the credit he rightfully deserves for turning an animated set of wheels and metal into something touchingly human.
WALL-E’s world changes with the arrival of EVE (Elissa Knight), a much slicker robot who’s been sent to Earth to search for signs of vegetative life. She’s a more typical robot, following orders and ignoring WALL-E once she realizes he’s not her objective, but WALL-E is instantly smitten. He follows her around as she searches for plant life, and in another wonderful sequence he attempts to win her heart, or at least impress her, by showing off the things he’s collected from his time cleaning up Earth. It sounds either corny or foolish to write about a love story between two robots brought to life in a computer, but that’s how believable, compelling, and just damn good this film is: It breathes life into these machines, gives them real beating hearts, and tells a story in nothing but pure emotion.
The rest of the film unfolds on a journey into space once EVE is reclaimed by the ship that deployed her, with WALL-E along for the ride because he doesn’t want to leave her. They return to the ship that’s been carrying the remainder of the human race since the evacuation of Earth long ago, but even then, the human cast is kept to a minimum: Aside from a growing collection of robots with distinct personality quirks, the only humans with speaking roles are John (John Ratzenberger), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and the ship’s captain (Jeff Garlin). True to form, Stanton makes all the points he wants to about the human race by simply showing what people have become after decades in space with robots satisfying their every whim. Everyone is morbidly obese, floating around in hovering chairs that make it unnecessary to ever stop eating, drinking, and talking to their friends on a video display. The ship is also the property of Buy ‘n’ Large, the global chain whose products first clogged up the planet. Of the humans, only John and Mary break from their routine to discover the joy and necessity of human interaction, and it’s thanks to run-ins with WALL-E. Stanton’s criticism is partly leveled at a society fixated on gluttony and ease, but that’s only part of his larger warning, which is that those things are symptoms of a disease cutting people off from one another. WALL-E has evolved into a curious, loving little guy not merely because he had to, but because everyone else forgot how. EVE’s mission, which WALL-E strives to help her complete, revolves around the scientific resuscitation of the planet, but it’s WALL-E’s ability to love and communicate that truly save everyone. It’s a workable premise that would likely have faltered under the control of less gifted animators or devoted storytellers, but in the hands of Stanton and the flawless Pixar team, it’s downright beautiful.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.