Even by the insanely high standards of the modern animation masters at Pixar Animation Studios, “Wall-E” rates as something of a landmark. I couldn’t stop crying for half an hour after leaving the theatre, the film had such a profound emotional impact on me. It felt like watching “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” for the first time again (or even in its unfairly-neglected 2002 rerelease)- high praise considering that Steven Spielberg masterpiece is on my list of 10 greatest films of all-time. A model of storytelling grace and perfection in both concept and execution (and accompanied by a disarmingly moving score by Thomas Newman, and a memorable end credits song by Peter Gabriel, that rivals his work on “Finding Nemo”- Oscar take note), “Wall-E” will be impossible to shake, and unlikely to be toppled at next year’s Oscars for Best Animated Feature (and seriously folks, is a Best Picture nod out of the question considering all that’s left to come out this year?).
Wall-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. In 2110, Earth is so filled with clutter that humans are forced off of the planet, doomed to travel through space for all-time on a massive spaceship called The Axiom. In an attempt to tidy up, and in the hopes that one day Earth might once again be able to sustain life, Earth is left to Wall-E robots to organize. After 700 years, only one such robot exists. Talk about survival of the fittest; this little guy- in design, a kindred spirit to Johnny 5 from the ’80s film “Short Circuit”- is a solar powered wonder, able to raise skyscraper-high buildings of trash while also having keen instincts of adaptation for when dust storms ravage the terrain. Wall-E has grown curious of the life we left behind, finding unexpected treasures- and some spare parts 🙂 – that’ll grow into something remarkable…an endearing humanity. With only a lone little cockroach to keep him company, Wall-E spends his nights before going to sleep watching an old VHS of “Hello, Dolly,” longing for some companionship in his days.
One day, he gets his wish. Though at first quite frightening, a mysterious spaceship lands on Earth, sending out a probe robot to search for life. Wall-E is intrigued, and instantly falls in love with the ‘bot. At first, establishing communication with the robot- named EVE (standing for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator)- is tricky, but eventually, the two become friends. And when EVE learns that Wall-E may have uncovered the key for humans to return to Earth, EVE returns to The Axiom- still in space- while a smitten Wall-E grabs on, unaware of the journey he’s about to embark on.
Forget, for a second, the obvious social and political commentary co-writer/director Andrew Stanton infuses in the film- that merely supplies the context for the film’s plot and drives its 97-minute running time. What makes the “Finding Nemo” Oscar-winner’s 2nd film as director unforgettable is its remarkable faith in its main characters, whom have a 4-5 word vocabulary at most (supplied by sound effects guru Ben Burtt for Wall-E- in unquestionably the greatest work of his career- and Elissa Knight as EVE), but tell one of the most engaging love stories of modern times, and certainly- I would argue- the best in animation history. Stanton and the rest of the artists at Pixar tell this love story, and reveal all of the character’s nuances, in their body language, making it- and the characters- feel like a classic silent film by Keaton (whom Wall*E reminded me of) or Chaplin.
Speaking of Chaplin, there’s a scene near the end of “Wall-E” that is pure Chaplin in its emotional resonance. It’s the one my mind has continued to revisit after I left the theatre. The one that opened up my emotional floodgates, and where “Wall-E” achieved perfection. You’ll know which one it is when it comes. And like my mind, yours will no doubt return to so many memories of movies past that stuck in your memory, and opened up your soul. The Flower Girl’s recognition of The Little Tramp in “City Lights.” The flower coming back to life in “E.T.” Buster’s projectionist being forgiven by his love in “Sherlock Jr.”. Wesley’s declaration of “As you wish” to Buttercup in “The Princess Bride.” Shelly appearing to Eric Draven at the end of “The Crow.” Novalyne’s writing a letter to Robert E. Howard, unable to hold back her tears, in “The Whole Wide World.” Sean Archer reuniting with his family at the end of “Face/Off.” John Cusack with that boom box blasting Peter Gabriel in “Say Anything.” Father and son being reunited in “Finding Nemo.” In each of these moments, the aforementioned films move beyond mere entertainments, and strike at the core of the human experience. The longing. The sadness. The redemption. The feeling of being a part of a world larger than ourselves. In one moment, “Wall-E” moves to that level of art. It had me wanting to fall in love like Wall-E does. To inspire the sort of love EVE grows to have for Wall-E. And it had me thinking that maybe I’ve already done the former, and hoping I may have done the latter. This is a movie best experienced with someone you love, with your heart wide open. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to stand up and applaud, for Wall-E, and for Pixar. Other studios can try to imitate them, but no one can imitate their magic touch.
But one cannot focus solely on the emotional aspects of “Wall-E” in one’s consideration of the film, as I did in my initial pass of reviewing the film. Watching the film a second time, I couldn’t believe how much there was to talk about that I hadn’t at least touched on. The film’s science fiction origins, for instance. Among the references felt in “Wall-E” are to “I Am Legend” (the original novel, not necessarily the Will Smith film), with its bleak view of human’s fate (and of course, its tour de force vehicle for its main character, alone in a desolate world) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” primarily (with the Axiom’s autopilot acting as a descendant of Hal-9000, and the film’s musical odes to Kubrick’s masterwork). “Wall-E”- in the script by Stanton and “Simpsons” veteran Jim Reardon- also echoes the writings of Issac Asimov and his robot stories (namely the short stories in I, Robot) in developing the characters of Wall-E and EVE, adds a touch of “A.I.” (in not only its bleak 2,000-year future conclusion, but its uneasy relationship with robots), with a little bit of the wry sci-fi funny of “Futurama” sprinkled on top. (Anyone else remember the Robot Asylum Fry and Bender find themselves in when watching Wall-E and EVE get carted off to Diagnostics? Or the fact that Sigourney Weaver is playing her second Ship’s Computer part after the romance she shared with Bender as the Planet Express ship?)
But more real concerns also creep their way into “Wall-E’s” story. The film is very interested in continuing on where Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio left off in their pro-environment documentaries in pointing out our responsibility to the Earth, our only home in this universe, and what a future if we abuse it might be like. Pretty dark stuff, but unlike the saccharine “Happy Feet”- which dressed its pro-enviro message up with singing and dancing penguins- “Wall-E” doesn’t sugarcoat the message, or focus on it too heavy-handed. (And the sly jab at corporate America ruling the world, as the fictional, Wal-Mart-esque Buy N’ Large does in the film (its CEO, by the way, is played by Fred Willard in the first live-action performance ever in a Pixar film), practically falls under the radar it’s so matter-of-fact.) In fact, for the captain of the Axiom- whose inhabitants are overweight from being comforted into immobility over the centuries- the discovery of a possibility of continuing life on Earth goes hand-in-hand with the joy Wall-E feels when EVE falls out from the stars. The idea of something more than just continuing the same old routine from day-to-day. As the captain says, “I don’t want to survive! I want to live!” That deft storytelling touch lifts “Wall-E” out of the realm of message movie, and onto the level of exquisite art.
Exquisite is also a good adjective to be used for the film’s animation, which dazzles on digital projection if you can make your way to one. Pixar and its team of animators- with a visual design consulted on by master cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”) and visual effects wizard Dennis Muren (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”)- have elevated CG-animation to new heights with each film, giving themselves new challenges to overcome. In this case, the creation of a photo-realistic Earth where its barren wasteland of, well, waste looks eerily life-like, all the better to get one thinking of our responsibility to the Earth. As with any great animated film, the animation is at the service of the story, not the other way around. Almost single-handedly, Pixar has invented (and reinvented…and reinvented) the art form of 3-D animation, the most significant of the 21st Century. With “Wall-E”- from the landscapes to the characters to the set pieces- Pixar raises the bar yet again. It’s hard to settle for your average animated comedy after the likes of a “Wall-E” or “Ratatouille” or “Toy Story 2” or “The Incredibles.” Even lesser Pixar efforts like “Cars” and “A Bug’s Life” sneak in some gravitas and surprises where a lesser film would settle for non-stop laughs.
Watching the “Pixar: Short Films, Vol. 1” DVD that coincided with the DVD release of “Ratatouille” last year, a specific pattern in Pixar films began to emerge. Many of their most endearing characters are outsiders who go against the grain of their environment. From the little lamp in “Luxo Jr.” to the snowman trying to escape his snowglobe in “Knick Knack” to the big bird whose look sets him apart from the flock in “For the Birds” to Flick, the geeky ant in “A Bug’s Life” and Remy, the rat chef from “Ratatouille,” Pixar embraces characters who think outside the box, much like Pixar itself. Wall-E and EVE are similar misfits, and their delightful courtship (musically evoked in Newman’s elegant theme and Wall-E’s beloved strains from “Hello, Dolly”) is one of Pixar’s most memorable stories.