Depending on one's perspective, Wall•E is either Pixar's towering achievement or definitive proof of the studio's "overrated" usage of sentimentality and messaging. My own view has wavered between the two interpretations (though I would avoid that vile, simplistic term "overrated"), but it is telling that my negative thoughts concerning the feature crop up in the corners of my mind only after I drift further away from the most recent viewing, as if Wall•E's chief flaw is that I cannot watch it every day at all times.
No disrespect to the contributions of animators the world over for the last 70 years, but Wall•E easily stands as the most visually stunning and innovative feature since Fantasia. Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Andrew Stanton crafts a film with such perfect lighting effects that, in a number of places, one suspects that the animators laid the characters over real backgrounds, a ludicrous thought as nothing in the film -- neither its hellish vision of Earth nor the sensory overload of its space cruiser -- exists in the present. Look at the way Wall•E and EVE click a Zippo lighter, how its flame looks exactly like the real thing. Or how the ice ring around Saturn is so brilliantly blue up close, as the protagonist literally reaches out and touches the crystals, sending them off in an arc around the wee robot and somehow making him more cute.
Speaking of the actual character of Wall•E, the protagonist serves as a microcosm of the film's triumph. Obviously, he is not the first computer-generated character, but he is the first creature to be entirely made in a studio, cobbled together on computers and on soundboards. The animators did not have the benefit of a voice actor to provide guidance -- watch a making-of documentary on any of the other Pixar features, or a number of traditional animated films, and see how the animators designed a character's movements around the gesticulating of the actors in the recording booth -- yet they craft the most affected animated character in recent memory with nothing to go on but a few beeps and whistles from Skywalker Sound maestro Ben Burtt and a whole mountain of imagination.
Wall•E's relative silence recalls Dumbo, and this moving trash-compactor is certainly the most empathetically rendered character since Bill Tytla's softly drawn, self-contained magnum opus. Like Dumbo, Wall•E is so instantly lovable and vulnerable that, before Stanton even establishes a narrative, one cannot help but wish fervently that Wall•E "wins" or whatever it is the story will eventually ask of him. He's so cute that Stanton must feed the poor thing through a hellish gauntlet, as anything less would overload the screen with saccharine. Pinocchio and Dumbo faced horrifying trials for their innocence, but they never had to contend with the desolation of Wall•E's existence.
For while those two experienced extreme loneliness through their trying tasks, they never lived in full solitude; Wall•E toils on an Earth long since abandoned by the humans who polluted it beyond the point of sustainability, carrying out his programmed task of compacting the flood of garbage into neat cubes 700 years after people took off in space yachts to escape the suffocating toxicity of the planet. In the staggering opening sequence, the camera (it is impossible to call it anything other than a "camera," the sublimely programmed movements and cuts leaving behind even the marvel of the old multiplane) surveying a cityscape, only to reveal that the skyscrapers are made from those chunks of garbage made by Wall•E and his kin. Those other models litter the streets, having worn down over the centuries until they finally broke, a constant reminder of the solitude of the model that still putters about as well as, possibly, the filmmakers' wry prediction that all of the inevitable merchandise from the film shall eventually wind up in such a giant landfill.
Let to his own devices, our Wall•E has developed a personality: to occupy himself, Wall•E collects various trinkets among the rubble and heaps that interest him. A Frisbee, a paddle ball, a lighter, meaningless objects that this childlike machine gazes upon with wonder. In this wordless opening act, Stanton conveys this character's personality to the audience via such moments. Wall•E picks out a jewelry box with a sparkling diamond ring still inside, only to discard the object that catches our eye to play with the box. In the station where he makes his home, Wall•E has created numerous compartments for his knick-knacks, leading to an amusing moment where he hovers a spork in-between a tin of forks and one of spoons until he winds up placing it in the space between the two. Made to clean up the unwanted detritus humanity so carelessly tossed away, Wall•E now finds such trash to be his treasure.
He also fixates on an old tape of Hello, Dolly!, particularly the number "Put on Your Sunday Clothes." Hello, Dolly! is a musical with few admirers, one of Gene Kelly's weakest efforts that suffers from bloated extravagance and the miscasting of a young, popular Barbara Streisand in a role that called for an older talent. It helped accelerate the death of the live-action musical, and when people use the titular phrase today, they typically do so with mocking self-awareness, so that even those who have not seen the film are being indirectly sarcastic about it. Yet here it is, one of several emotional cruxes of this film,* a tantalizing look at the connection Wall•E feels he will never have. It also serves a clue to Stanton's stylistic approach: set far ahead in the future, using state-of-the-art technology, Andrew Stanton returns to old-school techniques for Wall•E, starting in the musical, the genre created by the sound era, then moving back further into silent film, especially the work of Charlie Chaplin.
As Wall•E does not speak, he becomes the repository for a number of physical gags, which fit neatly into the Pixar's usage of TDM -- Those Damn Montages. With only a pet cockroach to keep him company, Wall•E plays around on Earth, knocking himself over with a fire extinguisher and squealing in horror when he accidentally runs over his unharmed insect chum. When EVE, a significantly advance robot, lands on Earth to scan for plant life that would allow the humans to return to Earth, Wall•E instantly falls in love, and the montages of him attempting to befriend this sleek, surprisingly violent female bot proceed like a silent film courtship, filled with images of the guy making a fool out of himself in the quest for the lady's attention; most memorable is his demonstration of his "directive," hastily assembling a small amount of garbage to compress, which sags in a moment of nervous impotence. After EVE locates the plant Wall•E earlier found and locks down to protect it until a ship comes to return her to one of the cruisers, another montage shows Wall•E caring for EVE as he tries to snap her out of her stasis, holding up umbrellas over her in the rain that each get zapped by lightning. These moments are hilarious, but also endearing, a cheeky literalization of the old shutdown line, "I wouldn't go for you if you were the last man on Earth."
Then, the film hits a snag. A recovery ship comes for EVE, and Wall•E hitches aboard as the rocket launches back into space, taking us to one of the space yachts. Moving away from the earthy tones of the first act, Wall•E becomes a dazzling feast of colors; the yachts are just that, pleasure centers designed to overload the senses, a vacation that became mankind's home. What makes the transition all the more jarring is the insertion of a storyline that brings with it the realization that everything that came before it had no narrative, and it didn't matter. The second half does not make the first look better because it's inferior -- though no one would argue that it is -- but because it places the brilliance, the perfection even, of the first half in proper context: Wall•E grabbed us without anything to propel it. It moved on the strength of its images and its first two characters, characters who didn't even speak.
On the ship, Wall•E morphs into a more straightforward thriller, one that is, frankly, not bad, if a bit middle of the road. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the scenes aboard the Axiom depict what happens to humanity when it surrenders its responsibilities to machines. Every job is performed by a robot, with people reduced to fat, self-absorbed blobs incapable of doing anything but watch holographic TV screens and eat as they lounge on hover-chairs. The autopilot even directly references HAL9000, and when the time comes for humanity to reassert itself over its tools, Stanton treats the simple act of a person using his own two feet again grounds for using "Also Sprach Zarathustra."
While these scenes do not contain the same consistent euphoria as those on Earth, Wall•E taps into its earlier atmosphere whenever the characters on-screen are predominantly robots (the best Pixar features, after all, contain both humans and another type of character, yet they focus more on the non-humans). We are treated to hysterical moments such as Wall•E impishly toying with a cleaning robot by smudging the ground in front of the robot before leaving a dirty tread over the thing's face, as well as the heavy emotion of Wall•E's near death in a giant trash compactor filled with enormous versions of himself. The move into space allows the visuals to match the overwhelming power of its two central characters, and one would be missing the point entirely by questioning the necessity of the change in scenery when it allows for a moment as pure as the "define dancing" sequence, in which Wall•E and EVE spiral around space like two strands of polymers forming a double helix (as if Stanton was breaking romance down to the molecular level). For all the last act's flaws, it still carries an aesthetic and emotional heft worthy of that which preceded it, which is so strong that the end would need to contain far more issues than it does to sully the first two-thirds.
Wall•E taps into numerous artistic and literary modes of expression. Wall•E's construction of a sculpture of EVE out of flotsam is nearly an ancient Greek display of affection, while the story as a whole plays like the tale of Noah's Ark, the Axiom of course being the vessel that guides humanity through the destruction.** It's no wonder, then, that Wall•E ends with a credit sequence that depicts the return to Earth through a progression of artistic styles. It moves from cave painting-like renderings of the ship returning, moves into Mesopotamian art and Egyptian hieroglyphics. As the world blossoms once more, the style eventually turns to impressionist paintings of trees and rivers before, finally settling on an 8-bit animation of Wall•E and EVE. The animators trace the rebirth of humanity by resetting art to Year Zero in order to chart mankind's progress via the quality of artistic expression. It also serves to place Wall•E in context, showing the path of animation from the earliest scribbles to painting to electronic programming, that led to the film. Is it presumptuous? You bet it is. Is it earned? Oh, hell yes.
Those who would decry the second half of the film as on-the-nose would be correct, yet Wall•E's lesson is an increasingly relevant one. We are not taking care of this planet, and a number of adults, many in notable positions, openly deny climate change and recommend, if anything, more environmentally destructive acts so as to preserve the status quo (and quarterly reports). Heck, an increase in off-shore oil drilling was just approved by q supposedly arch-liberal president who, we are meant to believe, wants nothing more than to take away our guns, God and unborn children. Ergo, the bald-faced proselytizing of Wall•E is as much a desperate plea to the audience's senses as it is a bubblegum distillation of the issue for children. I would argue that the film does not go nearly far enough, pulling the punches of its more damning accusations in favor of some cheap fat jokes. One cutaway shows children in a nursery being taught the alphabet via a program made by the corporation that runs the ship; these kids are learning through advertising, so why do we see only the deterioration of the human body, not the mind? The class-on-tape reminded me of a scene in Threads where the post-nuclear generation must learn from a scratched instructional video, so they grow up to be illiterate brutes with halting speech. I wish Wall•E played up that angle more (both films are, after all, post-apocalyptic movies).
Yet I find it increasingly difficult to hold much against the film. I've used the term masterpiece liberally lately (or at least thought it), but chiefly because I've been watching older films that have been proven classics. It's easy to use the word for such entries, but nearly impossible for that which is contemporary (which is as it should be). I have considered using the term to describe Wall•E before, but the word catches in my mouth like a stutter, skipping on "m-m-m-ma" until it finally seeps out like a line of drool that embarrassingly never breaks until it falls to the ground, suspended in the air for a few moments for all to see and mock. But out it comes at last, a personal truth I can no longer deny. Few films grab me like Wall•E, and if the last act is the price to pay for progress, then it is worth it. Furthermore, its environmental preaching is really just a secondary offshoot of a more affecting message, that we are all too absorbed in our life's programming to connect fully -- EVE locks down upon finding the plant at the expense of her relationship with Wall•E, while the humans are so captivated by their shiny screens that they don't even realize that half of the cruiser's deck is a pool, much less the people around them. Only by snapping out of routine and taking stock of the world can we find love and happiness. And if I forget this, if I look back on this review in the months and years ahead and regret calling Wall•E such, all I will have to do it watch it one more time.
*I also find it amusing that Hello, Dolly! should be revived by a feature from Pixar, the studio that finally repudiated the Western need to make nearly all animated films musicals (for some reason, Watership Down and The Secret of NIMH didn't prove this point sufficiently in their times).
**The name of the ship, the Axiom, is but another hint of the self-evident truth of humankind's destructive impact on the planet and the need to reverse it.