Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
Starring: Fred Willard, the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
Apocalypse isn’t the typical subject matter for a children’s movie. But then again, neither is a rat cooking in France or over-the-hill superheroes, yet Pixar made it so. The studio is not simply the standard-bearer for American animation anymore but sits at the top of mainstream filmmaking in general. Its various directors and animators simply refuse to separate animation from cinema as an art form, kids from adults as an audience, art from entertainment as an aim. Pixar’s ninth effort, WALL-E, manages to fulfill all expectations for a science fiction story, an imaginatively-conceived animated film, a straightforward yet sophisticated treatise on consumption and environmentalism, and a further evolution of the animation studio’s celebrated product.
In liberally but adeptly using elements from science fiction films (most notably Silent Running, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey) and animation (anthropomorphized Disney characters, for instance) of the past, WALL-E builds upon a fine tradition of identifying the humanity of non-human beings and visualizing a fantastic but conceivable idea of the future. The unassuming and plucky little garbage compactor WALL-E, the last of his kind on a desolate and waste-covered Earth, utilizes silent-movie expression and underdog longing in his pursuit of EVE, the sleekly advanced probe droid sent to survey for signs of vegetation. Like Tracy and Hepburn and Allen and Keaton before them, WALL-E and EVE, the crumpled, neurotic male and the sharp, businesslike female who somehow fit together, join a clear comic tradition that grounds the film’s more esoteric premises. Their bickering couple dimension is all the more impressive for the film’s lack of dialogue, forcing nonverbal communication to uncharacteristically carry the weight. This “gendered” conventionality (noted by a few critics) seems a lesser problem when juxtaposed with WALL-E’s post-apocalyptic, anti-overconsumption elements.
Few mainstream films animated or otherwise push storytelling boundaries to establish mood, character, and theme as effectively as in WALL-E’s first, near-silent, Earthbound half. The main character’s sense of duty, higher aspirations, and quirky loyalty to humanity’s detritus are defined clearly and comically, his realistically-rendered robotic exterior masking the soul of a heartfelt romantic. In addition to being Pixar’s perhaps most ambitious film technologically, the futuristic fable also contains the most epic emotional canvas the studio has yet devised: the demise and rebirth of human culture as we know it. Swiftly and cleverly, the disastrous results of mass consumption and merging of government and business come into focus with likably smarmy (and live-action, thus connecting the film to non-animated reality in a way previously unknown to Pixar) Fred Willard as its spokesman. A political agenda can be extrapolated from the simplest of scenarios, and WALL-E’s devotion to homegrown values and collective responsibility isn’t hard to parse. Yet the film’s lightness of touch and deft mixture of good humor and barbed criticism rightly soften its political blow. Far from a screed yet denser than a supposedly apolitical cartoon, the film is as prescient and topical as one wants to make it, without losing a bit of its visual wonderment and other considerable virtues. Such a perfect mélange of social critique, entertainment, unforced technological fluidity, and storytelling acumen is hard to find in any medium; for Pixar it’s expected yet continually astonishing.
Unbearably poignant, the lonely robot of WALL-E is both the custodial guardian of his masters’ lost culture and a forgotten member of it. Yet WALL-E him/itself is only either doing his duty or chasing his companion, hardly ever consciously standing in as hope for humanity’s survival. He’s parallel to the single plant that can ensure humanity rejoining its rightful home, if recognized and used properly. Despite his and EVE’s agency, it’s the people who must take their world back. The delightful end credits sequence was apparently tacked on after an early audience screening, the only worthwhile result of that process I can name. From cave drawings to more sophisticated artworks, the chronicling of humanity’s future devotion to its world ends the film with the perfect dose of optimism while acknowledging the inevitable work ahead.