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‘Wall-E’ Is a Masterpiece for the Ages

Courtesy of Pixar


This is a revision of an earlier posting.

The new Pixar picture Wall-E is one for the ages, a masterpiece to be savored before or after the end of the world — assuming, like the title character, you’re still around when all the humans have taken off and have access to an old video player. Wall-E (that’s the name of the machine) is a trash compactor, the last of his kind from an age in which cleaning up garbage was mankind’s highest priority — before people threw in the towel (and broom) and apparently (no spoilers here!) rocketed away. Now, this squat, childlike robot with his pivoting goggle eyes resides in a metropolis surrounded by skyscrapers that turn out, on closer inspection, to be compressed trash bricks piled high into the soot-gray sky. The movie is a bit of a trash brick itself: Director Andrew Stanton and his Pixar collaborators have taken cultural detritus — bits and pieces from cherished film genres, pop icons, visionary sci-fi tropes, half-remembered bric-a-brac from childhood — and compacted it all into a sublime work of art.

There were advance rumbles that Wall-E would be tough going for kids, that its story is not just grim but its storytelling experimental. Ridiculous! An outrage! Although the images are frequently flabbergasting, the narrative is as simple as Chaplin, Keaton, Jacques Tati, even the Teletubbies! Maybe the movie only seems experimental because it’s evenly paced and linear and doesn’t call for viewers to do the perceptual equivalent of multitasking (which viewers these days seem to like!).

The story itself — well, that is a bit of a grown-up downer. Although there’s plenty of silent-movie slapstick, the apocalyptic context adds a hefty dose of melancholy. (We laugh when Wall-E finds a little box with a diamond ring, then tosses the ring and keeps the box — but the thought of the couple that left it behind is rather poignant.) Dust storms drive Wall-E into his lair, where he endlessly rewatches clips from the film Hello, Dolly! — particularly the opening number with Michael Crawford warbling about going to the city and kissing a girl. (“There’s no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes!”) It’s Wall-E’s only link to a gay (in the 1890s sense) world of limitless horizons and conspicuous consumption — and crowds of people. For companionship, Wall-E is limited to a sort of roach (evolved) that’s virtually indestructible. (Also indestructible are cream pastries he consumes that are clearly modeled on Twinkies — a great punch line to all the jokes about the imperishability of that synthesized cakelike product.)

From the beginning, Pixar — a beacon for the future of film technology — explored themes of loss, decay, and the dark side of materialism. The old-fashioned toys of Toy Story were soulful repositories of childhood love rendered obsolete by newer and fancier models. Even Pixar’s most routinely plotted film, Cars, was steeped in the romance of old machines. It’s as if those machines hold memories that humans forget — beauties that have been overlooked with growing up in a fast-paced cyber-world. What a peculiar company this is, forward- and backward-looking, a technological Janus head.

Here, director Stanton (Finding Nemo) extends that theme to the ruination of the entire planet, which he explicitly ties to an unchecked free-market embodied by a giant corporation that took over — Buy ‘n’ Large it’s called, but think Wal-Mart. Its lulling calls to consumption help to soften and fatten the human race (you should see these blobs) and separate them from the natural world. The storms, meanwhile, conjure up the planet’s most catastrophic man-made environmental disaster — the Dust Bowl, born of greed for corn profits (sound familiar?) that left topsoil suddenly vulnerable to winds.

What will the wing nuts and the Cato-institutionalized make of Wall-E, which not only prophesies environmental horrors but targets overweening corporations? All it needs is a terrorist fist bump. Boycott those Pixar pinkos!

The first part of Wall-E has no talk — apart from that ghastly Hello, Dolly thing and Fred Willard on an old video as Buy ‘n’ Large’s “global CEO.” Then a rocket descends, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s score, which, like the movie, is a gloriously inspired mélange — Warner cartoons (Carl Stalling), sci-fi awe, Shostakovich terror. What emerges from that ship is Eve, a smooth white egglike robot with a head that floats above her unattached — vaguely Japanese, with violet cat eyes, like a sprite out of Miyazaki. Wall-E is instantly smitten, even though Eve blasts anything she deems a threat. (It’s an edgy courtship.)

Eve’s mission — and where it leads her and Wall-E — I’ll let you discover for yourself. But humans of a sort are involved, and there are rollicking chases and a tender love story. When a little-girl giggle comes out of Eve, Wall-E suddenly seems like one of those movies where two lonely little kids discover each other and share wordless adventures. (There’s a rocketing space pas de deux between Wall-E and Eve in which the lyricism is positively transcendental.) Somehow these two machines — these children — have to reinfuse what’s left of mankind with the joy of play. Their electronic coos and twitters recall Star Wars and E.T.; their only visual aid is a tiny plant that conjures up memories of the pathetic little twig tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

At heart, Wall-E spins a rather conventional and even conservative — although you’d never know it in this topsy-turvy political world — parable. But the film never feels like blockbuster business as usual. Like in Finding Nemo (only more so), the sense of loss is too pervasive. Something precious is alive, but hanging by a thread, a twig, a microscopic filament. And Pixar — this ridiculously rich, state-of-the-art computer colossus — is using all its resources to show us what we’re losing.

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