(No longer in theaters)
Walt Disney Pictures
Jun 27, 2008
I wish I had a week or two to muse on Wall-E and compose a shapely paean to its beauties, but Disney inexplicably didn’t screen the thing for critics until Tuesday, and emergency dental surgery split molar, abscess, doomed attempt to have it drilled and ripped piece by piece from its poisoned socket without general anesthesia (so as to make said screening) kept me from seeing it until Wednesday. So here are notes, only partially addled by Percocet, for a larger essay.
The thing is, first of all, a masterpiece. It’s one for the ages, meaning you could enjoy it before or after the apocalypse.
Director Andrew Stanton and his Pixar collaborators have taken cultural detritus bits and pieces from cherished film genres, pop icons, visionary sci-fi tropes and compacted it all into a work of art. Fancy metaphors aside, the movie centers on a trash compactor 700 years after the end of civilization on Earth. Wall-E (that’s the name of the machine) is 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.
There were advance rumbles that Wall-E (the movie) 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 bizarre, 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 downer. Although there’s plenty of silent-movie slapstick and gags, the apocalyptic context adds a hefty dose of melancholy. Take the bit where Wall-E finds in a trash heap a little box with a diamond ring, then tosses away the ring and keeps the box. (The hinges delight him.) Funny and sad, when you think about the couple that must have left it behind.
Dust storms drive him 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. (This is a number I absorbed as a kid it’s catchy, like flu and spent years trying to purge from my mind. Now it will be permanently lodged.) Anyway, this Dolly song (There’s no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes!) is Wall-E’s only link to a gay (in the 1890s sense) world of limitless horizons and conspicuous consumption.
Wall-E’s only living companion is an insect, 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 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 in a fast-paced cyber-world. What a peculiar company this is, forward- and backward-looking, a technological Janus head.
Here, director Andrew 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 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 the work of the 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. But the film never feels like blockbuster business as usual. Like Finding Nemo (only more so), the sense of loss is too pervasive.
The world that’s left is ugly yet breathtaking, almost beautiful not in the artsy way of dystopian sci-fi pictures like Blade Runner, but entrancing in its detail, and in the sheer scale of the devastation. The movie has more conventional beauties, too. Wall-E’s goggle eyes move with the delicacy of a Balinese puppet: He is quizzical, he wants to live. There’s a rocketing space pas de deux between Wall-E and Eve in which the lyricism is positively transcendental.
It might take a wee bit of concentration at first, but I think children will get on Wall-E’s level I saw it at a promo screening with real people, and the kids were noisy but attentive. (Odd that the chatter didn’t piss me off the way it does at other movies. It was like another layer of the soundtrack a layer of real life.)
Grown-ups might want to go again by themselves to savor the film.I envy you the first time through: 93 minutes of wonder to come.