Sunday, July 06, 2008


WALL-E (2008), the newest Pixar production, disappointed me. While it tackled a number of serious issues—the future of our species, our increasing reliance on technology, our environmental impact on the world—it did so in the context of a children's cartoon that relies on the tired old cartoon clichés of stock characters, a love affair, a battle with the bad guys. The effect is somewhat schizophrenic and self-defeating, even if the movie itself is diverting enough. The need of this film to enchant and charm its audience waters down its handling of the serious issues. As an animated character, WALL-E owes much to the extraterrestrial from E. T. (1982) and the Short Circuit robot (1986). WALL-E is cute, he has a heart, he's sentimental , he's self-conscious, and so on. He's fascinated with an old musical, Hello, Dolly (1969), from which he sings or thinks about two songs incessantly, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." He's just what we humans would like a robot to be (except for his fondness for Hello, Dolly). So is his futuristic partner, Eve, sent to earth to scout out any signs of plant life, which would mean the planet is livable.

The best parts of WALL-E come early in the film as the robot wanders around what used to be New York, collecting garbage and compressing it into cubes that he stacks methodically. (His name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). He also collects little artifacts of the vanished human culture, along with spare parts from other robots like himself so that he can self-repair when necessary. We humans would find WALL-E's life a lonely one, but it's the only one he has ever known, and he's not programmed to be lonely. Eve's arrival on the earth throws him into confusion. She's sleek and smooth and high-tech—and robotically feminine—WALL-E falls for her.

If this film had used WALL-E and Eve to examine a speculative version of our future, to tell a parabolic tale of fabulous admonition, we might have something more than what we actually get. What we get is the story of two robots in love, set in the context of a future 700 years after humans have left the earth because it has grown too polluted with garbage and smog. The humans and their descendants live on a huge cruise-type ship far out in the galaxy, their every whim catered to by robots. They have grown lazy, stupid, and fat. (Is this the ultimate outcome of what Blade Runner (1982) predicts, when all the humans who can afford it have left the earth to live in space?) What matters in this film are the robots, not the future. In spite of everything, the robots do manage to bring humans back to the planet, where they are set to lose weight, raise vegetables, and repopulate the earth.

There are numerous allusions to previous Sci-Fi films with robots and other marvelous creatures—Auto, the robot who oversees the interstellar cruise ship, and who disobeys the captain's orders, is directly reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with his glaring red eye. There's E. T. (one scene in particular is replicated), Short Circuit, Blade Runner, the various Star Wars films. Regrettably, the robots of the 1950s—from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956)-- seem beyond the memories of the makers of this film--they were perhaps too ominous for the purposes of WALL-E.

WALL-E is modest fun and entertainment. The animation is excellent, though it's held back by the premises of the film and the need to satisfy the dictates of a cartoon universe that will sell tickets. Such Japanese films about the future and saving the environment as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl's Moving Castle (2004) are imaginatively superior. The director of the latter two films--Hayao Miyazaki—manages to make films that appeal to adults and children without pandering to the conventions of commercial animation in the way that WALL-E does.

Still, WALL-E is entertaining.

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