Pixar Returns with WALL-E
Starting with Toy Story, Pixar Studio has produced the best animated feature films for mainstream audiences since the days when Walt Disney was young. Pixar’s animation was always fluid and executed with pioneering technology, but that would matter less if the scripts weren’t so funny, trenchant and intelligent. Even the dumbest Hollywood cartoon directors have figured out a formula to keep the kids happy and the adults amused. Pixar brings a more profound sophistication for a multi-generational audience, excelling beyond what contemporary Hollywood animated and live action movies usually achieve.
With WALL-E, Pixar continues to build on the legacy of its superb creative team. Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL-E is probably the studio’s most ambitious production to date, visually and thematically. Set in the future, it concerns an Earth no longer able to sustain life. The rich have booked passage on the Axiom, a giant luxury space ship, for a cruise to the stars. In a promotional video, the CEO of BNL, a corporation that apparently owned everything in the world by world’s end, glibly pronounced, “Space is the final fun-tier.”
Left to clean up the world, at least the trash dropped by humanity on it way out, is an amiable robot called WALL-E. Emitting a stream of R2D2 bleeps, the machine winds his way through the rubble of a crumbling metropolis on a pair of tank-like tracks, looking out at the world through a set of binocular sensors mounted on a swivel gooseneck. WALL-E is weather burned and rusted but plucky as he makes his trash-compacting rounds. He has developed a personality. Each night after retiring to his hanger-home, he unwinds with a videocassette of his favorite, Hello Dolly.
Aside from a friendly cockroach, it’s a lonely existence for WALL-E until an intriguing, sleek, much higher tech robot called EVE lands on Earth. She is conducting a search for life. WALL-E falls in love at first sight.
Like most Pixar films, WALL-E concerns the freedom of individuals to change the circumstances of their lives and their world, whether they happen to be racecars, rodents or robots. Love can move mountains, even love between machines, but the summit in WALL-E is high. The mission is nothing short of restoring the remnant of humanity on the Axiom to a world that has become toxic. That remnant, however, has become a grotesque magnification of contemporary Supersized America. Everybody is soft and grossly obese, moving on motorized comfort seats, nose in a personal video screen and barely communicating with the people next to them. The Axiom is an interstellar resort/shopping mall for the rich where consumption is king. Through too much pampering the human spirit has dimmed. Could a pair of robots in love, through their example and their actions, rekindle the flickering spark of humankind?
The threat of pollution and global climate catastrophe hangs over WALL-E like a sooty scrim of smog. The public address warnings on the Axiom, “Caution: Rogue Robots,” sounds very much like the soothing admonitions by Homeland Security at airports and train stations. The movie’s message concerns subjects most adults have in mind.
WALL-E makes many allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially the cyclopean red eye of the bad computer overlord, as well as a host of other familiar films from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Titanic. It incorporates live action footage and, at times, a kinetic carnival of images suggesting the influence of anime. It’s sometimes as fast as Speed Racer and always more fun, more thoughtful. The most daring aspect of WALL-E is the paucity of dialogue. Unlike the average, running-at-the-mouth animated feature, many minutes elapse before any sound is heard except the dry wind rustling on the dead surface of the planet. The chattering electro exchanges between WALL-E and EVE scarcely counts as dialogue and conversation between other machines and people is sparse. Visuals carry the day. As with every other Pixar production, the ostensibly non-human characters are more alive and sympathetic than most human actors in Hollywood today.