It has become increasingly common for many of today’s movie critiques to read like filler-text for marketing brochures. All too often, even the most well intentioned movie reviewer will lose him or herself to the hollow and largely meaningless babble of marketing terminology and box-office speculation. Its as though how a film performs at the box office or just who it might appeal to has replaced the thankless job of simply entertaining, and perhaps engaging, audiences.
But in what has become the most encouraging of new traditions, highly cultivated walls of indifference and cynicism melt away with childish delight whenever animation gods Pixar releases a new film, having created the most respected lineup of entertainments since the days of Uncle Walt. The tongues are wagging and the air thick with hyperbole as the company releases their 9th and perhaps most ambitious feature film, Wall-E.
700 years after the human race has exhausted the resources of Mother Earth is when we first join the last remaining Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) unit. It seems that centuries of picking through and packing the cultural remains of humanity’s waste into solid cubes, the work-bot has developed a personality of his own as well as an insatiable curiosity in the objects of his profession. But apart from the company of his loyal pet cockroach (whom, like Twinkies, will outlast us all) he is all alone, and incredibly lonely. His ceaseless activities are soon interrupted by the arrival of the elegantly beautiful drone, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). Immediately smitten, Wall-E offers this new arrival his most cherished possession – and potential savior of planet earth – in the form of the last piece of vegetation. This sets the rest off a train of events that will take us across the galaxy and provide a terrifying glimpse into a future where humanity itself has disconnected entirely from the source.
Pretty weighty stuff for a Rated G film masquerading as family entertainment, but I have confidence that today’s youth (and maybe the adults) can handle it. Watching Wall-E I was often reminded of the great Marcel Marceau, who despite his passing last year remains a significant inspiration to the art of mimicry and a testament to the power of non-verbal communication. While its certainly true that large portions of this film are played without spoken dialogue, don’t believe for a second it doesn’t communicate with the best of them. The emotions of our robotic headliners are brought to life with startling clarity, effortlessly conveying their wants and needs through the most intimate dance of motion and movement. From the hilarious to the heart-breaking, its easy to forget that so much of our communication is told non-verbally, where just a certain look can send hearts a flutter and pulses racing. None of the main characters may speak through words, but they’re still speaking…even Wall-E’s chirpy cockroach.
For the record, I would so buy a Wall-E cockroach toy.
Its possible that for some viewers, the joys on display here will be lost in the complex undertaking of Wall-E’s plot, which dares to reach beyond the simple joys of childhood toys and paternal fish love. At its heart, the larger picture of Earth’s potential fate at the hands of consumerism and ecological apathy are of secondary concern to its protagonist and titular hero, who like many defines his own existence through a funnel of experience and want. Its fascinating to watch that despite having the very world at his metallic fingertips, Wall-E’s singular desire is companionship. The imagery and doomsday scenario that provide the film’s most cohesive narrative may propel things forward, but in our hero’s world he wants only to hold hands.
From every nook and cranny, Wall-E is a technological triumph. But then, you probably expected that going in, considering the vintage and talent on display. But don’t let that stop your brain was being pulverized to pulp with some of the most stunning and dazzling imagery ever committed to a single film. Hyperbole be damned, this is the world’s most powerful and respected movie house at the peak of their laudable powers, easily surpassing their own impressive past achievements. From the first dirty and decrepit look at future-Earth to the squeaky-clean, Macintosh look of the Starship Axiom, every frame and centimeter that’s onscreen has been primed and buffed to unexplainable goodness. Colors explode and dazzle as these triumphs of design and function display more heart and affection than every blockbuster movie this year – combined.
Wall-E himself may be Pixar’s most brilliant creation, as this mish-mash of Johnny-5 (Short Circuit) meets E.T. manages to become something completely new, yet familiar in ways we’d never expect. If his love interest, the elegant and stylish EVE looks a bit like something Apple might’ve baked up in their engineering labs, that’s because Pixar consulted with iconic designer Jonathan Ive (who crafted the iPod) to achieve that very thought. Like much of the film itself, the sheer joy of watching unrelated objects interact with one another is majestic and beautiful when called for, and in the case of showcasing humanity’s potential fate (i.e. human beings) frightening in its absurdity. I wouldn’t dare give away the most delicious of secrets here, but rest assured never before have I witnessed such shocking imagery in family-friendly entertainment. Loving it!
As impressive as the imagery is to the eyeballs, its within the layered and nuanced soundtrack that Wall-E’s true heart beats the loudest. Conducting this sympathy on the senses is legendary technician and aural maestro Ben Burtt, a name that you’re intimately familiar with. Burtt has provided some of the memorable and iconic sound moments in film history, having created such legendary bits as the lightsaber in Star Wars, the heavy-breathing of Darth Vader, and (most appropriate) the ‘voice’ of droid R2D2. Here the wizard provides the metallic vocals for Wall-E and helps layout the context-specific world of robotic sounds and noises that help tell this story better than any vocal narrative ever could. Wall-E (Burtt) and EVE (Elissa Knight) are alive onscreen, with real longing and emotion in their performances that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Its helpful to remember that Burtt also helped shape the title character in Spielberg’s E.T, with the same astonishing results here.
The human cast, in their smaller but important roles, never spoil the moment. At the center is the ingeniously funny Jeff Garlin as Captain of the Axiom, who’s effort to literally stand up to the ship’s Hal-inspired auto-pilot is one of the film’s best gags and filled with paradoxical joy. Sigourney Weaver is also present as the ship’s computer voice, a nice play on her roles in the Aliens films (and for nerds, her ironic role as the ship’s computer in the comedy farce Galaxy Quest). Pixar regular John Ratzenberger makes his usual appearance, as does fellow vocal legend Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill) as human templates rediscovering their world without diversions. Legendary goofball Fred Willard makes a bizarre appearance as the buffoonish leader of the BnL (Buy and Large) Corporation and first live-action actor in a Pixar film. All great stuff indeed, and thanks to some heroic direction never outpace their robotic superiors.
No impression of Wall-E is complete without mentioning its beautiful, soulful score by Thomas Newman (Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo). In a film that relies so heavily on the idea of sound and music, Newman smartly mixes traditional with the emphatic, linking Hollywood’s earliest traditions to the modern in crafting a perfect synthesis that could easily be labeled science-fiction as it could classic love story. Rounded by snippets of 1969’s Hello, Dolly! musical, Wall-E’s most transcendent moments are matched to sounds as perfect as its images. Its a pretty incredible thing that both director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and Newman can so easily mix their respective media so well that the implausible seems not only plausible, but pitch perfect.
I find it remarkable that our civilization continues to paint itself into corners of personal indulgence and social suffocation. Will there come a time when, like Pixar’s latest creation, the world itself is not enough and we find ourselves longing for that most basic of human needs – to touch and feel connected with one another? Its a rare thing for a film so invested in post-apocalyptic science-fiction could inspire such promise and hope for the species, but few companies are so selflessly dedicated to the task of entertaining us so completely as Pixar.
On this promise, Wall-E delivers and along the way treats all comers to a moving parable of social consciousness amidst explosions of creativity and imagination that cannot be denied. For many people Wall-E will be one of the best films they see this year, and for many others it very well may be the best. In my heart of hearts, it has easily become one of the most moving and passionate experiences I’ve ever had at the movies, feelings I hope many others share and will delight in for years to come. Its an astonishing achievement in every sense, and more than anything a joy to watch. What more could you want?
Animation purists will want to stay put during the film’s closing credits, which is a remarkable episodic journey detailing the post-return success of the Axiom’s passengers and their re-population of planet Earth. Told brilliantly through a series of evolving art-styles that begin with prehistoric cave-paintings and evolve through the ever-changing styles of successive periods, ending playfully (and perhaps tellingly) with stylized, pixilated sprites of classic 8-bit video games.