[National Review Online, June 27, 2008]
I can just tell that this is going to be one of those reviews where the hardest part is coming up with the first sentence. What’s the main thing to say about WALL-E, the latest offering from that most excellent animation studio, Pixar? That it’s surprisingly, delicately, effectively, poignant? That, for that reason, younger children may not quite get it? That the Wall-E character is genuinely charming, and his originality has not been siphoned off by ET or Short Circuit’s Johnny 5? That the film succeeds in making an ecological statement without being annoying? That, despite all those worthy elements, there’s just something missing—a plot, perhaps?
But what was expected to be a five-year hiatus has now stretched to seven centuries. Only one WALL-E is still operating, diligently turning trash into cubes and stacking the cubes into towers. Then a sleek modern robot shows up, sent by the mother-ship to search for signs of earthly life. (Her kind of robot is called EVE, and she looks like a handy combination of penguin, iPod, and egg.) When she encounters a slip of plant life, the now-ancient computer program clicks on to deliver the specimen to the spaceship, and return the humans to earth. But will they ever make it?
And that’s about the extent of it, oddly enough, since Pixar has given us such original stories as Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004). There’s a longish (maybe too long) opening section in which we get to know Wall-E (are his eyes maybe a little too pathetic? Like a kitten in an alley in the rain?). And then there’s a part involving chases and fights and narrow escapes in and around the Axiom. Some kids might find the latter hard to follow; I was not always clear on what Eve and Wall-E were trying to get into or out of or why.
It’s a cliché to say of a beautiful-but-thin production that “you come out humming the sets,” but WALL-E’s greatest strength is visual. The film begins masterfully, as we approach earth from space, and are surprised to pass through a layer of junk and debris. At the same time we begin to hear a jaunty tune that sounds like it came from an old Broadway musical, a male chorus repeating exhortations to “put on your Sunday clothes” and “get out the Brilliantine and dime cigars.” The music is coming from Wall-e’s built-in recorder, and is a clip from a videotape of “Hello Dolly” that he had found. “And we won’t come home until we’ve kissed a girl!” the chorus proclaims, as the solitary robot continues his endless task. The animators have rendered this landscape as realistically as they can, and it (and Wall-e himself) is rusty, dinged, and gray. The contrast is already wrenching, and the movie’s only minutes old.
Another affecting passage shows us how Wall-e cares for Eve after she encounters the bit of vegetation. Her programming apparently requires her to immediately take it and go into hibernation mode, so for a time she appears essentially comatose, with only the blinking green leafy symbol on her chest to indicate the life within. Yet Wall-e still dotes on her, takes her with him everywhere, and even decorates her with Christmas lights for a special evening out. If you’ve ever seen an elderly couple out for dinner, and one spouse caring for another with Alzheimer’s, you know how touching and beautiful this valiant love can be. And when Wall-e and Eve arrive at the Axiom, her still-motionless form is whisked about on a gurney, yet Wall-e desperately tries to cling to her, like an expectant dad in a maternity hospital. (It’s not for nothing, I expect, that she is named Eve, who was “the mother of all living” according to Genesis 3:20. And the white robot’s searching the earth for a sign of life, and returning with a bit of leafy green, recalls Noah’s dove in Genesis 8:8-12).
But the story never does develop much, nor do the characters. An opportunity is given when Wall-e and Eve bust out of the Axiom’s “Repair Ward” with a cohort of malfunctioning robots (most memorably, a beach umbrella given to dramatic self-inversions). I was afraid each would then become, predictably, a distinct character who learns that his apparent disability is actually a strength, but the oddball robots get only a brief playtime. And there are a human man and woman, Mary and John, who break out of the hypnotic computer-controlled environment and exchange a few lines, but are likewise whisked to the margins.
Apart from Wall-e and Eve, the most interesting character is the skipper of the Axiom, Captain McCrea. Portraits of the vessel’s previous captains line the walls of his cabin, and reveal that the human race has been becoming increasingly obese, soft, and babylike. Captain McCrea can’t get into his uniform jacket, but wears it buttoned over the shoulders of his stretchy soft unitard, the garment worn by everyone on the spaceship. Contented humans have nothing to do but ride along in hoverchairs, gazing at personal video screens that serve all their entertainment and communication needs. They eat continually, sucking food from plastic cups through beverage straws (advertisements blare, “Lunch in a cup!” “Cupcake in a cup!”). They are barraged by commercials urging them to buy more, eat more, and hop on the latest fad. “Try blue! It’s the new red!” a voice announces, and instantly all the unitards turn blue. A cheery recorded voice calls out, “Consume again soon!”
But Captain McCrea is intrigued by the possibility that vegetable life is sprouting on earth, and begins to overcome his bloated passivity. He asks his computer to define terms like “dancing,” “farms,” and even “hoe down,” and views the images with increasing wonder. He is entranced with earth’s fertility and beauty, and begins to think it could be possible to return and inhabit the earth once more, planting “vegetable seeds and pizza seeds.” This dream is opposed by the ship’s auto-pilot, a HAL-like device called Auto (Otto?), which has a single glowing red eye. Their struggle for power supplies the closing conflict of the movie.
The conflict is somewhat ambiguous, though, because Auto has a pretty good argument on his side. The captain’s naivete and ignorance would seem to make a return to earth disastrous. We’re given the further detail that centuries of reduced gravity have caused the human skeleton to become smaller and weaker; Captain McCrea’s feet and hands are little more than pudgy blobs. How could such people live on earth, with this overwhelming task ahead of them, no expertise in doing it, and their very skeletons cannot support them to stand? If McCrea wins, won’t it just lead to tragedy?
Well, it’s only a movie, of course. But I’ll urge you to stay for the closing credits, because they offer a resolution to that question that is not just ingenious but satisfying, as well as moving. WALL-E isn’t like the other Pixar movies, and it’s not at all what I was expecting. I don’t know if this will be the hit with children that the other movies were, but it’s the kind of movie that grownups will want to watch more than once.