By now you’ve heard of WALL-E. Lovable robot, etc.
I’m no cartoon fetishist, but I’m not blind. Pixar is America’s most consistently great studio, and on first glance this is probaly the best they’ve done so far. You never thought you’d see something like WALT DISNEY’S 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY, but that’s what the first act of this feels like. This movie is deep. There is a poetically tragic beauty to it that has never been captured in any cartoon all the way from PINOCCHIO to BARBIE’S FAIRY MERMAID CASTLE 2 or even (arguably) OSMOSIS JONES.
Here is this godforsaken shitpile of a planet, literally covered in garbage, the sky brown with garbage dust, a ring of space litter surrounding the atmosphere. Humans left this place behind 700 years ago, and the only things still moving around are one cockroach and the one remaining robot that was left behind to clean up the garbage.
So there WALL-E is picking up garbage, crushing it into cubes, and building structures out of them. I’m not sure whether this is what he was programmed to do, or whether he is using his crushing/stacking job to create art, but either one is interesting. He’s been doing this for 700 years and had to cannibalize all the other dead WALL-E’s to survive, so either he’s Will Smith in I AM LEGEND, finding his way in an abandoned world, or he’s the robot at the end of A.I., missing his mommy thousands of years after humans have gone extinct. Cleaning up garbage is what he was built for, so maybe he doesn’t know that nobody needs him to do it anymore.
At any rate he has no idea that the planet is a shithole, this is just what he was built to do. To him garbage might as well be oxygen. But he does have these little quirks that are most likely not part of his programming. He finds things in the garbage that amuse him, and adds them to a collection. He especially likes the movie HELLO DOLLY which he found on a beat up VHS tape that he converts to digital, runs on an iPod and watches through a giant magnifier. One society’s garbage is another machine’s individuality.
So here is a world with no humans, no life at all except for one roach and one tiny sprout. A dead world. The planetary equivalent of an apartment somebody gets kicked out of and they don’t clean anything, they just leave all the shit they don’t want or can’t carry piled on the filthy carpet. And yet there’s still humanity there! The garbage that lives in the garbage has a spark of humanity. It’s a dystopia but it ultimately has an optimistic view of humanity. If that rose could grow from a crack in the concrete like Tupac talked about then why couldn’t an obsolete keep the concept of love alive? Humanity will prevail.
Somebody pointed out to me that if Pixar puts out a movie like CARS that’s amazing in alot of ways but not as appealing as a TOY STORY or something then everybody gets mad and says they lost it. But if the other companies put out something like KUNG FU PANDA people bend over backwards to compliment it just for being watchable and mildly amusing. It’s easy to imagine a KUNG FU PANDA type non-Pixar movie that would have some of the later human parts of this movie in it, and people would go nuts for it. Once you get to the animated humans in this movie there’s some broad satire about rampant consumerism and laziness. People are so obsessed with their computer screens they forget there is anything else to look at. They don’t know about the other people around them. They’re so fat they can’t stand up and their bones have disappeared. The babies are all corralled together and they leave it to your imagination how exactly mating works in this world, but you know whatever it is it’s some fucked up shit. In a Brand X Animation Studio movie all this would seem shockingly subversive. That would be the part that people always talked about and what made it a decent movie. In WALL-E though it’s easily the weakest part of the movie!
I would say that’s the movie’s one weakness, and something weird about it. The second part of the movie is the type of excellence we’ve come to expect from those Hawaiian shirt wearing nerds. But the first part is something even better, it transcends the normal Pixar movie. I bought into that world so much that it was not animation in my head, it was the real world, so once you got to animated humans it was a bit jarring. But still pretty damn good. Alot of this part seemed deep to me too, like the way Wall-E accidentally inspires a robot revolution, the misfits in the repair shop decide to stop following their directives and provide the much needed chaos within a rigid system to literally save the world. When a cleaning robot becomes confused about whether to follow the laser he’s programmed to follow or the mud tracks he’s programmed to clean up it’s a funny visual joke that gently destroys the notion of being able to get through life just by following the rules. Sorry, Forrest Gump.
(isn’t it funny when a reviewer bitterly attacks some other movie out of the blue and you think “where the fuck did THAT come from?” I thought I would throw one of those in there.)
It’s cool because there’s no bad guys really, there’s just machines that are programmed to do something we disagree with. The course of humanity is decided by this mistake somebody made 700 years ago. In a world of rules, only one machine, his girlfriend and a fatass can change the course of history forever.
Obviously the story is saying something about consumerism and the environment, but it never seems preachy because the characters themselves don’t even know about it. The captain of the ship does figure out that it’s bad and try to do something about it (“I don’t want to survive, I want to LIVE!”), but the main characters WALL-E and EVE actually never know that there’s anything wrong with the world or that they need to do anything. They’re too busy falling in love. Please note that computer animated humans kissing in FINAL FANTASY was terrifying, but two buckets of bolts romancing each other in this one is heartwarming.
I got no doubt in my mind that this will still be considered a classic when we’re all dead. Its biggest flaw is to end up merely EXCELLENT when it starts out TRANSCENDENTLY BEAUTIFUL. It’s true, I would be happy to watch 2 1/2 hours of this robot sifting through garbage, and there is a certain poetry that comes from the absence of the humans. But at the same time it’s inevitable that he’s gonna see where he comes from, meet his maker. It’s like in a mystery movie there is an indefinable feeling that comes from not knowing what the answer is, and you’re always gonna lose a little something when the mystery is solved at the end. But hopefully it will come together well, and in this case it does.
Shit, I’ll take WALL-E warts and all. And these are some small warts. This is one of the all time great robot love stories, way better than HEARTBEEPS.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.