I really liked Wall-E, and apparently so did everybody else. Nevertheless, I spent a significant chunk of the movie feeling vaguely disturbed, and I’m not speaking in facetious Reviewer Voice. I mean that something about the movie produced a real sense of unease in me. Since Wall-E is going to go down in history as a masterpiece despite this, I figure I should just get the big problem out of the way and then move on to discussing what makes the movie great.
Wall-E really has two stories. The first and better one is the tale of a lonely robot who developed a personality over the course of seven centuries of isolation, and now wants to complete himself by loving another. The other story is about the remnants of humanity overcoming their robot overlords, and herein lies my discomfort.
The humans in Wall-E are never portrayed as particularly evil, slothful or stupid; they’ve just been lulled into total physical and mental complacency after twenty generations of living on a self-sustaining luxury liner in microgravity. With obese, marshmallow bodies and a habit of consuming all food through a corporate Slurpee cup, humanity has been rendered infantile, and I have always found infantilization deeply unsettling. It bothers me whenever someone in a movie is treated like an infant, even if that person is still a child. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why Jason Kottke is so obsessed. Maybe it’s just a personal hangup, but I like to believe that it’s a more common dislike, like the fear of snakes or total darkness.
The physical distaste is the kind of thing I can get over. There’s a moment in the movie where we see, for lack of a better phrase, an avalanche of fat people. In retrospect, it’s darkly hilarious. Thematically, however, it’s hard to reconcile the film’s fairly happy ending with what we know about these humans. They’re enthusiastic about leaving their hoverchairs and recolonizing the Earth, but they’re completely unprepared for such a task, nevermind that their wasteful ancestors wrecked the planet in the first place. Then again, maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe you’re not supposed to apply that kind of logic to this kind of movie. I mean, for example, if you were Dorothy, wouldn’t you tell the Tin Man to hurl his ax at the Wizard’s escaping balloon? For that matter, wouldn’t you rip Glinda’s wand out of her hand and then use it to stab her right in her deceitful eyes?
I’ve now devoted a few too many sentences to discussing the sideshow. After all, there are exactly four human characters in the entire movie, and their total dialog would probably fit into a pamphlet. A really small one. Let’s switch gears and discuss Wall-E as a work of daring genius.
Wall-E opens with a shot of a depressing Earth, an endless expanse of skyscrapers constructed from humanity’s compacted garbage. It’s all grays and browns, smog and dust. It’s a desert in Hell. For the first half hour, all communication happens through WALL-E’s beeps and whirs. The audience is left to infer both the back story and WALL-E’s personality as he quietly moves through his landscape and daily routine. So, let me get this straight. You’ve made a movie where the first half hour is practically silent, but you’re confident that the narrative can rest on your excellent visuals, which portray an endless dystopia. And you’re going to market this as a family film? Ladies and gentleman, I have seen confidence, and its name is Pixar. The beginning and end of the film have a measured, almost meditative pace. The economy of communication, the ability to do so much with so little, makes Wall-E a singular achievement. Imagine a feature-length Roadrunner cartoon about existential longing. Now imagine that you’d actually want to watch such a thing.
WALL-E’s physical design is remarkable, so remark I shall. Sure, robot protagonists have been done before in animation, but the robots in Robots were robotic in name only. They quipped with celebrity voices and moved at least as easily as the guy crammed inside C-3PO. In contrast, WALL-E really looks like a machine. His robotness, if you will, is always apparent, and yet despite this he remains expressive and emotionally viable.
A lot reviewers pay lip service to the quality of Pixar’s animation, tossing off sentences like, “The visuals are the best yet from Pixar,” or, “The crisp images retain Pixar’s reputation as king of animation,” etcetera, you get the idea. These reviews have no idea what they are talking about. They have no concept of just how high Pixar has raised the bar with this movie.
Look at the image above and tell me it doesn’t look absolutely real. Tell me it doesn’t look like someone built an actual trash heap and then photographed it. To get an image as photorealistic as this, the easy option is to develop software that allows you to simulate all aspects of physics, which is in itself monstrously difficult. Perfect simulation, however, isn’t art. Pixar knows just what to exaggerate, just what to embellish, remove, or bring into the realm of the hyper-real. They are pioneers in this kind of art direction, where even particles of light can follow a script. Whereas other studios make 3D animations because there’s no money in 2D, Pixar fully understands the artistic differences between the two, and that subtle understanding really shows. I think I feel a second post coming on.