WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: He may be a simple garbage-crushing robot, but Wall-E still dreams of finding true love among the ruins of Earth. When Eve descends from the heavens, the little fellow is terrified, then lovestruck; but she has a higher purpose than making friends – not that it stops Wall-E from holding on to her for dear life.
Poor old Wall-E (voiced, after a fashion, by Ben Burtt). The people of Earth have taken an extended break from the planet, leaving the hardy little robot alone – apart from an even hardier cockroach – to clean up the mess. Wall-E feels his loneliness too, reminded by a scratchy copy of Hello, Dolly! that love isn’t all around; so when a spaceship arrives and a sleek, curvy white robot called Eve (Elissa Knight) disembarks, it’s no surprise that he’s smitten.
Eve, however, has bigger fish to fry, or rather life of any sort to gather, but her reaction to Wall-E showing her a sapling is not what he would have wanted – she takes custody of the plant and shuts off completely until her rocket returns. Wall-E hitches a lift back to the mothership, The Axiom, a cruise liner built by the BNL company (under their CEO, Fred Willard’s Shelby Forthright) to save humans the trouble of looking after themselves or the planet. However, as Wall-E and Eve are to find out, and the Axiom’s Captain (Jeff Garlin) discovers very slowly, things have gone very, very wrong in the last 700 years.
For all its awards and critical plaudits, it would be wrong to say that Wall-E is beyond reproach. For some, the tale of a litter-tidying robot falling in love and saving the human race from its own sugar-guzzling stupidity will be the sort of sentimental, lefty, tree-hugging schmaltz that even George Lucas shied away from (there was never, we assume, a Mrs R2-D2*). I will give them this: the second half of the film isn’t quite as inventive or beautiful as the first.
On the other hand…until I see an animated film that’s truly indistinguishable from reality, I’m unlikely to be equally wowed by another CGI movie as I was by Wall-E. A foolhardy statement, perhaps; but I make it in all sincerity. Just in terms of its looks, the film is an incredible achievement, both on Earth – where the skyscrapers are eerily-familiar but made entirely out of junk – and in space. It’s immediately apparent that Pixar have honed their skills to perfection, both in terms of the protagonists and the worlds in which they live.
Moreover, the film is funny. From Toy Story onwards, Pixar have been superb at orchestrating scenes to achieve perfect comic timing; while that has occasionally been overly calculating – nobody will convince me of the merit of fake CGI ‘bloopers’ – the lack of dialogue here elevates many scenes to the level of Chaplin or Keaton at their best.
So far, so kiddie-friendly: but Wall-E explores more mature themes too. The sexless, almost wordless, yet incredibly tender romance between our hero and Eve works better than any number of explicitly romantic films – while Hello, Dolly! (to pick an example not quite at random) has its moments, it doesn’t come near to this film in terms of exploring what it’s like to fall, and be, in love.
Wall-E is the quintessence of a love story, and a doubly abstracted one at that (we’re not watching robots in love, we’re watching drawings of robots in love); since there’s no dialogue to speak of, all the meaning comes from the images married with Thomas Newman’s lovely music. The result is new, unexpected, a technological marvel that at times imitates ballet.
There’s another love story going on too, and I don’t mean John and Mary’s impromptu romance aboard the Axiom; while he battles the ship’s disobedient auto-pilot, the captain learns about long-forgotten Earth rituals: farming, dancing, pizza(!). By taking Western vices of laziness and wilful pollution to an extreme conclusion, Andrew Stanton gives us all pause for thought about the things we stand to lose; and how wonderful to see an American film confront the potential – repeat, potential – ills of unfettered consumerism on the planet and populace alike.
I’ll admit that the obese passengers of the Axiom are pretty unsubtle and suggest that Stanton (and Pixar in general?) might prefer the reliability of their machines over lazy humans, but as a cautionary tale it works stunningly well. As I’ve already conceded, the film does become more predictable as it ramps up the action, the deranged robots (for example) recalling the misfit toys in Toy Story. Yet all is redeemed by the touching denouement which itself continues to evolve as the credits roll, beautifully sketching the future of mankind through the history of art.
Though I’ve not reviewed everything of Pixar’s (I look forward to watching Finding Nemo again), I can’t help but applaud their dedication to quality film-making using tools that they are constantly re-inventing and refining**. Nothing will ever replace the joy of seeing Toy Story for the first time, but the visual, intellectual and emotional impact of Wall-E has to make it the ‘better’ film, whatever that means. Whether or not you have any affection for digital animation, if you like good movies you should watch both – and because it’s that good, start with this one.
NOTES: 1 Oh good grief.
2 Hence the disappointment with Cars. Not a bad movie, just unusually unbrilliant.