Monday, July 28, 2008
Top of The Heap: WALL-E
Meet WALL-E. His name is an acronym for his function: Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class, which basically means that he’s a trash-compacting droid. Fitted with tank-tread feet and regarding the world around him via a pair of camera lens eyes that sprout from his boxy abdomen, WALL-E is part No. 5 from Short Circuit, part ET. And he’s all heart. He stars in the first directorial effort of Andrew Stanton – the writer behind previous Pixar hits like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo – who creates what could very well go down as the most touching, and dare I say passionate, love story of the year.
Yet as much as WALL-E is glowingly heartwarming, it’s darkly haunting too. The movie opens in a world so bleak that Stephen King might have wished he’d depicted it in The Stand. Within a lifeless cityscape that must be Manhattan, skyscrapers are lost behind towering piles of cubic rubble that have been methodically stacked like children’s blocks by WALL-E and his scrap-compressing cohorts. Of this robotic cleaning crew, only WALL-E remains. The rest of his make and model broke down some time ago, becoming part of the junk they were charged to eliminate. WALL-E’s only company then is a resilient cockroach, dutifully by his side, and some canned music, specifically “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” dubbed from a warn VHS copy of 1969’s Hello, Dolly!
Hello, Dolly!? You’re right: it isn’t a conventional choice for roping in the kiddies who might, at best, know The Wizard Of Oz or Mary Poppins. But WALL-E isn’t a conventional family movie. Its initial setting is as apocalyptic as any sci-fi creation you’ve ever seen, not just in concept but in construction. Blues and greens, the colors associated with life on earth, are virtually nonexistent, scraped off the palette in favor of rusty reds and browns. This setting isn’t as magical a sight as the Paris of Ratatouille or the undersea gardens of Finding Nemo, yet the Pixar animation remains typically jaw-dropping. If the dust and corrosion were any more detailed, WALL-E would require a tetanus shot.
Yet the movie’s most unconventional touch isn’t its throwback soundtrack or its grim outlook. It’s the film’s scant dialogue. The first 20 minutes of WALL-E rival the first 15 of There Will Be Blood. Throughout the entire adventure, our robotic hero speaks only a few words – in large part because he has so few opportunities to speak to someone or something else. Watching the picture unfold, it hits you that this minimalist approach is a stroke of genius for a studio secure in the knowledge that WALL-E’s beeps and whistles will translate effortlessly across the movie’s global marketplace. But it’s daring just the same; funny-voiced green ogres having proven to be so profitable and all.
Is it possible in these attention deficient days that an animated movie could win over audiences by turning back the clock to the silent film era? With Pixar at the controls of the time machine, sure. Start to finish, WALL-E isn’t the strongest movie of the Pixar canon, but WALL-E is Pixar’s greatest creation. He thrives in the way that Chaplin and Brando and all the greats have: by showing us his emotions. Cartoons have long relied upon physical expression, but perhaps never before has animation been so subtle and yet so profound. Consider that WALL-E, like so many great cinema characters, seems to let his heart shine through his eyes – and yet he lacks those very organs. Computer animation, as advanced as it has become, so often requires effort on the part of the audience to believe the unbelievable. When it comes to WALL-E, though, the hard part is remembering that he’s make believe.
On that note, it’s impossible not to feel disappointment that WALL-E the picture isn’t as strong as its titular character. After an unforgettable first 30 minutes that suggest WALL-E is as ready for instant-classic knighthood as was No Country For Old Men last year, the picture plays it safe. Following his love interest EVE – the slick, unblemished Mac to WALL-E’s battered Commodore 64 – WALL-E winds up on a space cruiser that’s as bland as his earth wasteland home is gritty: endless hallways abuzz with speeding robots and lethargic humans wearing identical jumpsuits. Yawn. A romantic zero-gravity waltz between WALL-E and EVE invigorates the movie when it’s ready to flatline, but it shouldn’t come to that. Pixar’s biggest error seems to be spending its entire creative budget in one place, frontloading WALL-E and leaving us wanting more.
Then again, the movie’s emotional journey, modest in scope though it is, is so sincere that it satisfies. Fully. You’d expect that adults would be rapt by WALL-E’s yearning for companionship and by the less-than-optimistic portrayal of our future. What surprised me, however, on two viewings of the movie, is that the kids in the audience sat silent and still. If giggles are a measure of an animated movie’s success, then Kung Fu Panda is king this summer. But WALL-E appears to work on a different and, one hopes, deeper level. Kids won’t understand the numerous allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey. They might not feel the bite of this fanged cautionary portrait. Heck, they might not have the first clue why WALL-E nearly blows a gasket when EVE unspools his archaic VHS tape. But they’ll identify with WALL-E’s need to belong. More than any other animated movie since Dumbo, WALL-E evokes the enormous power of touch.
Will the movie sell record Blu-ray DVDs this holiday season? It should, but I doubt it. Parents still make the purchases, and, sadly, all too many of them resemble the obese, oblivious humans who are openly ridiculed in this movie. Not to mention that while we like to imagine talking toys and bugs and aquatic life, there’s nothing so romantic about picturing WALL-E’s world realized – because for it to exist, our known universe has to wither away. For many, WALL-E will hit too close to home, providing an extreme funhouse-mirror reflection that some would rather avoid. For the rest of us, WALL-E is a welcome reminder to cherish the simple beauties (from plants to silent films) while they still remain.