I’ve seen WALL-E twice now, once on opening weekend, and again last Saturday (with my kids). It’s taken me a while to organize my thoughts, because my impressions of the film have been clouded by the “controversy” surrounding it. I’ve finally given up on separating the subjects, and decided to publish this Frankenstein piece: part review, part rant — all rich, chewy gold.
First, the reversal. A while back I predicted that WALL-E would not only whip Batman’s rubber-reinforced ass at the box-office, but that it would also be the highest grossing film of the year. Several of you expressed doubt, and I carefully took your names down in blood-red ink and quietly locked them away in my special box in the cellar.
Now it looks like I might be eating crow. Not only has Batmania reached an unanticipated fever-pitch, but WALL-E has come under attack from a few raving fear merchants, and their tentacles of paranoia seem to have better purchase than I anticipated. We’ll get to that in a minute.
I still think The Dark Knight will prove to be massively front-loaded, and that WALL-E will have longer legs, but the final tally may end up in Warner Brothers’ favor after all. I hereby surrender my prediction authority, if not rights.
But how is the film?
Glorious, but not flawless. Peter T. Chattaway has noted his own lukewarm feelings about the film, and there are, indeed, a handful of other negative reviews posted at RottenTomatoes.com. We’ve been conditioned to expect perfection from Pixar. But while previous outings like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles never hit a wrong note, they were also much safer films. WALL-E reaches further than its predecessors, and though it stumbles a bit in the second act, it’s far more ambitious, far more beautiful, and far more admirable as a piece.
The story follows WALL-E, the last remaining robot on earth. He spends his days compacting and stacking the junk humans left on Earth when they rocketed away centuries ago. One day, a sexy little probe named EVE appears from the sky, scanning Earth’s landscape for signs of vegetation, which would indicate a livable environment for humans. WALL-E falls in love with EVE and takes her to his home, where she discovers a tiny plant he’s been tending. At that point, her directive kicks in, and she zooms back to into space, with WALL-E in tow. They arrive at a giant spaceship, which contains the last remnants of the human race, who have cultivated an impressively sedentary lifestyle and become bloated, soulless automatons.
The rest of the film follows the two robots as EVE attempts to fulfill her directive, and misguided forces try to stop her. Meanwhile, WALL-E tags along, wanting nothing more from this adventure than to hold hands with his new love.
What’s delightful about all this is that although there are contemporary themes at play (consumerism, environmentalism, techno-dependency), they’re all incidental to WALL-E’s story, which is a charmingly uncomplicated chronicle of first love. His feelings for EVE are simple: he wants to talk to her, to impress her, to keep her in his life, whatever the cost. In the first act, he abandons his own directive (his very reason for existence) to follow her. In the third act, he gives everything to help her fulfill her directive. It’s the way we all feel the first time we fall head over heels.
It’s the second act that’s a little off-key, as the supplemental themes briefly threaten to overwhelm the primary story. I believe the tale would have been more effective if the humans (and their weaknesses) were left mostly off-screen, lying inert in glass tubes or something, kept comfortable and alive by the technology they’ve created, but sleeping their lives away. Thematically, it would have worked, and it would have meshed better with the first act’s somewhat eerie tone. In the end, however, director Andrew Stanton brings the robots’ plight back into focus, and the resolution is pure fairy-tale perfection.
There are so many poignant touches in the film, from WALL-E’s love of campy musicals, to his childlike fascination with random objects, to the gorgeous, dream-like “dance” among the stars (my favorite sequence). The writers may have fumbled a bit in the middle, but the chances they took ultimately pay off. Even with its imperfections, WALL-E is Pixar’s masterpiece.
Finally, a word about the “controversy” surrounding the movie. After discussing the film with several friends, I was flabbergasted by their conclusion that the film is “preachy.” What burns me up is that environmentalism has become so politicized, we can no longer make patently true statements like “plants are essential for life on earth,” or “we shouldn’t suffocate our planet with garbage,” without stirring the ire of certain factions.
WALL-E takes no stance on greenhouse gases, global warming, or endangered species. It simply imagines a future where the world has been made uninhabitable by reckless pollution. It’s not taking a position on controversial subjects, it’s telling a story.
I asked one of my viewing companions how the film was “preachy.” Before I knew it, he was rambling about “Obama’s fourth term” and “another twenty to thirty percent being taken from our paychecks to support junk science.” What? These predications, mind you, were meant to support the notion that the environmentalists are paranoid. The irony is breathtaking.
Discussions like that make me sad. It’s shameful that a sweet, touching film like this can be swept into a political debate, simply because it has the gall to say “let’s take care of the world we live in.” Has that basic, non-partisan principle really become controversial? Really?