700 years have passed since humanity left Earth, which has long since turned into an uninhabitable wasteland of garbage. When they high-tailed it out of there in favor of a luxurious and indulgent life on the mega-spaceship Axiom, they left Earth’s clean-up to a group of trash collecting robots. Wall-E, the only robot still functioning, has been cleaning up our mess non-stop for the past several hundred years, but has developed a curious personality. He’s fascinated with every piece of junk he comes across, and has acquired an impressive collection of treasures over the years. But of course, being the only functioning robot left on the planet can lead to loneliness. His monotonous routine life is interrupted by the arrival of Eve, a sleek, sophisticated (and destructive) reconnaissance probe sent to Earth to search for any signs that it can sustain life again. When Eve discovers a plant that Wall-E found earlier, she enters a deactivated state until a ship comes to pick her up. But unbeknownst to anyone, Wall-E has stowed away on the ship that brings them back to the Axiom, and there he finds out just what the humans have been doing all this time.
Wall-E is among Pixar’s most critically acclaimed movies to date, and I think a part of it may have to do the fact that it was nearly 15 years in the making. You see, the idea for Wall-E was first conceived by director Andrew Stanton at a lunch meeting in 1994 with John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft. Toy Story was nearly complete and everyone was brainstorming ideas for new movies. That lunch meeting was where they came up with the ideas for A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and of course, Wall-E. This was originally slated to be the follow-up to Toy Story, but limited technology and disapproval from Disney postponed it indefinitely, and they weren’t allowed to release it until they earned their stripes. It took several years before it could eventually be made, leaving plenty of time for Pixar to sharpen their skills and really perfect their story telling method.
Long story short, this movie is absolutely brilliant.
Wall-E is a lot of things. At times it can be sweet, charming and lighthearted, but other times it can be dark, bleak, or even downright disparaging. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that’s so equally uplifting and depressing, or at least not any that pull it off so well. One mood doesn’t overbear the other and they somehow strike a perfect balance that not a lot of movies can do so efficiently. Don’t know what I mean? Allow me to explain.
When trailers and commercials for Wall-E started popping up, it mainly focused on the first act on Earth where Wall-E lives his life collecting trash and meeting and falling in love with Eve, showing very little of the second or third acts on the spaceship (which I think was a genius move, but we’ll get to that later). For the first 35 minutes, there is almost no dialogue at all, but we connect with Wall-E and Eve immediately through their expressions, body language, and their interactions with the setting and each other. Wall-E doesn’t really “speak” per se, but rather communicates through a series of bleeps, purrs and rattles that can pretty much be universally understood, and his body language, which mostly utilizes his big, curious, affectionate eyes, only adds to the charm. Pixar already had a firm mastery over silent storytelling, and here all of their knowledge is put to the test. I think the best example is a beautifully done and particularly heartwarming scene where they’re dancing together in space. They barely say anything, but they don’t need to because the actions speak for themselves. It’s an incredibly believable romance, and that’s saying a lot considering I’m talking about two robots.
And then we get to the spaceship and things get real. Like, uncomfortably real.
Personally I think leaving anything about the second act out of the trailers was the smartest thing the Pixar marketing team ever did, because if you’re walking in expecting just a cute love story about two robots, then you’re in for a real curveball. Once Wall-E boards the Axiom, the ship where humans have been living for the past several hundred years, it’s pretty clear that what we’re looking at is an Orwellian nightmare. The Buy n Large Corporation’s grip on their lives has become all-consuming. Robots cater to all of their needs and do all the work for them. Humanity has been reduced to a collective of bloated sloths incapable of walking (which actually has as much to do with the artificial gravity as their lifestyle), getting around in the comfort of mobile recliners, computer screens distracting them and leaving them oblivious to their surroundings, spending every waking second doing nothing but consuming and indulging in their own listless hedonism. If Ray Bradbury (RIP), Robert Heinlein and Walt Disney got together and made a movie, chances are this would be the result.
From a filmmaking standpoint, this movie is incredibly well done, even by Pixar standards. The color palate is perfectly applied to each setting. The hazy, dusty browns of Earth’s polluted atmosphere perfectly compliment the slick, bright lights and colors of the Axiom. Another contrast I noticed is the way they pay homage to different movies in the separate acts. In the first act, elements of silent films by the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are evident, but most noticeable is the motif of the classic musical Hello Dolly, which I found truly amplified the romance between Wall-E and Eve. Much like how the first act references more cheery movies, the second act references films with heavier themes and overtones. References to sci-fi essentials like Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey are a given, but I was most surprised to see a little tribute to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that served as a natural plot point and added to the film’s already deep well of powerful imagery.
Even though I’m making this seem like an unnecessarily grim movie, there’s an air of hope that still makes this film bearable, and I think it’s due to two key elements. First of all is our main character. Yes, it’s pretty blatant that what’s going on in front of us is very dire, but Wall-E doesn’t really see it that way. We see the last robot on Earth collecting our waste long after we left, but his curiosity is what truly sells it to us and make an otherwise depressing thought rather charming. This also applies to pretty much everything else he goes through, especially on the Axiom. Towards the end it seems like they’re going to end it on a real down note, but since this is Disney we’re talking about, we’re assured that things do turn out cautiously optimistic.
The other important element is the film’s mastery of subtlety. Okay, it’s pretty blatant if you’re already knowledgeable of the subject matter at hand, but chances are that it will totally fly over a kid’s head. The thing that makes Wall-E work where other similarly themed movies fall flat is that it’s subtle in the way it approaches the subject matter. Unlike something like Captain Planet that patronizes its audience by beating them into submission with its message, Wall-E avoids this trap by following the most important rule of visual storytelling: show, don’t tell. We don’t need to be constantly told that this future was our doing or that if we want to change it we must change ourselves, because the signs are all over the place. These are very powerful images that don’t need a lot of explaining. We see it on Earth in the mountains of trash and the city where you can’t go five feet without seeing a Buy n Large logo. We see it on the Axiom where Buy n Large practically runs every aspect of everyone’s lives. We see it in the faces of the humans in their loungers. It’s not constantly shouting “this is what will happen if we don’t change”, it simply shows the results and leaves the decision to us. This is kind of a ballsy thing for a kid’s movie to do, especially one funded by a corporation like Disney.
So to sum it all up, Wall-E is an absolutely beautiful movie. While some kids might not be able to grasp the overlying themes to the same extent as most of the adults, they’ll still be captivated by the charming characters and emotionally potent story. Grown-ups will enjoy discussing its themes of corporate consumerism and other themes that they provide, but will still be as equally enticed by all its other aspects as their kids. No movie in recent memory, animated or otherwise, has been so equally depressing and uplifting, whimsical and provocative, bleak and hopeful. And that is why it is my favorite Pixar movie, as well as one of my favorite movies of all time.
I give Wall-E 10/10.
Nine down, four to go.