WALL-E (2008) / Animation-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running time: 103 min.
Cast (voices): Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
Cast (live action): Fred Willard
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton
As I watched Pixar's latest animated masterwork, many thoughts and emotions washed over me on multiple levels. However, the one thought that occurred to me that has stuck with me more than others is that WALL-E will probably do more to influence the world environmental movement than any single source of entertainment, and perhaps even non-entertainment, I can think of offhand. I'm not really talking about adults, who've mostly heard about and made a conscious decision to alter their habits to try to be more environmentally concerned, or have just decided it's someone else's problem (or not a problem at all). It's the kids who watch this, not once, but repeatedly, who may not fully understand it all now, and yet the message will still sink in. The Earth is on a dangerous path of unsustainability due to the corporate stranglehold that has us a society of consumers who just want everything as convenient and expedient as possible, to the detriment of our health - not only of our bodies, but of our planet in general.
The Earth of 700 years from now is a polluted wasteland, stripped of nearly all forms of life (the only visible non-plant organism we see on the surface of the planet is the cockroach, which have apparently evolved to be practically indestructible). Over the last several centuries, the only activity one could see came from the robots created by the humans, who've all evacuated due to the unlivable conditions, to do something about the mountains of trash that have accumulated. However, robot parts have deteriorated with no one to maintain them, leaving only one solitary (at least that we can see) robot left to try to deal with the aftermath of humanity's destructive path to near extinction, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). WALL-E has developed a personality of his own, saving interesting knick-knacks in his collection of Earth's more interesting contraptions, including something he's never seen before -- a sprouting plant. That plant becomes the trigger for a new class of robot, named EVE, to give evidence to the remaining colonies of humanity traveling in garish luxury space cruisers that it's time to return to Earth. As EVE returns to the ship to complete her objective, the lonely (and perhaps love-smitten) WALL-E tags along, finding a human race kept fat and happy by the corporate consumerism that may have been the direct link to the Earth's demise.
Pixar delivers another winner to add to their already impressive collection of animated classics that will entertain generations to come with a real commitment to depth in characterizations and story above and beyond their gorgeously rendered 3D animation, which is about as photorealistic in WALL-E as I've seen in a film to date. Sci-fi heads will also appreciate R2D2's sound designer, Ben Burtt, as the voice of another cute robot, Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's self-destruct mode (a la "Mother" from Alien), and a very HAL-like villain that tries to manipulate the hero's motivation through a higher directive of its own choosing. This is a very smart and entertaining film on multiple levels.
The representation of Earth and humanity's future is simplistic by science fiction standards, but the themes that emerge as surprisingly complex, and though quite dark in tone from previous efforts, quite affecting if you're in tune with the messages. In some ways, it's almost too much to take in all at once, as we marvel at the superb craftsmanship with which Pixar has delivered a truly magnificent spectacle for the eyes, but with each scene, a new revelation takes place as WALL-E's curious nature discovers more pieces of the puzzle as to how the Earth changed from that of today to the ghetto existence that results in near self-annihilation.
In the overall arc of Pixar's releases, WALL-E may not be as likeable in the hearts and minds of those viewers who love feel-good family films. The entire premise of the Earth's demise is cynical enough in the most extreme sense of the word, but to see the human race continue to exist in a state where nothing is learned from past mistakes makes the film as a whole profoundly depressing. Even though far too simplistic in concept to be taken as a feasible representation of Earth's immediate future, the metaphorical themes are potent. Although never overt in its attempt to preach its message to the audience, the underlying themes do come across quite well. Personally speaking, there were moments when the impact of seeing all of those fears I personally share, where the human capacity for greed and power becomes so complete that we, as a species, can do nothing to avert our own demise, stirred me emotionally. In a society where news stories about wars and environmental issues take a back seat to the latest celebrity gossip, subliminal messages of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" consumerism, and commercials for pharmaceutical drugs to help us cope with whatever anxieties we are afflicted with (or just think we are), one can't help but think that WALL-E's world of the future is, while certainly "worst case scenario," not too far off the mark.
Yet, amid the bleakness of catastrophe, WALL-E still emerges as a heartfelt and ultimately uplifting entertainment that offers food for thought beyond any major studio animated release (not counting those by Hayao Miyazaki) I can recall in some time. Pixar has made many classics already, but WALL-E is perhaps the first film that actually dabbles with the mantle of "masterpiece." It doesn't quite attain it, as the film has a few too many cutesy commercial vehicle aspects to ultimately take it as a complete work of art, but there are certainly moments when it transcends beyond the simple story to deliver erudite concepts and a balance between beauty and ugliness of a world gone completely mad. At the very least, it will have audiences thinking, and talking (and perhaps even doing something about it), about the many things they find interesting or troubling within. In the vision of humanity, one may not notice such things as the complete lack of ethnicity among the humans, completely homogenized by the corporation that keeps them fat and happy to make for a more pliable consumer base.
In certain respects, one can't help but feel a certain uneasiness when one realizes that WALL-E itself is a commercial product to make money for the studios that produce it, especially in the arena of merchandizing of toys, clothes, video games, and a plethora of other consumer items that will be readily consumed by the very same mass public that the film is trying to wake up. It would be easy to criticize the film and its makers just on that basis alone, but to those who disregard WALL-E as a hypocritical piece of eco propaganda, I would suggest thinking a little more deeply to appreciate its strategy. This is a movie that, given the expense to produce and release, would never have been made if not for the commercial aspects of it, and without the product tie-ins, would not likely get anyone into the seats to see it. It doesn't preach to the choir like an Al Gore documentary, but targets those very people who are prone to buy into marketing schemes, pacified by all of the bells and whistles that normally distract them from having to think about the ills of humanity's ravenous pace of consumption. If you truly want to effect any sort of change, however slight and subtle, there's probably no better way to do that than to ensconce your message into an appealing commercial package.
The impact may not be felt now, but as the young viewers grow older, the weight of a film like WALL-E may manifest itself in a better understanding and more awareness about the environmental impact of our actions. WALL-E is like medicine for kids, flavored like candy or bubble gum to make it go down light and easy, crafted with the intent of giving them a healthier future for them and their own children. That it also succeeds as a fine piece of entertainment independent of its themes certainly makes it worthwhile, but that it succeeds in delivering a message that impacts in a way no other means could is what makes it one of the most timely and important movies of the here and now.
©2008 Vince Leo