Note: will include spoilers, but personally, I think most G-rated movies are too predictable to be spoiled that badly.
Seeing Wall-E in a packed theatre last Saturday, I realized that the movie theatre climate has been drastically altered since I was a wee child. Just as the Harry Potter books invaded the New York Times bestsellers list, Pixar films have become a serious contender in the fight for opening weekend box office sales.
The difficulty of producing a meaningful children’s film (or novel) lies in balancing a message that shies away from both sentimentality and pedantry with an equally important need to entertain. Too often G-rated movies either sink into meaningless antics and gags or feature overly sappy scenes about the importance of family, love, and self-identity. Luckily for moviegoers, Wall-E makes neither of these fatal mistakes, never for too long anyways.
The thing that I found most intriguing about the film was its ability to tell a story with such sparse dialogue. The first half of the film, especially, reminded me of Charlie Chaplin and the wonders of silent film. Wall-E and his love interest Eve repeat their names countless times throughout the film and yet, each time it is said, it carries a different intonation and nuance. Wall-E really makes you think about the importance of body language and what aspects of expression are most integral to being human (for any character, whether robot or animal, only gains our sympathy through its human qualities). Visual effects have always been Pixar’s strong suit and they definitely show this in the detail they put into humanizing their robots.
Wall-E, a shy, lovestruck robot, would probably have been a nerd if he was a human being and his characterization seems to coincide with the current trend that lauds the beta male who is often paired with a stronger, more dominant female character. Given the success of Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, and a string of other movies promoting the less-than-handsome, slightly awkward hero who wins the heart of a hot girl, it’s interesting and telling that even children’s films are beginning to follow this formula. Dirt-ridden and weathered, Wall-E is not the ideal counterpart to Eve, who is far more technologically advanced and (scarily) armed, and yet this endearing little guy somehow manages to win over her and everyone else. Setting aside the classic male role for something a little less perfect, the film industry is moving towards a more realistic portrayal of the average Joe.
The unfolding of Wall-E’s love story with Eve was delightfully done and Pixar was smart enough to insert humor wherever the moment risked sappiness. The only scene that kind of made me cringe was when Eve holds hands with Wall-E to make him remember who she is; it seemed almost too precious given the repeated foreshadowing of this monumental event with the replaying of Hello, Dolly! on Wall-E’s tape. While we all care about Wall-E by the end, somehow the revival of a robot from the grips of death is far less poignant than, say, the death of Mufasa or the Beast’s resurrection as a prince, making the scene feel contrived as a not-so-subtle tying up of loose-ends.
The opening shots of the movie eerily depict a futuristic wasteland left behind by mankind when Earth became uninhabitable. Tall skyscrapers made entirely of trash fill the screen as advertisements for Buy N’ Large continue to play in the empty city. The view instantly recalls the pessimistic warnings against mass consumerism and the destruction of the environment that have risen to the forefront of today’s political debates. The eco-friendly, “green” agenda, exemplified in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, is clearly evident in Wall-E, showing the extent that environmentalism, once mocked as the cause of tree-hugging hippies, has pervaded American culture.
Even more so than the issue of environmentalism, the dehumanizing nature of technology and mass consumerism is ever present in the film. A spaceship full of obese people drinking their food from big plastic cups seems to echo the warnings of Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me while the isolation of human beings in individual hoverchairs and the trance-like state that the viewer finds the future generations of mankind in resembles the dystopias of Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, where the problems of society are caused by self-induced ignorance and apathy. A particularly creepy part of the montage of life on the spaceship is that of the nursery where babies were being taught about Buy N’ Large products (“B is for Buy N’ Large, your very best friend”). Even the babies, it seems, are bombarded with propaganda. This indictment of modern life implicitly includes the role that technology plays in advancing such consequences. Ironically, it is a robot that seems most human in the film and ends up saving humanity.
Interestingly enough (and in my opinion, a little disappointingly), Wall-E fails to give a definite response to the problem of Big Government (as symbolized by Auto and the president, who refuse to deviate from the set course) and excessive consumerism. The obesity problem is written off as the accidental result of living so long in space (which, by the way, is scientifically inaccurate – people actually lose muscle mass/strength) rather than the fact that the people in the film never exercise and gorge on fast food. In fact, the image of a sea of chubby people rolling around when the spaceship tilts feels like a joke made at the expense of an opportunity to address a greater problem. In addition, the rebooting of life on Earth is overly simplistic, celebrated with the planting of a single sprout (also scientifically impossible given the lack of genetic variety in one plant to ensure species’ survival). In the struggle between dealing with the big issues and giving kids a happy ending, happy ending clearly wins. With Wall-E and Eve’s triumph over Auto, the previously dehumanized human beings return happily to Earth and fields of plants randomly start to grow as the movie comes to an end.
Perhaps such an ending is appropriate for the innocent expectations of children, but in a sense I feel like they got cheated out of a more meaningful message. The more pressing issues of today’s society take a back seat to robot romance and in the end, you are left unsure of what the movie actually thinks about the big problems that were brought up. Nevertheless, this may indeed be part of the nature of its genre and Wall-E cannot be entirely faulted.
Wall-E does well despite the constraints and flaws of its genre and definitely deserves to be one of the major blockbusters of the summer. The cute-factor of Wall-E cannot be denied; however, my general opinion towards Pixar goes unchanged: while they always do a great job with animation, witty dialogue, and humor, the plot frequently lacks a little extra depth.