Judging by the reviews of Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E, it’s probably time the folks at Pixar designated themselves as a church and claimed tax-exempt status. Now, although I find it an uneven one, WALL-E is a good film. But the amount of unstinting praise being heaped on it is frankly alarming. I mean, seriously, is it really “one of the best films ever made” as Steve Rhodes (Internet Reviews) claims? Does Sean O’Connell (Filmcritic.com) truly wonder what he will do to “pass the time until Pixar’s next endeavor, Up, arrives”? Does Lou Lumenick (New York Post) honestly believe that “some day, there will be college courses devoted to this movie”? Will it one day be possible to get a master of arts in Pixarology?
Now, before a massive letter-writing campaign commences, attacking my parentage, my politics and even my right to continue using up oxygen, please note that I have not called WALL-E a bad movie. I’m simply asking for a little perspective here. This is an animated film about robots in love. There’s nothing wrong with that. It also has a deeper theme about consumerism and ecology. There’s nothing wrong with that either (though it raises a separate issue of its own). It is not, however, the 21st-century equivalent of the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The first part of WALL-E actually is a thing of wonder. The Pixar people have created a post-civilization vision of Earth that’s more striking and more believable than anything I’ve ever seen in a straight science-fiction movie. The decayed, empty skyscrapers and big-box retailers flanked by towers of compacted trash are remarkable (eerily similar to depictions of the Tower of Babel). It’s perfectly believable that the only inhabitants of this landscape are the sole functioning cleanup robot, WALL-E (“Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth Class”), and his nameless cockroach buddy. Since robots work on the basis of simple directives, WALL-E happily carries on with his seemingly endless task of amassing, compacting and stacking the accumulated waste generated by humankind.
The catch is that the little fellow has developed a personality over the years. He stopped simply compacting everything and has taken to storing items that catch his fancy in a kind of curio museum that resembles Juliette Binoche’s character’s cache of shiny stolen objects in Bee Season (2005). WALL-E has also developed a romantic streak—through endlessly watching a worn VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! (1969). (Whether this prime example of overproduced, overpriced conspicuous consumption was chosen with a sense of irony is unknown. We should perhaps merely be thankful he didn’t come across Mame (1974) instead.)
His world changes forever with the arrival of EVE (“Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator”), a sleek, hovering robot that vaguely resembles one of those personal battery-operated fans. She has her own directive and a trigger finger that makes Marvin the Martian from the old Warner Bros. cartoons look positively placid. This being a movie means that WALL-E will immediately develop a hopeless Chaplin-esque adoration for this sleek beauty. But it turns out not to be so hopeless once she realizes WALL-E isn’t a threat. She succumbs to his awkward charms—at least until he shows her his greatest treasure, a seedling, which kicks her directive into high gear, shutting her down and signaling her for pickup.
It’s at this point that WALL-E itself shifts gears. As soon as WALL-E stows away on the spaceship in pursuit of EVE, the film turns into something a lot less special and a lot more like a fairly typical animated movie—no matter how well done. Even the drawing becomes less realistic and more cartoonish. That this is the section of the movie that’s packed with satirical commentary of humankind’s enslavement to its own creations doesn’t make the tonal shift any less jarring, and it doesn’t keep the second half of the film from becoming ordinary by comparison with the first.
Human beings are reduced to morbidly obese gigantic babies who float around on hover chairs, playing video games and sucking down fast-food meals in cups. There’s no human interaction (yet, strangely, there are baby humans) except that which occurs on their computer screens. These are our couch-potato selves taken to the logical conclusion. As a commentary on our lazy, self-contained, e-mail, cell phone, text-message, videogame-driven society, this is unnervingly on target.
That this image and its message are housed in a film with a massive amount of tie-in merchandise destined to become part of the landfills of waste WALL-E compacts—including a video game for every known operating system, which is hawked in the film’s closing credits—is either ironic or just plain hypocritical. (Hey, folks, think about all that waste you generate, but on the way home stop at Wal-Mart and pick up the WALL-E video game and some WALL-E pajamas for the kids to wear while playing it!) Does this make the film’s message any less important? No, but it takes the concept of “do what I say, not what I do” to new levels.
The end result is a good movie—and one-half of a great one—but with a message it doesn’t seem to actually subscribe to. Some will say that I’m taking this all too seriously and overanalyzing the film, but the message is right there and in your face. And really, if this is indeed to be accepted as “one of the best movies ever made,” how is it that I could be taking it too seriously? You can’t have it both ways. Rated G.