Pixar’s Wall-E is remarkable in many ways, but any review of the film must begin and end with a discussion of Wall-E himself. He is extraordinary. “Wall-E” stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class.” He is a robot left to clean up the Earth, which humans have trashed and ditched an untold (at first) number of years ago. Though not particularly humanoid — he has conveyor belts for legs, a trash compactor for a torso, and a pair of utilitarian claws — he has uncommonly expressive eyes that stick out of two constantly moving cylindrical tubes attached to a retractable neck. He is persistent: the opening scenes suggest that though the Earth began with an army of Wall-Es, he’s the only one left still puttering away, dutifully compacting garbage into cubes and stacking them. But even more amazing is the fact that over the centuries he has developed a personality.
He cannot speak, though his metallic gasps, groans and grunts occasionally coalesce to form his name. But he can be frightened, concerned, and amused; he enjoys watching old Technicolor musicals and will occasionally imitate them using a garbage can lid instead of a top hat; he collects things from the garbage that he thinks are interesting and stores them for future use. Then, a mysterious, spry little white robot named EVE emerges from a spaceship, there to fulfill some classified directive, and Wall-E falls in love.
Wall-E is so human in so many ways, that at first I objected. Make up your minds, I protested: is he man or machine? But as Wall-E developed into solid, detailed science-fiction, my reservations melted away. First I realized that, working within the confines of a family film, Pixar’s portrayal of robot protagonists is nothing short of a miracle – they’re cute and anthropomorphic, yes, but one only has to look back to the execrable Robots from a few years ago to realize how thoughtful and subtle Wall-E’s vision really is. Then I realized that the movie was about people, not robots, and that Wall-E and Eve are meant to represent the best in our species. And then it all made sense.
The film begins as a dazzling sci-fi comedy, wringing laughs out of the details (Wall-E finds a diamond ring in a box, throws away the ring, and coos over the box) while slowly revealing a context and a history that gave me chills. It’s far too smart and considered to use clumsy flashback or a wraparound device to fill in the background; the information we need comes in elegant, organic bits and pieces. Faithful, tiny against the backdrop of dilapidated skyscrapers and mountains of garbage (rendered with a careful, not-too-picturesque beauty by the Pixar artists), and a little sad, Wall-E wins our hearts while we wonder with increasing curiosity where the hell all of us went.
We soon find out. I don’t want to give too much away here, but Wall-E and EVE ultimately take to the skies and find humanity in not too impressive a state. Living on an interstellar version of a cruise ship, we’ve become fat, lazy, complacent and disengaged, riding hoverchairs, sipping “lunch in a cup,” and chatting dully to each other on personal video screens. By contrast, Wall-E and EVE — barely sentient and eternally confused by programming and directives — seem to embody the curiosity and drive that’s leaked out of us over the centuries. The rest of the film tells the story of our species’ reawakening. Wall-E remains funny and charming, but it’s also dead serious about this, and the result is as moving as a Pixar film has ever been.
Unfortunately, as the film gets heady, satirical, and genuinely interesting, the “romance” between Wall-E and EVE starts to seem a bit irrelevant. It’s sweet and all, but ultimately it doesn’t mean much, and the fact that Wall-E chooses to construct a heartwarming denoument around it is a bit disappointing. I got the sense that this will keep the film out of the pantheon, but maybe a repeat viewing will tone down my curmudgeonly instincts.
As promised, I end the review with the titular robot. Is he the new E.T., which has been the pitch in some circles? I’m not sure. He doesn’t have a tagline, and it’s hard to mimic him. Maybe he’s the new R2D2. More importantly, he might be Pixar’s greatest achievement yet. And the fact that he’s not merely adorable, but central to a serious, thoughtful, adult story is still another illustration of Pixar’s downright heroic commitment to the craft.