Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Wall-E is the best robot story Isaac Asimov never wrote. Wall-E the character, meanwhile, may be the most lovable creation since Wallace and Grommit. He’s plucky, determined, loyal, curious, he has a sense of humor, and above all he wants to be loved. Wall-E pulls on your heartstrings, tickles your funny bone, dazzles your eyes, and never once insults your intelligence. In short, it’s possible that 9 movies in Pixar has given us their best one yet.
In the year 2185, the Earth is covered in garbage, and humans haven’t inhabited the planet in more than 700 years. All we’ve got is a trash compacting robot named Wall-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), his friend the cockroach, and endless mountains of debris. Every day Wall-E rises from his shed, charges up (he’s solar powered) and heads out for a days work of compacting trash and stacking it neatly into piles that can end up indistinguishable from the skyscrapers they stand next to. Sometimes he collects things that he finds interesting, and sometimes he’s able to salvage parts from old broken down Wall-E’s. He then goes home, feeds the cockroach, and settles down to watch an old video of Hello, Dolly! He looks longingly at the characters holding hands, and records some of the songs onto his built-in stereo to play back while he’s working. This monotony is broken up one day by the arrival of a spaceship and the deployment of a fancy new (and trigger happy) robot named EVE, or as Wall-E so endearingly calls her “ee-vuh”. Wall-E is instantly in love with EVE (who looks like an egg shaped iPod), so when she is taken back to her ship and ready to blast off, you better believe that Wall-E is coming too.
Wall-E is a very simple character and I felt a strong emotional attachment to him. I also felt a childlike sense of wonderment at the space scenes so beautifully handled by writer/director Andrew Stanton. Stanton has worked on every Pixar movie, 6 of them in a writing capacity, and here gets his second solo director credit (he previously directed Finding Nemo, and co-directed A Bug’s Life). One amazing sequence in particular stands out to me as Wall-E and EVE zoom around the outside of a spaceship (Wall-E hilariously using a fire extinguisher as a means of propulsion) doing a very touching kind of robot dance. Stanton amazingly gets us to care more about the robots than the humans that we eventually encounter. Although maybe that’s because when we finally do meet humans, we see that they’ve become technology slaves who’re too fat and lazy to get out of their hover chairs (or get back into them if they’ve fallen out). You can’t blame them though, they’ve been away from Earth’s gravity their entire lives, and are waited on hand and foot by robots to the point that they don’t need to get out of their hover chairs. A lot of the movie is a sort of nice version of what Mike Judge showed us we were headed towards in Idiocracy.
There is a very minimal amount of dialog in Wall-E, but I didn’t even realize that until I left the theater. Oscar winning sound designer Ben Burtt (whose past work includes the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies) meshed a multitude of mechanical sounds over recorded voices to create a version of dialog for the robots. But Wall-E and EVE are so vividly created that their version of dialog, as well as their incredibly expressive eyes, communicates more than many live action actors do. There is traditional dialog in the movie, the ship captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) is the main human character and has plenty of lines, John Ratzenberger makes his traditional Pixar cameo, Fred Willard shows up in the first live-action role in a Pixar movie (it sorta makes sense when you see it), and Sigourney Weaver plays the voice of the ship itself, slyly evoking her role in Alien except she’s playing the Mother role here.
Wall-E filled me with a sense of awe that I haven’t experienced since Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which there are multiple nods here), and I would sometimes just sit back and marvel at the visual invention on screen. Every time I doubt Pixar, they prove me wrong. I didn’t think Ratatouille looked like it’d be any good, but it turns out it was one of the 5 or 6 best movies of last year. When they played the preview for Wall-E before Ratatouille, I thought “Boy looks like they’re reaching for stories now. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how that one turns out.” Turns out it’s a masterpiece, and one of the best movies of the year.