" ... and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place."
-- Horace Smith, Ozymandias
WALL-E, from Pixar studios, shows us a ruined city, centuries from now, where a single (and singular) robot toils to cube trash and, it seems, will never lack for work. WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth-Class)), a two-treaded solitary worker robot, spends his days cubing trash and his nights shut in safe from the cataclysmic garbage-gales that sweep the planet, inside a repair truck he's filled with things that have fascinated him; garden gnomes, butane lighters, a copy of Hello, Dolly! And in WALL-E's nearly-silent opening minutes, we get a sense of the world he lives in. Everything is ruined; there are no signs of life but for cockroaches; the only voices you hear come when the motion-activated Buy 'n' Large holo-billboards go off. WALL-E strips his broken-down brethren for parts and recharges by the sun's rays and stacks trash-cubes to imitate the skyscrapers decaying all around him, garbage as a pale reflection of glory.
But one day is different from any other day, as a ship lands and drops off a probe -- smooth and shiny, a gleaming higher-tech robot who seems dedicated to her mission. (I know, I know; she's a robot. But, trust me, she's a lady, too). Her name is EVE, and she's looking for ... something. WALL-E wants to get close to her, but she's pretty focused on work; in time, though, they do connect, which is when WALL-E offers her one of his treasures as a gift ... which is, of course, exactly what she's been looking for.
The opening half of WALL-E is, bluntly, awe-inspiringly well-made, combining the silent-film skill and timing of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati with the big-scale futurism of George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg at their finest. WALL-E even sounds a bit like a Lucas creation, which is no coincidence, as his bleeps, blurps and utterances are all designed by Ben Burtt, the sound designer who crafted the soundscape of the original Star Wars films. (I think the best possible anecdote that explains Burtt's devotion to, and enthusiasm for his craft is how, at his wife's sonogram for their soon-to-be-born child, he brought along a tape on the off chance he could use the fetal heartbeat for his upcoming work on Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers; he could, and he did.)
But even with tips of the hat and evocations of the past, writer-director Andrew Stanton's film is also uniquely his. WALL-E's world is sad and scary and lonely; we can feel WALL-E's relief and trepidation when he meets EVE, and then his joy at companionship, and then his frantic worry at the idea of that being taken away. EVE's recalled to her homebase, and WALL-E tags along. And soon, WALL-E is crawling through the gleaming halls of the starship Axiom -- a joke nearly on par with "Nomanisan Island" from The Incredibles -- where the remains of humanity scoot through the ship in hoverchairs, drinking their meals from to-go-cups, holoscreens inches before their faces, essentially (in the words of social critic Neil Postman) amusing themselves to death.
And while events aboard the Axiom may move the plot along, I couldn't help but miss the movie that was left behind. When we're just watching WALL-E rove and explore the wasteopolis of the future, you feel like you're watching the kid's movie Stanley Kubrick never made; as soon as we get on board the Axiom, the film becomes a series of superbly-executed but nonetheless familiar series of plot points and platitudes, moral messages and misadventures. You occasionally get a glimpse of sharp teeth behind the smile: The Captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) celebrates the 700th anniversary of The Axiom's five-year mission and a pre-taped message from the CEO of Buy 'n' Large (Fred Willard) advises "Stay the course." Part of me thinks that Stanton's going easy on the conservationist message and anti-consumerist satire so that it'll sink in with people later; another part of me thinks that WALL-E's message is precisely calibrated so that any parent who purchases WALL-E toys for their kids won't feel guilty enough to stop, but will at least be inspired to put the packing cardboard in the recycling.
And, really, you don't feel inspired to have arguments like this about Open Season or Shrek or The Ant Bully. Pixar may have earned awards and laurels as the pioneers of digital animation, but the true secret of their success is stories so smart and superbly-tuned that you could tell them with sock puppets and still move the audience. That's the case with WALL-E, just as it was for Toy Story or The Incredibles or any of Pixar's finer films. And, at the same time, the animation in WALL-E is astonishing, from big things like the ruined Earth WALL-E's meekly inherited or the star-lit space ballet of two robots dancing in the void to little things like heat shimmer or the ghostly workings of barely-visible machinery through EVE's translucent shell.
Anthropologists tell us that every object we create is also a mirror, the maker's intent and values and aspirations reflected in the thing they've made. WALL-E is appealing to us not because of his human affectations but because he reminds us of the best parts of our own humanity -- his love for silly-smart things like Rubik's Cubes, musical theater and Christmas lights; his refusal to let a friend down; his capacity for bravery in the face of danger and for joy in the face of sadness. WALL-E isn't quite in the Pixar pantheon of greatness alongside The Incredibles and Toy Story, but it's close. Too many kid's movies are created to give kids things to buy; WALL-E is a kid's movie that might, perhaps, give you and your kids pause to think about what things truly cost.