Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wall-E: Grade B

Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin; Co-writer and director: Andrew Stanton. (Animated).

Wall-E is a beat-up, post-apocalyptic robot trash compactor on a desolate earth. The apocalypse was not the customary sci-fi nuclear holocaust or biological plague, but an environmental tragedy: the planet overwhelmed by trash. In Wall-E’s world there are piles of trash as high as skyscrapers (most of it seems to be scrap metal), no living things except a solitary cockroach, and a desolate desert landscape plagued by fierce duststorms. However, electricity is still plentiful, advertisements play from loudspeakers and illuminated billboards offer fast food. Hey, it’s a kid’s movie.

All the humans took spaceships to a distant mother ship, Axiom, where they have lived in spotless luxury and hi-tech comfort for 700 years. Of course they have all turned into shapeless whales gliding on hovercraft chairs as they slurp their 32 ounce sodas. They are surrounded by fast food advertising of a generic nature, but which is colored yellow and red to give the unmistakable impression of McDonald’s.

The mother ship sends out a robotic probe to Earth. The probe is a sleek, white, jet- and laser- powered, egg-shape named Eva. Eva was obviously designed by the people who did the iPod, whereas Wall-E was designed way back in the 21st century by a tractor company. Inevitably, the two robots develop a romance, and that is the heart of the story. Wall-E stows away on the shuttlecraft when Eva returns to Axiom, and Star-Trekian onboard adventures ensue as the humans are awakened to their senses and motivated to return to Earth.

The animation is out of this world, as we have come to expect from Pixar. They have no peer for technical skill or animation creativity. I was amazed at how a wide range of simple yet effective emotions were projected from a couple of robots with minimal human features. They have no eyebrows, not even noses or mouths, and hardly any language, and yet somehow, the two robots are anthropomorphically alive. It’s brilliant.

The Romeo and Juliet emotional caricatures and the heavy-handed eco-message are too simple minded for most adults. But there is a layer of inventiveness, humor, and allusion that will keep you engaged. There is also another thematic layer to consider. Wall-E and Eva, despite being robots, are clearly the characters we identify with, whereas the blimped-out humans are robotic. There is a satirical concern about our technologically-driven society, nostalgic longing for a fanciful agrarian past, and anxiety about the future of humanity.

Disney distributes Pixar, so it is noteworthy that the usual invidious gender stereotypes are largely missing from this movie. Wall-E and Eva have no sexual characteristics (other than their names) and do not behave in stereotypically gendered ways. That is a very large step forward for a children’s movie and I applaud it.

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