I would love to be able to go against the flow of critical reaction and general opinion and say that WALL-E was one of Pixar’s few misfires, but that would go against my better judgment and would surely brand me as a heartless cinematic spoilsport who doesn’t know good family filmmaking when he sees it. So yes, WALL-E is everything you hoped it would be: a crowd-pleasing robot love story complete with an environmental slant that makes a point without bludgeoning you over the head with it.
The film follows the story of a merchandising juggernaut, er, trash-compacting robot named WALL-E (Ben Burtt), which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. His job is to clean up the mess we’ve made of planet Earth which, by the year 2815, can no longer support life due to our obsession with consumerism. The title character is the only WALL-E unit left on Earth, and he spends his days crushing our trash into neat little cubes and organizing them into piles. In his years of isolation amongst human refuse, he adopts a personality. He plays with a Rubik’s Cube, he has a pet cockroach and he studies an old VHS of Hello, Dolly!, which teaches him how to love. And wouldn’t you know it; one day a sleek sexy female robot (Elissa Knight) gets sent to Earth to collect plant specimens. WALL-E presents to EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) a seedling that he had found and placed in an old boot. Little does he know that once she scans the vegetation, her mission is accomplished and must return back to the human ship Axiom to present proof that Earth can sustain life once again. WALL-E, desperate to stay by her side, joins her on her journey to the Axiom and helps the humans revive their world in the process.
Pixar’s last attempt to humanize machines was a mixed bag. With Cars in 2006, Pixar gave automobiles human characteristics, and the result was a film that felt less polished, more punny and far less charming than the studio’s previous efforts. In WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton let the characters’ actions do all the talking, sparing audiences from a self-referential parade of celebrity voice actors by keeping dialogue at a minimum. WALL-E’s big, baleful eyes tell a story all their own, and the love story between he and EVE rivals those of most Hollywood films featuring flesh and blood actors. During one scene, when the two are “dancing” in zero gravity, the artificiality of watching not only robots, but computer animated ones, melts away altogether.
While WALL-E is a love story at its base, it also has an environmental message about taking care of the world we live in before it’s too late. The humans in this film are fat, pampered, overgrown babies who rely solely on automation as they float about the decks of the Axiom in hovering chairs, suffering a loss of bone mass and an inability to perform simple tasks on their own. The moral here is rely less on technology, do more for yourself and take an active role in protecting your surroundings. It’s not An Inconvenient Truth for toddlers, but it’s a welcome cautionary message—delivered without cynicism—that should resonate not only with the preschool set, but with their parents as well.
But one wonders if there isn’t a hint of hypocrisy in WALL-E’s messaging. The film tells viewers to consume less, but at the same time, the film lies at the center of a marketing machine that includes action figures, dolls, remote-control toy robots, video games and other consumer products. Disney, with its far-reaching merchandising empire, is the last company one would expect to rail on the evils of consumerism. But then again, these days, green sells.
Regardless of who may be pulling the strings, WALL-E is a welcome addition to the Pixar library, and stands as one of their most impressive outings yet. Most of the cast may be mechanical, but its heart is truly in the right place.