Unlike the realm of anime, where it is as predominate as any other genre, western animation and science fiction have rarely been best bedfellows. This is particularly the case in feature films, where for every piece of greatness such as Lilo & Stitch and The Iron Giant there is also shallower attempts like Titan A.E. and the two sci-fi’s that Disney made in-between Lilo & Stitch (Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire), not to mention even less noteworthy films like Mars Needs Mums and the like. It is rare that the two manage to merge in a way that is altogether satisfactory.
WALL•E is one of those rarities…
I must admit that I was skeptical of the film by what little I saw of it – trailers,* TV spots, etc – before I brought the DVD (I brought the film on blu-ray as soon as it appeared on the format), a matter not helped with WALL•E himself reminding me a little too much of Johnny-5 from eighties film Short Circuit. Still with Pixar’s heritage of film-making behind it, I grabbed the DVD shortly after its release, put the disc in my computer tray, turned the lights out and pressed “start movie” and waited for the obligatory company logos to play their course.
Howadays I know better than to trust the trailers of Pixar’s films.
The first thing you hear is Michael Crawford’s wonderful voice singing “Out There”† from the sixties film Hello Dolly, to a beautiful field of stars. It’s a heck of a way to start an animated sci-fi movie, a song about how there is always somewhere you can go in our beautiful world, in a grass is always greener sort of way. It also fits in with the atmosphere of WALL•E, the juxtaposition between it and the rather wretched world we see on-screen here works.
Taking about the music brings me to the rest of WALL•E’s sound, or at least one facet of it. While the film does have dialogue, for the first half-hour it might as well be a silent movie, WALL•E and E.V.E. speak their names and a few other words like “directive”, other than that the two really just make ‘robot’ sounds.
As such these two robots have to emote in the most primal way possible, through actual character animation, such a rarity in today’s market of overly talkative films I was almost starting to think that it was a lost art (a sad state of affairs in what is predominately a visual medium). Body language is the order of the day here, and as someone who can animate as well as an animation fan, it’s welcomed with opened arms. And so well done is the character animation, that mere minutes into the movie I felt more for WALL•E than I have for many a fictional character – animated or otherwise – in a long while.
WALL•E himself is voiced, if that’s the right word, by Ben Burtt, who originally worked for LucasFilm’s sound effects department, starting off creating the effects for Star Wars, including the legendary sounds of the Lightsaber; as well as providing the voices of some of the droids (like the one that gets tortured in Jabba’s palace next to R2-D2). As a sound engineer, rather than a more traditional actor, he is perfect in the roll of, well a robot.
These two robots have managed to do what most robots tend to do in sci-fi, break their programming, or enough of it to develop quirks and personalities. WALL•E has taken up a hobby in the form of collecting any interesting knickknacks he finds, and it is charming to view his childlike fascination with what to us would be boring everyday items; it is also easy to emote with the care he treats his collection with. Even when we first meet E.V.E. we find that she isn’t fully committed to her job (or directive), having a jolly little joyride around the local area as soon as the ship that brings her to Earth is out of sight, it provides us with just enough knowledge that she seems to have a chance to see eye-to-eye with WALL•E.
Going back to the plot. WALL•E was one of a number of WALL•E class robots meant to clean up the Earth, now covered in untold tons of rubbish, while humans spend the meantime on gigantic starships waiting to return. Only something drastically wrong has happened and WALL•E is apparently the only one who still functions, cannibalising other defunct WALL•E robots to survive. The opening scenes are almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as we follow a typical day in the robot’s life, it gives us a sense of the sheer isolation the robot has faced for the last few centuries.
And from the get-go it is obvious that he’s been doing this a very, very long time, as some trash is piled as high as the skyscrapers they stand next to. As the camera follows WALL•E we pass hypermarkets, banks, fast-food joints, all owned by a company called BnL, who apparently also managed to own the world’s government and set up the plans for the evacuation of the planet.
The opening also has the worse, most corny line in the movie, when the president of BnL – played by a live-action actor thanks to ILM – states that “…space is the final FUN-tier”, although it’s intentionally bad like a shamelessly bad catchphrase of an advertisement, so it couldn’t really be said to not serve its purpose.
Of course there’s the obvious parallel between WALL•E and the story of Noah’s Ark, with E.V.E. being the dove and all, but it’s the barebones of the story rather than the film having an overt agenda; besides its just kind of read that humanity would send out probe droids to find out if life had returned to their home-world in the far future. And yes, while there is an environmental message strung across the film, the way it’s presented though, helps to deliver without being overbearing. As it stands the film is a romance first, with the message being of tertiary importance to the plot and overarching meaning. If anything the film is more trying to say that we shouldn’t follow things blindly, whether they be corporations (ironic maybe considering), governments or the A.I., except maybe our hearts.
The plot itself is straightforward and to the point, rather than overtly convoluted and needlessly twisty, not that it doesn’t have twists of its own, rather it works them into the narrative in a way that makes you believe that it couldn’t have happened any other way, it all makes logical sense. The simplicity of the film’s story aids it in another way, it is more or less impossible not to follow what is going on even though the pace of the film is for the most part extremely quick. Actually the pace is fine, really fine, the fast bits move fast and the more relaxed parts move at a more leisurely pace; but the pacing itself is so well thought out that I couldn’t believe that ninety minutes had past the first viewing. Sometimes I have complained about regular-length films that seem to go on forever, here the film just doesn’t feel long enough… it’s remarkable.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS (highlight to read)
The usual problem with a straightforward plot which speeds along at a fair pace is that plot holes can start to develop, and yes there are a few. One minor one is how the Axiom has survived and fed its populace over the centuries, although a throwaway line during a scene tells us that there is a food regeneration program installed. However that is a minor issue when compared to the following, what happened to the rest of the BnL fleet; in the adverts we see at the beginning multiple ships are seen leaving the Earth along with the Axiom, and are never heard from or mentioned again. Just what happened to them (possible sequel-fodder maybe).
On a different note, the environmental message never delves into the planet needing the humans to protect it beyond the captain’s speech to that effect. One of the last shots in the film shows that plenty of plant life has starting to grow without the interference of humans. We need the planet more than it needs us after-all.
Then of course there’s the usual issue with Pixar’s – and most CG I’s – “humans”, whose appearance I have a tendency to simply ignore because it’s a heck of a lot better than the film – and the studios – going down the treacherous road of uncanny valley. Here, the appearance of the human’s is worked into the story in a clever way that allows you to buy into them as descendants of humans that have spent a few too many generations in space.
However, when a film is as much fun, brilliantly realised and as heart-warming as WALL•E is, it is hard to let minor issues bug you; and they don’t. It like riding a themed rollercoaster and noticing that one or two of the ride’s animatronics are broken, it doesn’t detract from the actual core ride. Calling WALL•E out on its flaws is almost nitpicking; the film enjoyment factor just transcends it.
Full of shine and full of sparkle. Certainly is and I’m happy to call it one of my favourite movies, and not just animated ones.
Runtime: 98 mins
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Genre: Animation / Sci-Fi
Technique: 3D Animation
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Andrew Stanton
Producer: Jim Morris
WALL-E © Pixar
*One thing in my defense, the quality of Pixar’s trailers have always tended to be inversely proportioned to that of the films’ and I should have known better than to trust WALL•E’s ones.
†The actual title of the song is “Put on your Sunday Clothes”, the words ‘out there’ are just the first two words in it.