By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 27, 2008
Toil in any industry for a while, and you develop a sixth sense about bad omens. If you're a film critic, for instance, and a studio won't return your calls about a movie, you assume that movie is a steaming heap of garbage. Sometimes, though, it's just nerves. The plot of "WALL·E" may be about a steaming heap of garbage, but the film is a garden of unearthly delights.
One of the summer's presumptive blockbuster-tentpole-hits-to-be, the Pixar film is clearly making co-producer/distributor Disney nervous. And it's not hard to see why. It's too good. Too smart. And, most importantly, too dark.
Set in a future where the Earth has become covered in trash, swept by monstrous, rumbling dust storms and whose only bona fide wildlife is the cockroach (a literally running gag), "WALL·E" refers to our hero -- a Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class. The cute, mechanically chirping robot has been left behind to toil endlessly in the shadow of the planet's rubbish skyline, collecting garbage, compressing garbage, living his solitary life amid his amassed artifacts of bygone human society (a Rubik's cube, a flashbulb, a museum's worth of Zippo lighters).
Oh, yes -- and he ends each day growing misty-eyed (or misty-goggled) rewatching an old copy of "Hello, Dolly!"
It's embarrassing -- is this what would be left of us? Meanwhile, a mass of humankind has been traveling through space for 700 years waiting for Earth to regenerate -- and, thanks to the constant attention of robots, has been reduced (if that's the word) to morbid obesity, sloth and watching interactive video screens. This is not the Enchanted Forest. It's too plausible for that.
The anticipation surrounding "WALL·E," directed by "Finding Nemo's" Andrew Stanton, has been mostly about Pixar. The animation studio behind "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille," it is a company with the best track record in film, and the only thing now providing Greater Disney with any artistic credibility. (Don't think so? Have you watched "Hannah Montana"?) Everyone knows that the marketplace is so starved for G-rated fare that even a modest advertising outlay is enough to sell the American moviegoing family anything, especially if it's animated. But now, while Pixar could be resting on its laurels, the studio makes its most daring film ever. (Yes, it also has "Toy Story 3" coming out, so it's not risking everything on the garbage-robot movie. But still . . . )
What Uncle Walt and Disney once did for wildlife (Bambi, Thumper -- you know the lineup) Pixar does for inanimate/animate objects. Via the anthropomorphic gesture and the vocal endearment, the characters in "WALL·E" are made more human than the humans (the point, obviously). You get the sense that this movie is what Pixar has been aiming at since "Luxo Jr.," the desk-lamp short it produced in 1986 (and which provides the company's logo). Not everything here is original -- the title character is a direct lift, physically and vocally, from "E.T." (the celebrated sound designer Ben Burtt, who created the E.T. voice, also voices WALL·E, without any conventionally human sound). Eve, the Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator who arrives to collect plant samples and steal WALL·E's heart (voiced by Elissa Knight) is a beeping, humming anime heroine (WALL·E pronounces it "Eva," but that wouldn't match the acronym). The comparisons with Chaplin's "Modern Times" -- made in an era when sound was available but which relied almost exclusively on comedic sound effects, or disembodied voices extolling the virtues of a dubious present -- are unavoidable. The assembly-line routines on the spaceship Axiom recall Pixar's "Monsters, Inc."
But "WALL·E" is really an art film, which may be bad news for Disney. It is besotted with its own technology, its own art -- almost, but not quite, to the point that it allows technology to sublimate story. This has been the key to such Pixar films as "Toy Story," which boasted breakthrough execution while relegating the software to the backseat and letting the narrative drive. "Toy Story," by the way, is also a dark film -- there is an unspoken subplot about a broken marriage, and economically displaced people -- and "The Incredibles" had that Ayn Rand theme running through it. So perhaps we should expect the post-apocalyptic cityscapes and dissipated humanity that infect "WALL·E."
It is, the more I think about it, a jewel of a film -- in conception, execution and message. But as they say in Congress, "What about the kiiiids?"
The 5-year-old sitting near me pretty much summed it up ("I think director Andrew Stanton is indulging himself in Godardian semiotics.") Seriously, the kids -- who had been laughing -- got very quiet during certain sequences of the movie, especially when Earth seemed irredeemable. "WALL·E's" glance into our future prospects didn't do much for my bliss either, but the idea that a company in the business of mainstream entertainment would make something as creative, substantial and cautionary as this has to raise your hopes for humanity. Now pass the Twinkies. AND WHERE'S MY ROBOT?!
WALL·E (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.