by Jason Coffman
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I have to admit upfront to being a somewhat fallen Pixar fanboy. I was with them all the way up until Cars, when the concept and cast lost me completely. I still haven’t seen either Cars or Ratatouille, but both of them managed to perform at the box-office more or less as well as Pixar’s previous roster of animated features. When I first heard the concept for WALL-E, I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited about what the final product might be like. True to my expectations, WALL-E is a serious departure from Pixar’s previous work and a huge gamble—are kids (and their parents) going to flock to a film with very little dialogue that takes place in a future where mankind has trashed the planet to the point of having to live on a spaceship while robots clean up our mess?
WALL-E opens with a shot of Earth from space, the view clouded by millions of man-made satellites orbiting around it, set to a song from Hello, Dolly! The camera zooms down through the satellites to the surface of the planet, where huge holographic ads for the Buy-N-Large Corporation continue shilling away to empty cities and piles of garbage higher than the skyscrapers that surround them while the somber score creeps up over the main titles. Seemingly the only other thing left moving is one small Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class (WALL-E) robot, still packing up garbage and stacking the bricks some 700 years after the evacuation of the planet to the Buy-N-Large spaceship Axiom.
The first half of WALL-E is almost completely free of dialogue and features something completely new to Pixar: live actors appear in the ads for Buy-N-Large, including Fred Willard as the president of the Buy-N-Large Corporation (and, presumably, the Earth). During his 700 years of cleanup duty, WALL-E has developed a personality, collecting toys, silverware, and other remnants of human culture. His most beloved treasure is a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! that he watches through a VCR hooked up to an iPod. WALL-E seems to be okay with his work for the most part, but he longs for companionship.
He seems to find it with the appearance of EVE, a robot sent to Earth on an uncertain mission. The second half of the film moves the action to the Axiom ship, where humanity has devolved to the point where everyone is obese and sedentary, carried everywhere by hover chairs and communicating with each other entirely through holographic screens displayed inches in front of their face. Once on the Axiom, WALL-E also meets a wide variety of other robots made for various purposes, all of which are designed to have their own distinct personalities and quirks.
WALL-E is a gamble for Pixar on several levels, not least of which is the fact that it’s a blatant critique of voracious consumer culture. Buy-N-Large can easily be read as an extremely popular and ubiquitous chain of department stores, extrapolated to its logical endpoint: it’s the only corporation left on the planet, making literally everything people need, including the spaceship that takes humankind away from the planet and the robots left behind to clean up humanity’s mess. For adults, the film’s message may seem a little obvious and overly preachy, but for a My First Anti-Corporate Message film, it will doubtless find a lot of young fans who take its message to heart.
All of this, however, is almost beside the point: more than almost any other Pixar movie to date, WALL-E harkens back to the simple pleasure of the possibilities of animation and giving life (and personality) to things that only exist in the imagination. The film is absolutely gorgeous, and while there are certainly nits to pick (for example, the live-action actors don’t really work as ancestors of the CGI people of the future) it’s hard to fault Pixar for trying something wildly different and running with it. WALL-E is beautiful and exciting, and one of the best films of the year so far.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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