For some reason I never get to see Pixar films on their initial release. There’s always something that comes up and prevents me from going to the theatre for weeks at a time. I don’t remember what conspired to keep me from seeing WALL-E in 2008, but it took me until now to finally have the opportunity to watch it.
There are always some questions raised when watching a beloved film several years after everybody who made it a beloved film. I knew WALL-E was a major box-office success. I knew it won the Best Animated Feature award at the Oscars. I did not know why. Was this a case where the hype fed on itself? A case where peoples’ emotions ran away with them, and a few years later it wouldn’t have as much impact? Was this a case where some hype was deserved, but the hype given exceeds the quality of the film, leading to potential disappointment? Or was it simply a case where the film truly earned the hype?
WALL-E earns the hype.
WALL-E earns a hip replacement.
On a barren wasteland of a future Earth, WALL-E is the last apparent robot of his kind, tasked with cleaning up the garbage that mankind has left behind. Pixar’s usual attention to detail is immediately apparent here, as well as their desire to stretch the boundaries of computer-rendered animation. Where Monsters Inc. stretched the boundaries regarding hair and fur, and Finding Nemo did so regarding water, WALL-E stretches the boundaries of grime and dust and particle physics. Winds blow dust everywhere, and WALL-E tracks dirt everywhere, and it all looks very, very believable. If the desolation of an entire planet can be considered pretty, WALL-E is a very pretty film.
And WALL-E, the main character, is adorable in a beat-up ramshackle sort of way. He’s carefully designed to be so, of course; short in stature, with big wide eyes and a meek and comical mannerism, he’s immediately charming. He doesn’t speak much — until some humans enter the picture there’s very little speech at all in the film — but he conveys a lot of emotion despite the lack of anything really resembling a face. It’s all in the eyes and his hand gestures.
Humanity is doomed, for the robots have discovered puppy-dog eyes.
It may seem odd to give a simple worker drone complex emotions, and this thought crossed my mind while watching the film. Later it’s implied that WALL-E is genuinely different in that respect — his emotional needs and curio-collecting aren’t reflected among most other robots, suggesting that something happened in the past to trigger WALL-E’s growth into a genuine personality. But whether it was accident or design, WALL-E’s emotions drive the plot of the film, and work to keep the audience engaged. We laugh at the little bot, we cheer for the little bot, and we feel sorry for the little bot. Above all, we care about the little bot. We wind up caring about the other characters as well. The Captain of the Axiom shows that the human spirit can triumph even when it has never before been given the opportunity to know the need to triumph.
My one complaint about the film is the use of Fred Willard as a CEO in “archive footage”. Fred Willard is a funny comic actor, and these scenes are every bit as funny as one would expect. But director Andrew Stanton chose to have these scenes filmed in live-action; there is also some live-action archive footage from Hello Dolly. The Hello Dolly footage mostly works because it’s not contrasted with anything in the film, but the Fred Willard footage is shown in close proximity to the animated humans in the film. While some differences in body type are deliberate, the contrast between real-life and cartoon is pretty jarring. He doesn’t look like he’s part of the same reality as the human cartoon characters.
In fairness, Fred Willard doesn’t always seem part of this reality either.
That issue aside, though, WALL-E is a consistently high-quality film. It looks great, and its character designs are charming and effective. The near-silent quality of WALL-E’s character, which could have hampered the audience’s ability to relate to him, instead endears him quickly to the audience. It also helps with the comedy — there’s a sense of timing and grace to the humor in this film that is very reminiscent of the old silent film comic masters. Throw in a few film shout-outs, a healthy dose of adventure, and a lot of heart, and WALL-E is one fantastic film.