What a great week to be an animation journalist. On Monday I got to watch Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Batman: Gotham Knight (stay tuned for the review), and Tuesday night offered a screening of Disney/Pixar’s WALL●E. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and the rest of the Pixar team have hit another homerun with this funny, charming, heartfelt and poignant love story with a big message about taking care of our planet before it’s too late. The animation is, of course, stunning, but the real accomplishment is giving us characters we really care about and using minimal dialogue to do it.
WALL●E is the story of a small robot designed to compact garbage into small cubes and stack them in a landfill. When the Earth became too polluted to support life, all human beings fled to space to live aboard luxury liners, leaving our hero alone to carry out his prime directive and mine the garbage heaps for things that capture his unusual imagination. With only a cockroach to keep him company, WALL●E leads a relatively lonely life until a spaceship comes down form the sky carrying a sleek and powerful probe robot named Eve. WALL●E falls fast and for the laser-blasting beauty and eventually gets her to drop her guard and get in touch with her emotions.
A series of events leads the star-crossed lovers into space, where the friendly and inquisitive WALL●E finds himself suddenly surrounded by other automatons and human beings who have evolved into fat slugs that float around on high-tech lounge chairs with built-in computer screens that provide their sole source of communication with other people (purely science fiction). The humans have become so reliant on robots that do everything for them that they can’t see what’s really going on. WALL●E holds the key for their return to Earth, but not everyone is keen on a homecoming.
Pixar again reminds us why it’s on top of the toon game. Like DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda, the sci-fi adventure draws inspiration from a number of sources, but manages to be fresh and daring. Stanton has said that he wanted to design a movie around a character that is essentially R2D2, who, if you think about it, is the real hero of the Star Wars saga. That’s why he brought on Oscar-winning Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt to provide the voice of WALL●E and bring the many other robots in the film to life through electronic sounds that have been carefully crafted to make the machines feel more human than the people in the movie.
Stanton has also said that he was trying to make a film that harkens back to his favorite ’70s movies. There is a certain Kubrickian quality to WALL●E, but it feels more like something that would have been made in the ’80s if computer animation had been up to the task at the time. Comparisons can also be drawn to Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, the Steve Gutenberg robot action-comedy Short Circuit and even the oddball Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps, the film that earned the recently departed Stan Winston his first Oscar nomination for makeup effects. There’s nothing particularly new about WALL●E‘s story arc or its underlying environmental theme, but it delivers genuine characters that tug at the heartstrings in a way that few animated computer models have managed to do.
Arguably, the only thing that doesn’t quite work is the inclusion of live-action characters. At one point in the film, WALL●E pops a discarded VHS tape into a salvaged VCR and introduces Eve to the movie Hello Dolly, and we see actual clips from the film. Later, comedic actor Fred Willard shows up as the clueless President of the United States (again, purely science-fiction). In interviews, Stanton has admitted that the choice is a bit odd. I appreciate that he and Pixar were trying to do something different, but the appearance of live actors momentarily pulls the viewer out of the stylized, animated world where the rest of the humans are decidedly more stylized than their fairly photorealistic surroundings.
WALL●E is beautiful to look at and its lead characters will no doubt take their rightful place alongside Woody, Mike and Sully, Nemo, The Incredible family and the other enduring heroes in the Pixar pantheon. It’s hard to imagine a time when this film would feel dated or irrelevant. Even if Disney and Pixar pass on a sequel, WALL●E and Eve are sure to delight viewers for generations to come. This is family entertainment at its finest.