Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Best of the 2000s: WALL-E

4.5 Stars

WALL-E is one of the best films of the Science Fiction genre and a triumph for animation as a medium. Pixar was, without a doubt, the most valuable player of the 2000s, so far as studios were concerned, and WALL-E is another part of its ongoing string of successes.

WALL-E follows WALL-E (Ben Burtt), a robotic Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class. WALL-E is cute for a robot, like a cross between a trash compactor and a Mars Rover. He, the movie leaves little doubt about gender, inhabits an abandoned Earth where he is tasked with collecting, compacting into cubes, and organizing the piles of refuse left behind by humanity. He appears to be the last of his kind, his fellows having succumbed to disrepair in the decades and centuries since humanity abandoned the Earth, and, in his isolation, he has begun collecting treasures from our past: an old video of Hello, Dolly!, a rubik’s cube, a spork, and even a plant – apparently the last surviving (or the first revived) of its kind. He stores all these treasures in his home, the robot world’s answer to Ariel’s grotto, that he shares with his pet cockroach, but his world is rocked when a new robot, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator – voiced by Elissa Knight) comes looking for the plant!

I was always going to like WALL-E as a character. Come on, he’s a romantic little robot with a taste for movie musicals – clearly, a robot after my own heart. But even setting aside my own biases, WALL-E is magnificent. It is incredibly emotionally compelling, even though most of the film consists only of the words “WALL-E,” “EVA,” and “Directive.” The animation is stunning, beautiful – even the parts that are supposed to be ugly are granted a sort of big box store version of elegant decay. This movie is so charitable that it even finds time to grant positive attributes to a cockroach. (Actually, between WALL-E and Enchanted, 2007-08 proved to be a peak time for pro-cockroach depictions at the Walt Disney Co.).

The music is spectacular, sampling Hello, Dolly!, La Vie En Rose by Louie Armstrong, and an original tune by Peter Gabriel in addition to a beautiful score by Thomas Newmann. With music, WALL-E also pays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that also appears to influence the film’s antagonist. Other science fiction greats get evoked throughout, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Nevertheless, WALL-E remains a thoroughly engaging and original work.

That said, it’s not without a few flaws. When I first saw, WALL-E, back in 2008, Fred Willard’s line, “Stay the course,” felt like an out of place pot-shot at the Bush administration. It’s not that a movie taking a political stand is inappropriate; rather, this particular shot seemed so out of place that it took me out of the world of the film. It distracted me. That said, with eight years of distance from the politics of its day, that particular moment no longer stands out quite as strongly. In fact, WALL-E’s politics have perhaps become more relevant as western governments have begun to discuss climate and environmental policy with much more force and frequency than before. Other flaws include WALL-E’s pet cockroach. If there are no plants, and no other life, what does the cockroach eat 800 years from now? The wall-to-wall carpeting wasn’t quite done.

However, the single biggest flaw in the picture is its depiction of humans. When WALL-E begins, the humans are actual humans (Michael Crawford and the cast of Hello, Dolly! appear on screen), but as the film progresses, the humans become animated. This is, I think, supposed to be a visual metaphor for how we lose our humanity by turning our lives completely over to automation and computers (a curious stance for a bunch of computer animators to take). However, the animated humans that arrive in the last third of the film fit seamlessly within the visual spectrum of WALL-E. That is, they look no less real than WALL-E or EVE. It is Michael Crawford and Fred Willard who look out of place. As a result, I don’t think the visual metaphor holds up, and the switch from real humans to animated ones is simply visually confusing.

All the flaws are minor. They do not hardly diminish the experience. WALL-E is a triumph. It is no wonder that it was named one of the best films of the 2000s by 6 of 37 critics and named the best film of the 2000s by TIME’s Richard Corliss.

Next on my search for film classics from the last decade, Pan’s Labyrinth.

From Out in the Void,


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