Rating: 2.5 stars
Oh what a curious—and sometimes flat-out weird—movie WALL-E is. I have to admit, it took me a while to grasp its shades and rhythms—and even now I’m not sure if it’s a masterpiece or a miscue or both.
For starters, the beginning feels more like a horror film than a Pixar romp for kids. We hear a corny song from a musical—later it’s identified as “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly—and then zero in on a post-apocalyptic earth. You see, waste has overrun the planet and all humans are exiled to space. Alone doing the clean up is the robot WALL-E (or Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class) and others of his kind. He looks a bit like a cross between Johnny Five, the robot in Short Circuit, and E.T.
But actually, the Spielberg film that WALL-E owes its biggest debt of gratitude to is AI. It was in that film that our boy robot finally got his wish of being human by simply being the most “human-like” robot of the future. Likewise, WALL-E, whose only friend is a cockroach (a nice joke, as earth is supposed to be uninhabitable; also the Twinkies are still fresh) and a VCR tape of Hello, Dolly, is a most humanoid of creatures. Mostly, he compacts trash, but he also stockpiles trash of interest, like shoes and lighters and fire extinguishers, and he seems to have a love for pretty things. (In a scene that shows the film’s enormous capacity for sly visual wit, WALL-E salvages a diamond ring from a trash heap—then tosses the diamond and keeps the box.)
These opening scenes, virtually silent, play like moments from a Charlie Chaplin movie, all the more so when our little trash-compacting tramp meets EVE, a robot from space who has come to earth on a reconnaissance mission (she’s looking for signs that earth is habitable) and falls in love. Here, I think, is one of the film’s first missteps. EVE is shiny and virtually featureless; she looks like a giant Tic-Tac.
“Directive?” she asks WALL-E, who seems as puzzled as most of the children will be.
Pining away for EVE, who keeps trying to shoot him, WALL-E gives his love a plant in a beat-up shoe. This sends the more sophisticated robot into shut-down mode—her mission is complete.
It was at this point that I decided that WALL-E didn’t need to be for kids, it could be something weird and wonderfully unique on its own terms. A Disney-produced art film—imagine that. And maybe, just maybe, kids wouldn’t need to understand post-apocalyptic earth or robots in shut-down mode. Maybe they would be so charmed by the childlike WALL-E, they’d follow him anywhere. (The kids in my audience were strangely quiet—I couldn’t tell if they were bored or mesmerized.)
Unfortunately, the next place we follow WALL-E is into space.
Now at the halfway point, the film completely switches gear. It goes into full-on sci-fi mode. We’re now on a spaceship where humans are so plugged into a corporately-controlled virtual reality, they have all gotten fat and almost immobile. Again I say, THIS is for kids? (Okay, I’ll stop.) As stow-away WALL-E roams the spaceship searching for his true love, the ship’s captain struggles with a robot mutiny. Suddenly, there is lots of dialogue, lots of story—it goes from artsy to busy. If the first half feels like a robot take on The Tramp, the second half feels like The Incredibles meets 2001: A Space Odyssey.
WALL-E is certainly the most original and unclassifiable of Pixar films, but I’m not willing to add my voice to those who say it’s their best.