Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In Theaters: Wall-E

WALL-E is not only possibly the best picture of the year, it’s the best science fiction film in a year and a half at least. It’s getting kind of boring to talk about Pixar delivering yet another great animated epic, but even by their standards they may have created something special here. It’s a film that’s almost as dialogue-thin as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, that tugs on the heartstrings as much as E.T., and that manages the level of social commentary of just about every science fiction film of the early Seventies, but without the unbearable preachiness. Despite all these comparisons, it’s unique. It’s original, something we don’t see enough of from the major studios, and it even defies some of the conventions that Pixar itself is associated with. Above all, though- look at ‘im! He’s adorable! Aww!

Wall-E (voiced, in a sense, by veteran sound effects creator Ben Burtt) is the last of a group of clean-up robots tasked with squaring away the litter of a terminally polluted Earth. Mankind has long since abandoned the planet, and Wall-E is left alone to crush garbage into cubes and stack it in giant towers. In his isolation he has gone a little eccentric; he preserves objects he finds interesting, makes friends with a cockroach, and listens to showtunes as he works. One day, however, his routine is disrupted by the arrival of an Apple-sleek, vaguely feminine robot named EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight), whose mysterious directive involves zooming around scanning the landscape. A friendship of sorts is kindled, and Wall-E has often longed for someone to hold hands with, but when he shows her a plant he discovered, her directive kicks in. A probe ship takes her and the plant away, Wall-E in tow, heading towards the Axiom, a giant worldship carrying all of humanity. They’ve been waiting for Earth to become habitable again for 700 years- at least that’s the mission statement, but in the meantime the species has become entirely fat and sedentary, whizzing about on floating chairs and cared for by the ship’s computer and countless helper robots who really run the Axiom. Worse, when Eve is brought up to the computer to make her report, the plant has gone missing. Eve and Wall-E get carted off as malfunctioning robots, and an unintended prison break has them chased by robot security guards and still trying to find out the fate of the missing plant.

Critics so far have expressed a preference for the film’s first act, in its wordless simplicity and desolate beauty as Wall-E and EVE form a relationship. To be sure, it works brilliantly in and of itself. But the rest of the film shouldn’t be dismissed as lesser, not by a long shot. The shift of tone when we reach the Axiom is jarring, but we end up in the midst of a sparkly, shiny dystopia dominated by consumerism and inactivity, a surprisingly sharp bit of social criticism for a children’s film. But here’s where it gets interesting; the film is not callous towards humanity, even after it’s trashed its home and locked itself in stasis. During his visit Wall-E manages to knock a few people out of their slumber, and when they wake up and look around, they’re not scared by reality, they embrace it. The people in this film aren’t selfish, and as a matter of fact, I’m not sure any character in the film fits that description. What they are is locked in a pattern, and this holds for the robots as well. It takes a force like Wall-E, a new element, to shake them out of it.

The animation continues to extend Pixar’s high standards, with a number of shots that would work perfectly well for a live action feature. The level of detail is utterly amazing, whether we’re dealing with the junk-encrusted Earth or the sparkling Axiom. Weirdly enough, there’s even some live action in the picture, seen on electronic video screens and billboards.

The film mostly forgoes the familiar tradition of having well-known actors and actresses voice the major parts. Burtt “voices” the main character (and several other robots) through his use of sound effects and voice modulation, and the ship’s autopilot is voiced by Apple’s Macintalk text-to-speech system. Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Najimy, and Pixar vet John Ratzenberger all have parts, but they’re outshone by the nearly wordless protagonists. There’s also the immortal Fred Willard appearing in the live action pieces as the President of the world-dominating Buy-N-Large corporation.

Of course, much of what makes Wall-E work is in the simple appeal of the main character. He’s cute, he’s humble, he’s friendly and curious. He’s attracted to EVE first out of his loneliness, but soon sees the virtue of her “directive” and works to preserve the life of the little plant that holds the key to mankind’s future. I’m not sure he ever fully understands what this is all about, but he knows that it’s EVE’s mission and seems to have a respect for all living things.

WALL-E is an extremely intelligent picture that manages to be very simple and fun at the same time. It’s a film with many layers, but it can be engaged with on the most basic level as the story of a lonely robot in love. It has just the right combination of passion and elegance, sweetness and sophistication. Definitely the picture to beat for overall excellence this year.

Written and Directed by Andrew Stanton

Grade: A

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