Monday, June 30, 2008

It Only Takes a Moment/For Your Eyes to Meet and Then

Andrew Stanton's Wall-E is, like the bulk of its Pixar brethren (Cars aside) an exquisite, gorgeous, thoughtful piece of art that helps elevate its genre and continues to demonstrate that its studio is one of the most progressive in the entire entertainment industry. Yet there is a part of the film that gnaws on me and halts me from declaring Wall-E an absolute perfect film or the best that Pixar has yet to offer audiences, but oh it gets so close.
I will say this for the film, director Stanton and his team of writers, animators and sound designers have created perhaps their most emotionally resonant film yet. That they manage this with two central characters that speak a mere four words between them is nothing short of miraculous. When I first heard of Wall-E my mind immediately jumped to the perplexing and inaccessible world of Cars, wherein the anthropomorphized machines kept me at a distance. Then once I was introduced to the titular Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth Class) via the trailer I tossed all my fears out the window for good. Utilizing a tremendous economy of visual and body language that has its roots in the silent films of Chaplin, Keaton and Tati, Stanton has created a pair of robots (the boxy Wall-E and the sleek EVE) who manage to convey the entire breadth of human experience, moreso than the actual humans that appear in the film. I'm most struck by Wall-E's eyes and hands. In the preview the filmmakers cannily provided us with Wall-E gazing up into the night sky, the infinite wonder of the cosmos reflected in his Jonny-5 like binocular eyes. This immediately communicated that this being had, for lack of a better term, a soul.

The premise is a decidedly unconventional one for a family film. On the garbage strewn remains of Earth (gorgeously lit, colored and shot under the supervising advisement of legendary DP Roger Deakins) a lone robot works tirelessly at his task; crumpling up all that garbage and processing it into cubes. Wall-E works virtually alone. Humanity has abandoned the planet after the take-over of a Wal-Mart analogue called Buy'n'Large (CEO'ed by a live-action Fred Willard) has covered the planet and now humanity has evolved into over-sized babies completely dependent on automatons, staying the course on a space-ship that's five year mission has gone on for seven hundred years. His only company is a not at all cute looking roach type thing. Day after day Wall-E works beside holoscreens that fill the viewer in on the fate of humanity (living in automated luxury among the stars aboard the pleasure yacht the Axiom) and the remains of all the other broken down Wall-Es. Wall-E doesnt understand the futility of his task but he does know he's lonely, heartbreakingly so. Every day he comes home to his "apartment" deposits any particularly interesting junk (like all good nerds he's something of a collector) and pops in an old VHS copy of Hello Dolly. He watches a live action Michale Crawford sing "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." He's completely captivated by the figures dancing and singing and attempts to bust some moves himself. He also sees humans holding each others hands and then looks at his own, he sighs mournfully. Your heart breaks and I won't lie to you readers it was here that I started bawling, not just crying a few little squirty tears but just big buckets of emotion for this poor thing. If you can pair a strong emotional idea with a musical theater song you've got the Sickness in the bag.
Wall-E isn't bound for loneliness much longer when quite out of nowhere he meets the sleek and most certainly Apple approved EVE. EVE has been deposited on Earth in search of vegetabble matter. She sophisticated, she's as high tech as it gets and in Wall-E's eyes she is gorgeous. I can't speak to the realism of a robot falling in love but if there is such thing I can't imagine it looking different than this. She also packs some serious firepower so Wall-E has to approach with care. Wall-E eventually gets her back to his place and clearly having observed how I do my romancing shows EVE his favorite movie and even tries to hold her hand. It doesn't go well. Wall-E does think he's scored big time when he shows EVE the tiny sapling he found in one of his garbage runs. EVE however puts the sapling in her chassis and shuts down, sending a retrieval signal to the Axiom. Wall-E tries desperately to revive her but it's no good. The montage of Wall-E taking care of EVE, trying to entertain her, just even being with her is both hilarious and oddly melancholy. The inert EVE makes her way back to the Axiom and Wall-E boldly follows.
It is here the film goes from being a masterpiece to merely great. The humans aboard the axiom are lazy corporate blobs. They've all but lost any ability to be self-sufficient and most of their fundamental concepts of human interaction. It is the arrival of Wall-E, in desperate pursuit of EVE that starts a sort of social revolution. There are forces on teh ship that don't want EVE to deliver that plant and much chasing (some good, some bad) ensue. What unquestionably works about it is that the filmmakers at this point have you so invested in EVE and Wall-E that you flinch at the slightest thought of anything happening to them. It's what happens along the way that only sort of works. The idea of a robot teaching humanity is a good one, but in making the humans inhuman the filmmakers may have made them a bit too childish. Powerful emotional moments get punctuated and deflated with moments of slapstick. A plea for ecological awareness, a wariness against superstores and a request for a return to more genuine human interaction are all noble and worthwhile ambitious for family entertainment but they dilute the love story by being expressed with a degree of didacticism that had heretofore been unseen in the film. Don't get me wrong, the slapstick works exceedingly well with the robots, it's just that I found it difficult to sympathize with humanity. It was also jarring to go from seeing live-action humans to their more portly animated counter-parts. There is also the lingering dissonance about the sheer volume of Wall-E merchandise being produced and then sold in our own Buy'N'Larges available now.

At the end of the day though the core of Wall-E remains pure, emotionally compelling material. Pixar maintains its sterling reputation and as always makes me wonder how they will be able to build on their latest success.

Oh I've completely forgotten the colossal contribution of the voice of R2-D2 himself, Ben Burtt, who created the sound design for Wall-E. Gooooooood move.

1 comment:

snell said...

I know I'm late, but I like to wait with Pixars until I can catch a showing without hordes of screaming kids. A couple of more discordant notes:

You're right about the garbage strewn Earth, it's gorgeous...too gorgeous? What is this, the Beautiful Apocolypse? Making it so pretty goes against the sense of a desolate wasteland they were trying for. They should have made it uglier...

Second, Wall-E's "consumerism" really goes against the movie's message. He hoards garbage instead of disposing it. He has a VCR, an iPod, Pong, a Rubik's cube--isn't this the same type of consumerism that the movie's decrying? Just because he got it off of junk heaps instead of buying it new at BNL doesn't make it any less a boosterism for acquiring stuff. Hell, if he doesn't collect stuff, than he dies at the end!! This really muddles the movie's ideas, so it comes out as "all that garbage you made? It will keep you entertained and save your life! It's a good thing!!"