Tuesday, July 1, 2008
By Elise Nakhnikian
If only we Americans were as good at running things in real life as we can be at making movies. We could just put the people at Pixar in charge of the nation and sit back, as carefree as the obese former Earthlings who endlessly orbit their trash-strewn planet in WALL-E, socked into their mobile easy chairs with their built-in video screens and giant sippy cups while an army of robots attend to their every need….
Okay, bad idea. But it was pure genius on Disney’s part to put the Pixar lunatics in charge of their asylum when they bought out the smaller, far nimbler, and infinitely more creative studio.
Pixar isn’t perfect – Cars felt familiar to the point of banality – but at their best, its animators are as intelligently inventive as Max Fleischer and as optimistically all-American as Chuck Jones, creating parallel worlds that distort some part of our own just enough so we can see it clearly.
This time around, their target is our relentless trashing of our own environment, and the machine culture that keeps making us more sedentary and less capable. The movie starts several hundred years in the future, in a city that looks like Manhattan except that towers of compacted trash have sprouted up between the skyscrapers.
Those towers were presumably built by WALL-E, a stalwart little robot whose purpose is to collect and compact trash (his name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-Class). And so he does, every day – even though, as we eventually find out, the humans left the planet centuries before, after rendering it uninhabitable.
Orbiting in a giant space station, people have steadily devolved, achieving a state of infantilized, comfort-sucking uselessness. They’ve even changed physically, becoming slug-like ur-couch potatoes, with neckless torsoes, soft bones, and attenuated limbs.
But the humans are just the sideshow. This is WALL-E’s story, and since he’s a romantic it is, at heart, a love story.
It’s a sweet one, too, with its earnest, unabashedly smitten hero and its glossy, initially impenetrable heroine. By the time Eva, WALL-E’s robot love, is unceremoniously dumped on his turf by a space probe, we’ve spent more than half an hour just watching him go through his daily routine, and we’re as solidly in his corner as Angelo Dundee.
WALL-E, who was based in part on Buster Keaton, is curious and sweet, the kind of non-materialistic dreamer who will toss out a diamond ring and keep the box it came in. Alone except for a companionably clicking cockroach pal, whose indestructibility is a running (but not overdone) joke, WALL-E seems lonely only when he bunks down at the end of the day. The metal container he’s made into a home is cozy enough, but there’s not much to do there, other than add a new treasure to his trove of reclaimed trash. (Bringing home a plastic spork, he hesitates over where to put it: With the spoons? No… With the forks? No… Spoons? Forks? Spoons? Forks?)
His other favorite way to unwind is by watching a battered video of Hello Dolly, from which the hopeless romantic learns to yearn for a soulmate who seems fated never to arrive – until, one day, she does.
WALL-E’s love, Eva, is a fearsome thing, a blue-eyed, platinum blond-skinned Amazon. A sort of cross between an egg and a bird of prey, she’s prone to blowing things up when she’s angry, and at first she seems likelier to incinerate him than to fall for him. But his devotion eventually wins her over. As they explore his blighted city to the tune of La Vie en Rose or dance an impromptu pas de deux in the peaceful beauty of outer space, they flow together like Rogers and Astaire.
The story gets a bit bogged down on the space station, dwelling a little too long in what my husband called the Titanic portion of the movie, in which the two run about the spaceship, trying to rescue one another or escape while calling each other’s names (“WALL-E!” “Eva!” “WALL-E!” “Eva!”)
But the pleasure of watching these beautifully detailed, thoroughly engaging, soulful characters in this delicately spun cautionary fable outlasts any minor quibbles about the plot. The dust and grime of WALL-E’s sepia-toned city, with its motion-detector-activated Buy ‘n Large superstore billboards still flickering to life when WALL-E passes, feel eerily realistic, as do the antiseptic brightness and order of Eva’s space station.
Pixar’s masterful simulated camerawork and lighting also help bring the story to life, making this feel so much like a live-action movie that you subconsciously buy into the characters more than you probably would if they were set against the flatly lit, static backgrounds of an old-school Disney cartoon.
It’s all very well to see Earth turning green again at the end, but the real satisfaction comes from witnessing WALL-E and Eva’s reunion. Here’s hoping they live happily ever after.