|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 27 June 2008|
Pixar may be the only company that’s kind of boring because its movies are always—ALWAYS—terrific. Long or short, they’ve all been winners, and “WALL•E” is hardly an exception. The best movie released so far this year, it’s wise, touching, funny and exciting. Writer-Director Andrew Stanton, a Pixar veteran, has taken on formidable task: creating an animated movie mostly about robots—hard, inflexible metal—and told almost without dialogue. Nonetheless, the robots are expressive, the story is clear and involving. At times, it’s even exciting, especially when our little hero WALL•E reaches the spaceship carrying some human beings.
There’s a brief recap of the future history of Earth, briskly related to us by megacorporation BNL’s CEO Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard, in live-action footage). Pollution and population increase have made the Earth inhabitable, so humankind boards a fleet of luxury-craft spaceships, which head out on what’s intended to be a five-year cruise. During that time, the many robots left behind will clear things up.
But now it’s 700 years later (we eventually learn), and almost all the robots have ceased functioning. Just small trash-compactor robot WALL•E remains active, busily scurrying around the remains of a vast city, compressing trash into neat cubes, then stacking them up, erecting tall, swaying towers of junk.
Over time, however, WALL•E has gained self-awareness, curiosity and what amounts to a big warm heart. He does cubify most of what he finds, but things that strike his interest—toy duckies, a Rubik’s cube, this and that—he pops into his lunch bucket (hardly used for lunch by a metal creature) and takes it back to the vast old truck that’s the home he shares with what seems to be the last living thing on earth, a scurrying cockroach WALL•E regards as a pet. WALL•E has scavenged from the other, inoperative robots and has a little repair station for himself. At night, he puts himself on a shelf, retracts down to a cube, and apparently goes to sleep. He’s content, but it’s clear he’s also lonely.
That’s about to change.
WALL•E’s curiosity is aroused by a little red light he can’t quite pick up. Then there are a lot of little red lights, moving across the landscape like a supermarket checkout scanner. A spaceship that looks like it came from one of Richard Powers’ near-surrealistic science fiction paperback covers of the 1950s and 60s lands nearby, terrifying meek WALL•E. Out pops a small robot, a white ovoid resembling an elongated egg; it has two arms (which can function as powerful blaster weapons), a flattened dome for a head, a faceplate with two eye-like blue lights. It hovers or flies.
The spaceship departs, and the white robot zips about, taking readings of some sort. WALL•E is fascinated, but when he tries to show himself the egg-shaped robot blasts at him. But he perseveres, finally learning this is some sort of exploration robot. It doesn’t say much beyond “WALL•E” (the voice is that of Elissa Knight, making this a girl robot); he learns its name or designation is “Eve” (or “Eva,” as WALL•E says), and they become fast friends. She thinks he’s adorable, he thinks of her as a wonderful wonder from beyond.
But then he shows her a small plant he found—the only one, apparently, he’s seen in his time on Earth. Suddenly Eve’s programming kicks into high gear, an image of a plant appears on her, uh, chest, and she slams shut, now a featureless ovoid with a picture of a tiny plant. This triggers the spaceship to return and collect her, but WALL•E can’t let her go. He clings to the ship and is taken into outer space, passing space junk (including Sputnik I), an Outlet Mall in the asteroids, Saturn’s rings and so on into deep space.
This exploratory ship makes a rendezvous with the Axiom, one of those ships that gathered up all the people of Earth—seven hundred years before. We soon learn that there are descendants of those early evacuees, big, soft, obese couch potatoes constantly waited on by hundreds, probably thousands, of busy little robots of all types. These fatsos recline on floating chair, incurious, basically immobile, unaware of their surroundings; they exist but they do not live.
Not, that is, until WALL•E, still intent on reuniting with Eve, gets loose aboard the ship…
The story vaguely resembles David H. Keller’s first published science fiction story, “The Revolt of the Pedestrians,” published back in 1928, but it’s basically original. Here, the story centers on WALL•E and his activities; the human beings are a side issue. Stanton imaginatively does not treat them as uncaring and disinterested; as soon as their attention is engaged, the people start popping into life—mental life, at least. This is especially true of the ship’s Captain (Jeff Garlin), who is so eager to take on the duties and responsibilities of command that he actually STANDS UP. (To those famous “Also Sprach Zarathustra” tones from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Some of the robots of the ship don’t want to let people resume control, and thus conflict is born. (The voice of the ship’s computer is supplied by an icy-toned Sigourney Weaver.)
Mostly, what’s going on here is the adventures of a plucky little hero, and people have generally tended to love stories of P.L heroes—they’ll love WALL•E and his adventures, too. It’s basically a simple story, told straightforwardly; there are complications, but they’re mostly obstacles. Even the ship’s recalcitrant robots aren’t motivated by Evil, they’re just trying to carry out the jobs for which they’ve been programmed—and to which, in 700 years, they’ve become well-accustomed.
One odd feature of this movie is its use of ANOTHER movie—the lavish 20th-century Fox movie version of “Hello Dolly.” WALL•E has a videotape (not even a DVD) of this old movie, and loves to watch the scenes of dancing and romantic singing, usually featuring Michael Crawford. (But never Barbra Streisand—though costar Louis Armstrong is at one point heard singing Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” hardly a “Hello Dolly” tune. So where’s Pixar’s all-out musical?)
“WALL•E” is an unusual film in that it’s not designed to be beautiful; after all, WALL•E lives on a planet full of trash and waste. He slowly tries to make order of it, but it’s one little square robot up against an impossible task. He carries on—he is, after all, a Plucky Little Hero, and that’s what Plucky Little Heroes do. He’s also immensely charming an likeable, testimony to the great skills the Pixar team have developed over the years. Their first notable character was the “little boy” desk lamp, Luxor Jr., that remains their corporate emblem, and opens each Pixar movie. It was simply a lamp, but it has a vivid, charming personality, created entirely by movement and timing.
The only-okay movie “Robots” of a couple of years ago, wasn’t made by Pixar, and had to rely on goofy design elements and Funny Voices to make their characters pop into whatever semblance of life they achieved. (This included farting by robots that don’t digest anything.) “WALL•E” and Andrew Stanton are far more disciplined; WALL•E the character has treads, arms with wide fingers (he tends to clutch them together when anxious), a jointed, Luxor-Jr-like neck, and a head that’s mostly binocular-like eyes. Each side is separately jointed, so he can wabble them like eyebrows. (Some have thought he resembles Number 5 from “Short Circuit,” but in action he’s very different.)
Eve is even more problematic—just four moving parts and her blue eyes (which change shape based on her mood)—but she’s as expressive as WALL•E. This isn’t just great animation, this is genius-level imagination; the great animators of the past, who worked in cell animation or stop-motion, would stand up and applaud the characterization in WALL•E. The first half of WALL•E is told almost entirely in pantomime. WALL•E himself never says anything other than "Eve;" his voice was provided by the great sound expert Ben Burtt--who did the same for one of the most famous movie robots, R2-D2 of the "Star Wars" movies. And all Eve says is "WALL•-E." One of the greatest challenges for animators working in any form of animation is to create believable characters who don't speak; here, they're also stiff metal. But these characters are as alive as Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck, and as full of personality, too. This stuff is masterful.
Almost casually, Pixar continues to expand the limitations of computer graphic images. Here, WALL•E’s world is occasionally engulfed in vast dust storms—and animating dust is classically difficult in CGI. There are wide-angle scenes inside the huge spaceship with dozens, probably hundreds, of people and/or robots all active at the same time. When the ship tilts, the people inside—hundreds of them—slide across the slippery floor and fetch up against a wall. (This actually makes no sense—the ship has its own gravity—but it’s a beautifully-staged scene.)
Their timing continues to sharpen, they continue to drop in tiny throw-away gags that will be noticed more on a second viewing. Other companies make computer graphic animation films—there was one just a few weeks ago, “Kung Fu Panda.” But Pixar’s remain the best, setting increasingly higher high-water marks for others to try to achieve. In the hands of this enterprising company, CGI is rich and sophisticated, and can be applied to almost any kind of story. “WALL•E” is touching, funny and intelligent, a great summer movie many will want to see over and over.
They’ll also get to see “Presto,” a very funny short that opens the film. It pits an aloof magician against his trick rabbit. The bunny wants that carrot, the magician wants to do his act. Conflict. And very funny, mostly thanks to “Presto” director Doug Sweetland.
Stay for at least the beginning of “WALL•E”’s end credits—the backgrounds are a brief history of human art.