It’s the rare film that manages to transcend visual decadence for true artistry. The gradual disintegration of visual import in cinema is an unfortunate reality of present-day movie-making. Terrence Malick films accomplish it. Kim Ki-duk films frequently deliver the goods (in spite of weaknesses in other arenas). To a more mainstream extent, Guillermo del Toro and Michel Gondry films sporadically rise to this level. But it’s rare to find an animated, particularly American-made film that impresses much visually, even within the Pixar canon. WALL•E, Andrew Stanton and Pixar’s latest, disrupts this trend, and registers as the most visually stunning film released since Malick’s The New World and (segments of) del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. But its achievements aren’t just evidenced in its massive visual scope, but in its intricacies of the unspectacular. More on that in a minute.
The films opens with a series of moments of the mundane, as we’re introduced to the titular WALL•E, the last robot (or otherwise) living on Earth following mankind’s evacuation of the planet. We follow WALL•E for a dialogue-free half-hour as he continues to chip away at the task he’s been designed for — trash compaction. This initial, almost documentary-like look into WALL•E’s life is brimming with humor, an indulgence of subtly divine visual minutiae, and compassion for our little hero-to-be, but it’s also overpowering in its loneliness. The WALL•E we’re introduced to is certainly cute and lovable but, more acutely observed, he is immensely alone. But just as we begin to feel for the little guy (and his adorable penchant for classic musical soundtracks), EVE enters the picture. She’s an undoubtedly superior robot who has come to Earth in search of evidence that a return to the planet is possible. In the meantime, she finds WALL•E, and subsequently discovers that he is quickly enamored with her. And then, before even letting this notion settle for a second, we’re hit with another pitch-perfect transition: EVE auto-crashes after WALL•E presents her with a surviving plant, she sends out a homing device for her transport ship which promptly picks her up, and a love-sick WALL•E follows, without hesitation, toward what will become the biggest adventure of his long life.
To disclose more wouldn’t necessarily spoil the film for most, as its appeal lies very little in its ostensible plot, but it’s easy enough to refrain from saying much more nonetheless. The eventual presence of humans in the film is a mere catalyst for narrative propulsion and a further exploration of the robotic leads, and that’s not at all a bad thing. In fact, it’s exactly what the film needs. This is, after all, a children’s movie, despite the arthouse affection many would prescribe to it, and WALL•E manages a successful tight-rope walk between the child and adult world, as well as that of art and entertainment, in a way that will be sure to generate few complaints from either sphere come the end credits. This is because part (or most) of WALL•E‘s magic comes from watching the film unfold through the imaginative eyes of Stanton; on a visceral level, the film delivers several eye-popping and affecting sequences that will not be easily forgotten or matched in the near (animated) future, perhaps none more so than the absolutely stunning, heart-melting space-dancing sequence between WALL•E and EVE. And yet, the film’s true beauty is conveyed through its main characters who, although robots, are imbued with such careful humanity, both in motion and emotion, that the unforgettable love story on display rivals that of any live action film in recent memory.
And yet, it’s testament to the quality and depth of the film that it’s most overt and immoderate element is the one most easily forgotten, if unjustly so. The explicit environmental warnings and policy/cultural condemnations will assuredly be dubbed propaganda (of the most demonically liberal nature), but to reduce this aspect to some polemic is to miss the elegance of the critique. The filmmakers are not trying to singularly denounce our excesses — fair though that would be — but to remind viewers of the beauty and complexity of mankind’s relationship with the earth. What reactionary detractors will miss is that we need the earth to sustain us, not vice versa. Regardless of where technology takes us, this planet cannot be replaced, and without it, our humanity is compromised and will never be the same, even if survival occasions. A heavy hand, sure; but for most it will be the light-heartedness of WALL•E that registers more. The early years of Pixar utilized ingenuity and inventiveness; this recent period has added to that a more perfected craft and imbued a more fully felt humanity into its creations. With WALL•E, they’ve both tapped into more genuine emotional reservoirs and a certain and palpable cinematic magic. While the film may not contain the expected broad cast of alternately eccentric and lovable creations (focusing instead on the depth of its two protagonists), the consistent generation-bridging humor, or the buoyancy of Pixar’s strongest films (say, Finding Nemo or Toy Story 2), its strengths are more than redeeming. And so, after here transporting viewers to the farthest reaches of outer space, it seems fair to set cynicism aside and see where this new age of Pixar takes us next.
Last Word: In understanding and appreciating WALL•E for all its layered complexity — an exercise in visual inventiveness and intricary, a compelling, refreshingly innocent and saccharine-free love story, and an environmentalist fable with surprising depth — a truly memorable work of animation emerges.