A film review by Craig J. Koban

July 6, 2008

WALL-E jjj

2008, G, 97 mins.

With the voices of:
Wall-E: Ben Burtt / Eve: Elissa Knight / Shelby: Fred Willard / Captain: Jeff Garlin / John: John Ratzenberger / Mary: Kathy Najimy / Computer: Sigourney Weaver / Hoverchair mom: Kim Kopf / Hoverchair son: Garrett Palmer

Directed by Andrew Stanton / Written by Stanton and Jim Reardon

Disney/Pixar’s ninth foray into the realm of computer animation, WALL-E, just may be cinema’s first feel-good film about a post apocalyptic wasteland.  

The first few seconds of the film sets things up with a light and breezy allure.  On the soundtrack we hear Michael Crawford sing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from HELLO, DOLLY, promising something whimsical and carefree.  However, when director Andrew Stanton gracefully dollies the pixalized camera down and reveals an abandoned Manhattan of the 29th Century - complete with the rotted remnants of the Big Apples’ skyline, a hazy, smog filled sky, and piles of garbage stacked as high as the Empire State building littered throughout the city - the film slowly starts to lose its initial sense of flirtatious joviality.  No Pixar film has ever opened on such a foreboding and ominous note. 

Through details here and there, the film revels what has happened to the Earth, now utterly vacated by humans.  In the early 2100’s a global-dominated company, Buy n’ Large, supplied almost every service on Earth and eventually became the world government.  Alas, with consumerism run completely amok, the planet became a cesspool of heavy pollution and lethargic littering.  Since the remnants of human consumer greed reached drastic proportions, Earth became so overrun with junk that it could no longer sustain life.  Fearing the future of the human race, Buy n’ Large sponsored a mass exodus into space on gigantic, city sized luxury starships (the most lavish being The Axiom).  The only beings left on Earth were robots that were programmed to gather up all of the debris, compact them into tiny cubes and, in turn, pile them up hundreds of feet high into skyscraper sized towers of filth.  As time passed, the recovery operation failed, and only one robot remained intact.  He would then spend the next 700 years…alone…on Earth…trying to clean the mess we left. 

That remaining robot is a WALL-E unit (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth Class), and he is one of the cinema's most memorable creations.  He has appearance of a trash compactor with binoculars for eyes and looks very conspicuously like E.T. (with his wide head, short and rotund body, and pudgy legs) and has a face that looks an awful lot like the Johnny 5 machine form the SHORT CIRCUIT films.  His solar powered existence is one of total isolation and loneliness.  He has one friend, a cockroach, which never seems to leave his side.  Other than that, Wall-E’s daily grind is one of mind-numbing monotony:  He travels the city, gather sup small amounts of garbage, compacts it in his belly, and spits out a cube sized compressed block at the other end, which he adds to the pile that, over a long, long time, will become several hundred stories tall.  

Wall-E is a very curious robot.  If he finds something that looks of particular interest to him, he grabs it and takes it back to his home.  His collection of earthly artifacts is impressive, everything from a Pong machine, to a Rubric’s Cube, to a spork, to an i-Pod, and even to an old Betamax copy of HELLO, DOLLY (amazingly, despite eight centuries of wear and tear, that ol’ Beta machine and tape still plays perfectly).  However, the tape copy of the musical is instrumental to Wall-E’s life:  He watches it religiously, knowing it frame by frame, and even copies sound bites from it to his internal hard drive.  Most crucially, though, the film teaches the robot to feel and, even more importantly, to discover what it is to love someone. 

Yet, microchipped soulmates are very hard to come by on Earth, especially if you are the last known entity on it.  One day will forever change his life on Earth:  During one fateful excursion he discovers what appears to be a small plant.  He takes it and secures it in his small stronghold.  Shortly thereafter, a large ship enters Earth’s atmosphere and lands in the city.  Out pops the smooth, aerodynamically tailored, and floating visage of EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator).  To Wall-E, seeing her is love at first sight, but their 'meet cute' nearly ends with his destruction:  EVE may look benign, but she packs enough fire power to take buildings down with one shot. 

Nonetheless, Wall-E makes several unsuccessful attempts to woe EVE, and he eventually manages to get her back to his place.  He shows her the beta movie, all of his collectables, and introduces her to the obsession known as bubble wrap (it seems that even highly advanced robots of the 2800’s still enjoy popping it, a sign of universal harmony in the cosmos).  Just when things look like Wall-E will get lucky, EVE discovers the plant, and we learn that her mission was to find any vegetation on earth and immediately return it to the mother ship in the galaxy, The Axiom.  Wall-E, being love struck, decides to follow her back to the ship and through the universe. 

I will not say anything else about what happens next, other than to say that all I have mentioned occurs within the first 30 minutes of WALL-E, and it is certainly one of the most masterfully and perfectly executed first thirty minutes in recent film history.  Directed and co-written by Stanton and co-written by Jim Reardon (a regular scripter on THE SIMPSONS), the two flawlessly embellish the opening section of the film with a real heart and soul.  They do this by tapping into the most primal human emotions and by conveying them so simply and concisely.  What’s so astounding about their achievement is how it defies all genre expectations.  This is a hybrid film:  It’s part abandoned-Earth post apocalyptic film, part satire on rampant and frivolous consumerism and materialism gone haywire, part ecological parable, and – at its most earnest and heart-rending – a poignant and sweet romantic comedy about polar opposites.  The pure escapist magic that WALL-E immerses us in is primarily a result of how well written the love story is in the film.  That fact that it resonates so deeply within viewers – and the fact that it develops real chemistry between two artificial beings that barely speak a syllable here and there – is the to the film’s ultimate credit. 

The comedy and romance does not browbeat us; instead, it’s handled delicately.  It’s clear that the film owes a considerable debt to silent films and that Stanton and Reardon show such a passionate appreciation for the works of Chaplin.  The first 30 minutes are virtually dialogue free, which is paramount to allowing us to drink in the film’s gorgeously mounted vistas and have the story between the robotic lovers simmer so well.  The high accomplishment of the animators here is how they are able to craft such emotional complexity and dynamism out of the most subtle of physical gestures.  WALL-E is an unparallel masterpiece of humanizing characters through body language.  The two robots have no mouths, so the real challenge here is to have them communicate through their eyes and gestures.  The film is always fully involving just to see this pair slowly develop a relationship of dramatic weight.  Considering that the film is able to forge such a memorably touching and affable story of love amidst the panoramic vistas of a ravaged Earth is kind of inspiring. 

From a technical level, WALL-E is one of the most incredibly realized visions of the animated genre.  Like the STAR WARS films, WALL-E is a voraciously generous film to stare and gaze at with loving awe and wonder:  The detail level here is enormous – there is something occupying every frame of this film.  The expansiveness of the ecologically ruined cityscapes have an eerie cadence to them, creating such a impressively tactile quality in everything Wall-E comes in contact with (compared to Pixar’s first feature, TOY STORY, WALL-E is an indescribable quantum leap of the technical boundaries of the genre).  Even more discretely powerful and invigorating is the film’s lush and atmospheric sound design (provided by Ben Burtt, who created the auditory universe of the STAR WARS sextet, and will certainly get an Oscar for this next year).  The film is a symphony of sonic delights, and Burtt manages to achieve the impossible twice by giving two faceless robots (the first being R2-D2) a soul and personality primarily through innovative sound design.  Without a doubt, WALL-E is a deeply potent and impeccably concocted audio-visual paradise.  

As much as the first 30 minutes of the film are exemplary and faultlessly orchestrated, the film that emerges during its remaining 60-plus minutes is not.  Once the action leaves Earth, so does much of the film’s simplistically customized entertainment value.  The real delight of WALL-E is its opening sequences, which essentially is a silent movie told with images.  The truly daring choice here would have been to construct an entire film collectively out of these moments, so it’s somewhat of a decided disappointment to have a human element occupy the film’s final two thirds.  What makes WALL-E so ethereally beautiful and dramatically striking was its lack of a human presence.  The film is still a euphoric thrill ride to sit through in its final two acts, and it never lets up on being a gloriously inspired visual odyssey, but I think that if Stanton and company resisted the temptation to take the characters into space and beyond and kept them on earth, then WALL-E could have had maintained such a transcending inquisitiveness and daring originality.  As soon as we meet the humanoid characters, they’re almost a curious distraction and are seemingly never more compelling than two lead robots characters. 

As a stunning and jaw-droppingly sumptuous experience highlighting the best of the silent film and sci-fi milieu alongside telling a love story of real heart and never-ending spirit, WALL-E is an unqualified triumph.  As a pure visual journey, the film is beset by endlessly imaginative and decadently simulated imagery.  The film’s emotional pulse is its tiny and adorable robotic character that traverses along a story that manages to encompass the melancholy and sadness of loneliness, the taxing nature of isolation, a cautionary tale of wasteful human consumption, and a Caplin-esque fable about first love.  Few dystopian tales of the future have rarely been so inspirational and rousing, and perhaps a bit too much so in the film's final minutes (question: why would humanity want to leave a life of exotic luxury in space to come back to a hell-hole polluted garbage dump that is Earth?).  Yes, the remaining of the film’s parts fails to qualify itself as being as great as it’s opening segments, but WALL-E is an astonishing feat of cutting edge 3D-CGI artifice and wizardry.  

Perhaps even better…the film has heart.  In an age of soulless, lackluster, CGI-laden summer popcorn spectacles, which place higher importance on technical craft over human emotion, WALL-E proves how you can effectively homogenize the two.


CrAiGeR's other
Film Reviews


THE INCREDIBLES  (2004)  jjjj


RATATOUILLE  (2007)  jjjj


UP  (2009)  jjjj


TOY STORY 3  (2010 jjj


BRAVE  (2012 jjj



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