This editorial is essentially spoiler free, but more sensitive types may want to avoid it, as it discusses the themes and meanings of the film and gives a vague idea of what sort of ending Wall-E has.
The new Pixar film Wall-E presents a wonderful message about
environmental stewardship and about conservation. It graphically shows
us both the fragility and strength of the ecosystem, the dangers and
hopes facing us as a species impacting the Earth with our pollutants
and our junk. It also contains unsubtle jabs at corporate megapowers,
out of control branding, insidious advertising and rampant consumerism.
But apparently that’s all there by happenstance – at least according to writer/director Andrew Stanton.
“The most I do is recycle, and sometimes I’m even pretty bad at that,”
Stanton said at the Wall-E press junket when asked about the ecological
and political themes of the film. And he wanted to make sure that the
assembled journalists didn’t think he was smuggling a subversive
message into his kid’s movie. “I don’t have a political bent, I don’t
have an ecological message to push.”
That’s sort of a weird statement to hear after seeing the film.
Creativity is a mysterious thing, and themes and meanings can become
embedded in a work in such a way that even the creator isn’t aware
they’re there, but the environmental and political themes of this movie
are well beyond subtext and are so blatant that you’d expect to see the
Wall-E character being used in conservation ads and for the life-size
animatronic Wall-E built to promote the film to show up at
environmentally-themed events. Instead Stanton and Pixar are all but
disavowing these obvious, in-your-face messages and pushing Wall-E as a
simple robot love story.
(Which it is! The central love story between Wall-E and the sleek, futuristic EVE is the anchor of the film, the heart that makes everything else live. But it’s just one part of the movie, and downplaying the gloriously positive themes in favor of just the love story is like saying Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film about a memory erasing machine – there’s so much you’re leaving out.)
Pixar’s always been good about staying on message. Go back to all the
publicity for Cars and you will see every single person involved with
that movie spinning the same tale about John Lasseter’s family and
their cars and blah blah blah. The White House can’t get their PR spin
together as well as Pixar does. That “on message” aspect is part of what
makes Pixar a successful company – they understand that they’re
building their own myth right now. They understand that having a
narrative behind the scenes helps make everything more sellable. And it
helps draw attention away from elements they’d rather not focus on and
highlight the elements they do want to have spotlighted; in this case
to not talk so much about the environment and to bring it back to young
robots in love(a message all the participants at the press day were on
point for except John Ratzenberger, who seemed to claim global warming
To be fair to Stanton he’s not completely dismissing any positive
environmental themes. “I don’t mind that it supports that kind of view
– it’s certainly a good citizen way to be,” he said in the most
half-hearted support for environmentalism possible. He quickly undercut
it with this statement: “Everything I wanted to do was based on the
love story. I wanted to have
the last robot on Earth – that was the sentence we came up with [when
brainstorming the concept] in 94 –
so I have to get everybody off the planet, and I have to do it in a way
without any dialogue. I had to do it in a way that you could get it in
less than a minute. Trash did that. You look at it you get it, and it’s
a dump and you got to move, even a little kid understands that. It
makes Wall-E lowest on the totem pole, and it allows him to sift
through everything we left on the planet to show he’s interested in us.
I had to look at everything from the point of view of ‘What will you
get visually without having everything described to you?’
“Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. It was like, ‘I gotta go
with trash because I love what it does to my main character and it’ll
be really clear.’ Then I had to go backwards from that: why would there
be too much trash? Well, it would be really easy for me to get across
we bought too much stuff, and it would be easy to explain, and it’s
fun. It’s fun to be satirical like that. We all have that sort of
Simpsons bent. I just went with what was somewhat true. I think we’ve
always felt we have to be somewhat disciplined in that area.”
Stanton’s measured, middle of the road language clarifies to me just
what the heck is going on here: someone in Pixar decided that leaning
on the environmental angle would possibly scare off certain segments of
the ticket buying public. There’s no denying that environmental
stewardship is a ‘good citizen way to be,’ and that being ‘disciplined’
in our consumer spending is wise. Nobody can get offended by those
kinds of common sense statements. What’s ironic, though, is that I
think that Pixar, as a left coast company, has misjudged the mood of
the nation when it comes to the environment: green is in right now.
Ratzenberger aside, the global warming debate is mostly over – we’re
just arguing over how man-made the undeniable situation is. Rising gas
prices have forced people across the country to rethink the use of
fossil fuels – having a hybrid isn’t just good for the environment,
it’s good for your wallet these days. It feels like every couple of
years the mainstream drifts back to environmentalism, and we’re in one
of those periods, where it’s not quite so pinko to give a shit if you
have clean drinking water. Wall-E on the cover of Time Magazine,
holding that little plant he finds early in the film, is an image that
could not only guarantee that the film jumps out of the ‘kiddie flick’
ghetto that made Cars the lowest grossing (yet still stunningly
profitable) Pixar movie, it could also help raise a little extra
awareness of the issues the film addresses in general.
The truth of the movie’s intentions can only really be known to
Stanton. On some level you have to take a filmmaker on his word, even
when that word appears to be ludicrous. Still, although he won’t cop to
making Wall-E a movie with a wonderful, socially conscious message in
mind, he does admit that getting such a message out of his film is a
good thing. The question becomes will that message ever actually make
it out of the movie and into kid’s heads?
Walking out of a screening of Wall-E on the Disney lot last week I
couldn’t help but mull over the irony of this huge, branding-obsessed,
merchandise-spewing corporation releasing a movie where consumers are
shown to be giant fat babies essentially taking orders from advertising
(with this being portrayed as a negative thing. I’m sure Bob Iger sees
most of his customers like that and loves it). When I got to the Four
Seasons hotel the next day, the site of the junket for the film, and
saw an entire room dedicated to showing off the marketing tie-ins, I
lost the sense of irony and began to think what I was seeing was flat
out hypocrisy. I wondered if maybe Stanton’s denials about the messages
weren’t coming from a marketing point of view but from simple shame.
Journalists were being given gift bags at the suite, including a large,
programmable Wall-E robot toy and a copy of the Wall-E game (available
on every platform. In the movie the lethargic lifestyle of gamers was
tweaked in a scene where a giant fat baby of a human uses a holographic
computer screen to play golf via a remote controlled golf club),
provided they completed a sales pitch about all the products. I sat in
on one as long as I could; the room was stuffed with what seemed like a
hundred or more tie-in products ranging from Wall-E branded plastic
Crocs (with tire tread patterns on the soles) to plastic Wall-E action
figures to Wall-E branded clothing and bed sets and drapes.
When asked which of the items were made with post-consumer recycled
material or were made of biodegradable material, the PRbot giving the pitch seemed
flustered. She said that they tried to use such materials whenever
possible, and pointed out a post-consumer Wall-E branded Kleenex box.
Every environmental group will beg you to avoid Kleenex, since they’re
wiping out Canada’s Boreal Forest to give you a place to blow your
nose, so the Kleenex connection is fucking pathetic in itself for a
movie that trumpets taking care of the environment. But the fact that
this was the item – the only item – the woman was able to point out
made me leave the room without finishing the tour. No Wall-E toys for
Disney and Pixar went aggressive with this licensing campaign after
Ratatouille didn’t set the licensing world on fire. On some levels the
marketing people were aware of what kind of movie they had on their
hands – there will be no Happy Meal tie-ins for this film that decries
lazy living and junk food eating. But that doesn’t change the fact that
the film, which opens on a post-apocalyptic Earth submerged in its own
garbage, will itself generate enough junky toys to build a couple of
the trash skyscrapers that Wall-E himself constructs while vainly
trying to clean up the planet.
I’ve had people on the message boards tell me that this doesn’t matter,
that the message is all that matters. But just saying something is
pointless – which is actually another theme of the film. The movie ends
up with the idea that sometimes you have to make hard decisions,
sacrifice comfort and easy living to do the right thing, to make things
better. To, quite literally, save the Earth. This is an inspiring
message… that is immediately undercut by walking out of a movie
theater into a world crammed full of landfill-choking plastic Wall-E crapola.
It’s amazing to think that this summer children will get the following
Hey kids! The Earth is important, and we should protect it. Remember
this by buying lots of bad for the environment Wall-E plastic objects!
Also, it’s bad to sit around and eat poorly – you should enjoy the
world around you! You can remember this by buying the Wall-E video
game, or any of the Wall-E action figures! And also, following
advertising is for suckers, and you should have an independent mind.
Prove how independent you are with your new Wall-E clothes!
The truth is that Wall-E feels like a really well-made stop smoking ad starring Joe Camel.
Pixar sells itself on being a cutting edge company, a new technology
boundary pusher, a positive workplace, and people who are dedicated
first and foremost to making good movies. Again, everyone at the press
day was on message about Pixar as a company: they want to make the best
possible movies, and they will work hard and long to make that happen.
Part of the sales pitch for Wall-E has been the opening act, which is
mostly dialogue-free – it’s Pixar again as pushing the boundary. They
won’t do things the way that everyone says they should be done, they do
it the right way. This is part of what makes people so loyal to the
Pixar brand – you feel like you’re backing the good guys. And it’s why
the Disney/Pixar deal made everybody nervous, and why the eventual way
it shook out – with John Lasseter becoming essentially the chief
creative guy at Disney’s animation division, answering only to Bob Iger
and Roy Disney, and Pixar President Ed Catmull becoming president of
Walt Disney Studios, while Pixar kept its independence – made everybody
so happy. But to me this also means that Pixar should be working to do
other things, like licensing, right as well. They should be working
hard to be good corporate citizens, making a positive impact while also
figuring out how to make money. Wall-E is part of a merch push aiming
for 30 BILLION DOLLARS in profits, according to Variety. Surely a
couple of billion could be spared in an effort to do the licensing the
right way, by making partners create merchandise that is
environmentally friendly, by not over-saturating kids with Wall-E toys
and advertisements. Why not do what you’ve done in one part of your
business in every other part?
It’s important to keep in mind that none of this has to do with the
quality of Wall-E as a movie on its own; my review of the film, which
did not send me into space the way it did other onliners, will come as
soon as the embargo is lifted. And whether or not Andrew Stanton wants
to own up to placing environmental and political messages in a film
that includes a robot recreation of a protest riot has nothing to do
with whether or not they’re there, but I think everyone seeing the
movie this coming weekend will have to admit that these messages exist.
And most of those people will have to also admit that they’re good
messages, the kind we should be happy are included in a kid’s film.
The problem is that these messages – intentional or not – are being
undercut by a cynical marketing campaign that will likely have a bigger
impact on kids than the movie itself. And worse than that, it’s a
marketing and licensing campaign that will help advance us just a
little bit towards the environmental devastation shown in the film.
Special thanks to message board user Abbot & Prospero for the great image for this editorial.