This is not a negative review of Wall*E. I want to get that out of the way right up front, because I know I’m going to talk a little bit more about what didn’t work than what did work, and someone is going to look at the numerical score at the bottom (as if that actually means anything) and complain that I gave it a higher score than the prose indicates. It’s just that Wall*E starts out so very strong, promising something like a masterpiece, and then eventually settles for something much less interesting, and I find myself fascinated by where the movie loses its way and gets off the path to greatness and simply settles for being good.
By now you know the set-up: Wall*E is the last robot on Earth, left behind on a planet that has been completely overrun by garbage. He’s one of hundreds or thousands of robots built to clean up that trash while humanity takes a five year cruise in the stars; Wall*E’s programming is to gather up trash and smash it up into a cube. Over the course of what turns out to be 700 years, our Wall*E is the only one of his kind to survive; the carcasses of other Wall*E’s litter the landscape. Wall*E takes the trash cubes he makes and builds towering, amazing skyscrapers of garbage. On his off-time he lives in a trailer with a cockroach friend and collects what he perceives to be the most interesting objects he finds among the detritus. He has toys and lighters and silverware lining his shelves, and he has a VHS copy of Hello Dolly that he loves to watch and even dance along with.
In these early scenes writer/director Andrew Stanton is doing something that borders on the amazing. I’ll spare you the now de rigeur namedrops of Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton, but Stanton makes his hero come alive in the most minimal of ways. The only dialog in the early scenes comes from holograms of Fred Willard, the former head of the Buy ‘N Large corporation, a Wal-Mart-like big box store that was running the entire Earth when it became too trashed (largely because of Buy ‘N Large’s promotion of conspicuous consumerism), but no words are needed as we watch Wall*E and his roach pal go through their day. I was especially impressed by the roach, a very gross sidekick for our hero to have, one that – to me – felt like an announcement that this movie wouldn’t be going the standard animated route where the hero is surrounded by cute, toy-ready buddies.
The amazement factor only increases when Wall*E’s routine is disrupted by the arrival of a spaceship, which deposits a sleek, Apple-esque new robot into the city. Wall*E is immediately smitten by the newcomer, and he follows her around as she zips about the cityscape, scanning the garbage for something. Finally he gets up the nerve to approach her, and they begin a touching friendship (at this point the only words spoken by someone not Fred Willard are ‘Wall*E’, ‘EVE’ (the other robot’s name) and ‘directive.’) Wall*E takes EVE home and shows her his copy of Hello Dolly; the courtship scenes here are wonderful, often moving. It’s impossible not to get a little bit emotional when you see how badly the crushingly lonely Wall*E wants to just hold EVE’s hand.
But things can’t stay good forever. Trying to impress EVE, Wall*E starts showing her all the junk he has collected, and it just so happened that earlier that very day he collected something very special, something he may have never seen before – a tiny, green plant. EVE scans it and we realize this is why she’s on Earth – she’s looking for plant life in the wasteland. EVE succumbs to her programming, grabs the plant and freezes up, sending out a beacon to her ship. Wall*E is confused and keeps hanging out with her, acting like she’s still awake, and even gets to hold her hand (this bit reminded me of people who kept dead loved ones in bed, unwilling to accept the reality. Sort of creepy).
When EVE’s ship comes to claim her, Wall*E hitches a ride into space – he won’t let her get away. The film remains amazing through this point, finding a strange beauty in Wall*E’s ruined world, constructing a character from a speechless robot, and going into space seems to be the exciting next step. Until Wall*E actually gets there.
It seems like Stanton lost his nerve somewhere along the way. The spaceship Wall*E comes to is filled with humans, who have evolved over 700 years into cartoon characters. Having live action humans in the earlier scenes felt so brave. The spaceship interiors feel so dull after the tarnished beauty of the Earth scenes. The introduction of a storyline with talking humans feels so boring after the glory of the ‘silent’ first act.
While the roach was the antithesis of the ‘cute sidekick,’ Wall*E quickly gathers a whole group of action figure-ready robots to his side when he accidentally frees a sickbay of malfunctioning bots. I don’t know if Pixar has ever created characters this irritating (ignoring the entire cast of Cars), and they’re irritating not because of what they do – they get very little screen time – but what they do to the movie. They take what had been something very special and turn it into something goofy and noisy. They exist only because someone in Pixar feared the kids in the audience would get fidgety, and these One Flew Over the Cuckoo Clock characters are sure to delight the youngsters as they do wacky things like put make-up on robots and paint yellow lines everywhere they go. These characters wouldn’t be so bad if they served some sort of vital function in the story (such as it is, but more on that later), or if they served some larger thematic point, but they just get shoe-horned into a couple of scenes and into your kid’s shopping list.
What was a touching and personal story on Earth becomes a great big game of keep away on the space ship. Finding a plant on Earth means that the humans – who have turned into giant fat babies, never walking, drinking all their food and always watching personal holoscreens (even when they’re talking to someone on the holoscreen who is right next to them) – can return home. There are forces on the ship who want to stop that from happening, and Wall*E and Eve become fugitives and engage in long and uninteresting chases and fake outs as the ‘baddies’ try to get rid of the plant while our heroes try to get it into a holographic doohickey and start the return to Earth. All of this stuff is fairly dull and by the book, something that just isn’t in line with where the film started out.
Wall*E feels like a backwards Pixar movie to me. In the past the best of their films have transcended their beginning points, with the Toy Story movies and Finding Nemo being more than the sum of their initial parts. Wall*E begins as a truly special, unique film and slowly devolves, like the humans, into something… cartoonish, for lack of a better word (for those thinking I’m just against cartoons, the short film that plays before Wall*E, Presto Chango, is as cartoony as they come, a throwback to classic Looney Tunes gags, and I loved every second of it. Probably the best Pixar short to date). I don’t know why Stanton pulled back from the impressive challenges he set for himself at the beginning, but I wish he had stayed the course, as Fred Willard says in the movie. There are some who will forgive this, but I think they’re being essentially condescending, saying that it’s just a kid’s film, that’s it’s just a cartoon, that you can’t expect much more. But Pixar has shown in the past that we can expect much more, and that they’re ready to give us much more. This film feels like it wants to be giving us something much more. Wall*E begins as a truly groundbreaking work and then turns into just another diverting cartoon with some wonderful themes.