This weekend I took a look at the box office history of Wall*E, Pixar’s latest offering, and noticed something weird: it didn’t do that well. I mean, by normal human standards it did extremely well, but by Pixar megablockbuster standards it’s doing so-so (and if Box Office Mojo’s 180 million dollar budget is correct, it’s not technically even profitable on the theatrical end yet). The film will outdo Kung Fu Panda, but not by a terribly wide margin in the end. It’s outpacing last year’s Ratatouille – but barely – and it’s well behind Cars, which is arguably viewed as the worst Pixar film to date. Wall*E, on the other hand, has met with nearly universal acclaim and is, without a doubt, one of Pixar’s highest technical acheivements.
I began to list off the many reasons why Wall*E didn’t quite hit like Finding Nemo or The Incredibles did – too much attention placed on the ‘avant garde’ first act, Pixar brand has lost some of the shiny new excitement, The Dark Knight took the cultural imagination and never let go (although that film came out weeks after Wall*E), the right wing hammered on the film’s environmental message while the filmmakers never defended themselves beyond saying ‘What me environmental?’ – but I keep coming back to one thing, one thing that may read like heresy to the film’s many passionate supporters:
The central love story doesn’t really work.
In my original review I called the burgeoning friendship between Wall*E and EVE ‘touching,’ but even then I noticed that something was sort of amiss: I used the word ‘creepy’ to describe the way Wall*E interacts with her comatose form. The more I thought about it and the more I talked about the film with other people, the more I began to realize that the film’s opening act sketches the beginning of a friendship that could turn into a love story, but it never gets any further. And thinking about it even more, I realized what the problem is: Wall*E is, quite simply, a complete social retard, and I just don’t understand why EVE comes to like him.
There’s a proud history of socially awkward people finding love in popular entertainment; the type of people who write these things tend to be a little socially awkward themselves, and writing a win for the uncool dude who can’t say the right thing at the right time is a small personal victory. Wall*E, though, is no normal social misfit. He’s a complete disaster, a character who would be romantically appealing only in the imaginations of people in the same boat as the little garbage robot.
Wall*E takes all the traits of the really socially maladjusted and amplifies them to ten. Of course all of these traits are seen through the softening gaze of social maladroits, so when you’re watching the film they take on a fuzzy romanticism. It’s how the truly awkward see themselves: alone in a world that has so little to offer them, but to which they have so much to give. All they need is the right special lady to come along, the right special lady who can see past all of the external stuff and understand the beautiful, wounded soul inside. The fantasy is that the social retard doesn’t need to really win her over… he just has to hang around enough and she’ll totally get it.
Forget about not being able to charm a lady with smooth talk – Wall*E can barely even speak. He can say about three words, one of which is his girlfriend’s name, and he can’t even get that right*. He’s a dweeby collector, and when he brings EVE home he does that embarrassing ‘Hey, look at my rare comics and action figures’ thing that has so rarely worked in the annals of nerds trying to get laid outside of their social class (and EVE is certainly outside of Wall*E’s class). On top of that, he’s obsessed with a movie that’s just plain terrible. The guy has no taste. He’s not cool, at all.
I don’t have a conceptual problem with EVE finding these traits endearing in a weird way, but the movie never sells it to me. And even if I buy that she finds him endearing, I’ve been around the block too many times to believe that she sees him as anything but an adorable new friend, a guy she’ll be happy to call every night and talk about that big security robot she’s crushing on.
But it’s what happens when EVE goes comatose that crystallizes what Wall*E is, and why this love story doesn’t work: it’s social retard wish fulfillment, and nothing more.
The social retard doesn’t know how to deal with a woman he likes, so he overdoes it – candy, flowers, gifts and, most damning of all, endless declarations of love. In his mind this is romantic, but in real life it’s just creepy and sometimes scary. Wall*E‘s big love montage – where Wall*E takes the shut down EVE all over the place and wines and dines her unconscious form – is the hyper-realization of that. But the movie takes it even farther and has Wall*E essentially date rape the sleeping bot – he forces open the plate on her body where her hand resides and pulls out the appendage so he can hold it. In the world of Wall*E hand holding seems to be like Doing It, or some variation thereof, and the little garbage bot forcing himself on a knocked out female is incredibly creepy.
But of course this is a story told from the point of view of the social retard, so this creepy behavior is rewarded. This is the wish fulfillment aspect, and it’s here that the relationship story goes off the rails for me. In the movie EVE wakes up essentially in love with Wall*E; having him need to win her at this point would have been more interesting and realistic. Wall*E as a character undergoes almost no change in the movie, which again is that social misfit POV – it’s everybody else who needs to change, not the guy who can’t make eye contact with the check out girl at the supermarket. But it would have been more dramatic if Wall*E had to step up his game upon getting to the space ship, if he had to now win EVE over. Initial contact would have been made on Earth but on the ship he needs to get past his social problems and become the kind of manbot with whom a fembot would want to hold hands.
There’s no denying that the movie is expertly made and wonderfully put together – that’s why the non-clicking love story doesn’t fully register the first time through. To be a great love story, to be the kind of love story that enters the zeitgeist, you need to be believable. It’s part of why Knocked Up will never be one of the great cinematic love stories – you only buy that love enough to get to the end of the movie; the love between Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl doesn’t follow you out of the theater. Of course Judd Apatow wasn’t selling Knocked Up as a love story, and Andrew Stanton was talking up his movie as the story of two robots in love first and foremost before any environmental messages.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying things – Wall*E has other problems beyond the love story that may account for it doing well but not great (I thought this film was going to be THE movie to beat this summer) – but the more I think about the film the more I come to this aspect. Someone** was recently complaining to me about how nerds in movies have gone from lovable guys who are just outside of the mainstream to actual losers who fill audiences with the desire to give them wedgies; Wall*E is definitely more of the latter. I don’t know that audiences articulate this, but they feel it, and they need the love story to make more sense in that context.
*this is part of the weird supernerd wish-fulfillment of the whole thing. EVE is the exotic other, since no local girls will like the misfit. He needs to find a girl from outside his world (ie, one who doesn’t know he peed his pants in gym class in third grade). That exotic otherness takes on a very definite racial tinge here: notice that EVE has almost Asian eyes – this is certainly some sort of nerdly Yellow Fever on display.
** I honestly don’t remember who said this. I’d love to give credit for it.