Ben Burtt (WALL-E/M-O), Elissa Knight (EVE), Jeff Garlin (The Captain), MacInTalk (Auto), John Ratzenberger (John), Kathy Najimy (Mary), Fred Willard (Shelby Forthright), Sigourney Weaver (Ship’s Computer)
“Too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space! BnL StarLiners leaving each day. We’ll clean up the mess while you’re away.” – Commercial at film’s opening
My childhood happened in that sweet spot in the late 80s through the early 90s where cartoons were fairly experimental and satellite TV became a thing but all those fancy cable stations were so hard-up for material that they mostly ran old cartoon reruns for kids entertainment. Saturday mornings were filled with weird dark cartoons like Sonic the Hedgehog, Beast Wars, Reboot, Thundercats, and Voltron. Unfortunately sometime around 1995 kids entertainment veered sharply toward being “kid-friendly” (which is to say that it was defanged to pacify helicopter parenting groups).
There were hold-outs of course and there are great subversive cartoons from that era but from about 2000-2010 cartoons were almost entirely homogenized goofy fare that bent over backward to push some sort of lesson. Kids retreated to whatever scraps of the old style they could find, a lot of those early Nicktoons and Fox Kids Saturday morning favorites had a decent edge, but those all fell by the wayside over time. I maintain that this is the primary reason why my generation went so gaga over anime (that is until Fox Kids started buying up popular properties and turning poison darts into suction cups or inventing “The Shadow Realm” so that kids watching Yu-Gi-Oh in America didn’t have to deal with the concept that humans could die.)
Imagine my surprise when I was visiting my nieces a few years back and heard a cartoon blue jay say “You pissed me off!” on Cartoon Network at 1 in the afternoon and then an episode of Scooby Doo that seemed like something out of The Terminator. Apparently, the danger and subversion of cartoons is back in force, but it was not always so. Ironically, many people refer to this as “Disney-fication”, due to the way Walt Disney animated films tend to gloss over the more grisly details of their source material (never ever read The Fox and the Hound to your kids) but the thing is, Disney was one of the last bastions of the old style. Show me another company in 1996 that had a movie where a Catholic priest sings a song about wanting to kill a Rromani girl because her dancing makes him horny. Disney was reliable at having a real sense of stakes and danger to their films and though I’ve got my issues with a lot of the beloved classics from that era, I have to tip my hat to them for not losing that edge.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that, though it feels positively saccharine now, in 2008 WALL-E felt subversive as hell.
WALL-E is, at its heart, another adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. No, there are no vampires nor even the implication of them and, in this case, WALL-E is legendary in a good way but the story of Robert Neville: The Last Man on Earth and WALL-E: The Last Robot on Earth are remarkably similar structurally.
We open on our titular trash compactor bot doing what he does best, gathering up garbage and pressing it into cubes which he stacks to make massive superstructures. It would seem that humanity, with the help of business mega-conglomerate BuyNLarge (a nakedly obvious jab at Wal-Mart), has polluted the planet to such a point that it has become a trash-strewn wasteland. Humanity hopped onto giant space cruise ships and headed off to the stars for five years while all the WALL-E units stayed behind to clean up their mess. Unfortunately, something went wrong because 700 years have elapsed, WALL-E is the only one of his kind still in working order, the only apparent living creature on the planet is a cockroach, and Earth is still a sepia-toned hellhole.
WALL-E, as all Pixar characters, is capable of complex anthropomorphic feelings, who watches an old Betamax of Hello Dolly and dreams of companionship. Soon his wish is granted in the form of EVE, a scout robot sent to seek out plant-life to see if Earth is suitable for recolonization. EVE and WALL-E become close but soon EVE finds a plant and goes into a stasis. A ship lands to take her back to space and WALL-E hitches a ride so that he can see her again. He meets up with the morbidly obese remains of humanity, an autopilot whose motives will become immediately apparent when you see that he looks like HAL-9000, and a group of defective robots who name WALL-E their king.
At the time it really felt like Pixar was getting away with something. While not actually the case, I thought that WALL-E was the first post-apocalyptic entertainment for children since 1980’s Thundarr the Barbarian. It told the ecological message that things like Captain Planet and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest had so unsubtly tried to tell. It mocked human tendencies toward laziness and overuse of technology that divided people sitting right next to each other, and the film was partially bankrolled by Pixar! It was a blatant middle-finger at big business and consumerism released by Disney! And sure the whole thing ends on a pretty schmaltzy note but that was a smart move too. The “Millenial” generation was born
And sure the whole thing ends on a pretty schmaltzy note but that was a smart move too. The “Millenial” generation was born to a world that they’ve been told repeatedly is already irrevocably fucked. There’s no more giving a hoot: the ice caps are melting, there’s a giant floating island of garbage in the ocean, there’s a demagogue in the white house. Smoke ’em while you’ve got ’em, kids, we’re almost finished here. A movie that says “it’s never too late” is actually a smart move if you’re wanting to spread a message because The Planeteers aren’t going to fool Millenials into thinking they can save the rainforest by recycling plastic bottles. It’s a shift from the Gen-X message of “together we can fix everything” to the Millenial message of “just grab a broom and clean up your area, fix what you can and move onto the next one.” And that works.
I think the most perplexing thing about WALL-E is its weird CGI/Live-Action hybrid quality. All other Pixar films have been 100% animated but WALL-E contrasts the fat CG blob-humans with the normal live-action humans from when everyone left Earth. There seems to be no real reason for this beyond giving an excuse for WALL-E to be watching a movie with real people in it rather than animated ones. I suppose it makes sense but it’s definitely letting the tail wag the dog.
WALL-E is best in those first 30 minutes where there is almost no dialogue and only a couple lines of exposition delivered by still-working holographic billboards. Those moments of WALL-E simply interacting with the post-apocalyptic Earth are harsh, depressing, but very heartfelt and tender.
Much has been made of WALL-E’s resemblance to Short Circuit’s Johnny 5. Whether intentional or not, WALL-E takes the best elements of Johnny’s design (the expressive binocular-esque eyes), the boxy tank-like design, the simple flat claw hands, and makes a facsimile that is even more expressive and cute than the original. Our protagonist, the characters whose romantic relationship forms the core of this film, have to express themselves with body language. One has two eyes displayed in lights on her simple black circular face and the other looks like a pair of expensive binoculars on a stalk attached to a box with tank treads. And yet it works incredibly well, WALL-E and EVE are iconic and expressive. Their emotions drive the film far more so than the human pairing of John and Mary that serve as a c-plot.
But the thing I find most alluring and enduring about Wall-E these many years later is the darkness lurking beneath the surface of the movie. The advertisement at the beginning mentions multiple space liners. The Axiom is the gem of the fleet but it’s implied that several ships left Earth and they’re never mentioned again. One would assume that the other ships would be in close proximity to The Axiom or that they would be depicted landing at the end. But the ending credits, which cover the complete rebirth of the planet following the movie’s end don’t depict other ships landing. What does this mean? Are the other ships out there floating in space living the same pointless existence as The Axiom’s passengers? Did they get a message from The Axiom that was blocked by their own ships’ autopilots? Or did they perish sometime in the 700 years since they left? Is The Axiom the head of the fleet or the only one left? It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see BuyNLarge’s starliners serving the same purpose as Fallout’s vaults. You also don’t see any animals on The Axiom, seeming to indicate that most of Earth’s animals died off in the intervening years as well. This movie is a lot more bleak under the surface than people realize.
WALL-E has aged far better than I expected to. It doesn’t have the black-comedic greatness of The Incredibles or the knife-to-the-heart emotional power of Up, but it’s a clever little doomsday movie and still one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs. This is a movie that doesn’t feel the need to talk down to its younger audience and is genuinely entertaining enough to not alienate older viewers in the way a lot of kiddie fare does.
Additional fun fact: MacInTalk (the crappy voice software that voices Auto) has its own IMDb page. And yes “his” first “role” was in the garbage kids’ movie Blank Check.
WALL-E is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, Amazon Instant.
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