The latest Pixar picture paints a bleak future for our planet
The name Pixar on a movie marquee is like a lineup outside a restaurant: it's a sign that whatever is going on inside is bound to be good. The California animation studio has won 20 Academy Awards in the past 20 years, a run that rivals the New York Yankees for dynastic credence. WALL*E’s writer and director, Andrew Stanton, has had a hand in nine Pixar features, from writing and voicing Toy Story (1995) to executive producing the Proustian delight Ratatouille (2007).
The fact that this is a kids’ movie seems only to have amplified the filmmakers’ moralizing. Fortunately, there’s a love story at its core, one that’s deftly handled and sweet as a plum.
With WALL*E, Stanton turns a lurid gaze to America’s (and, yes, Canada’s) rapacious consumption, taking surprisingly stiff jabs at our culture of convenience and its cost to our planet, and our species. The film’s story opens 700 years in the future on a filthy planet Earth, abandoned but for a single robot: a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, or WALL*E. His task it is to clean the place up. When a slender white drone named EVE, an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, is sent by the human evacuees to search for signs of life, WALL*E falls head over treads in love.
The movie unfolds as a romantic comedy, with WALL*E chasing EVE all the way back to her base, a vast interstellar cruise ship the human race now calls home. The filmmakers, however, evince little love for the people of tomorrow. Osteoporotic from centuries in space, humans are portrayed as tubby sloths too weak to stand, floating on air cushions and gorging on pureed food. Their submission to a large corporation, a sort of poly-industrial Wal-Mart that has mechanized the species’ government, is tacitly blamed for the state the planet is in, teetering with towers of garbage under a sickly amber film.
No, WALL*E’s politics aren’t subtle; the fact that this is a kids’ movie seems only to have amplified the filmmakers’ moralizing. Fortunately, there’s a love story at its core, one that’s deftly handled and sweet as a plum. (There’s a "kiss" in space between the two that’s no less touching for the fact that they both look like trash cans.)
Much of the courtship takes place in brilliant pantomime. But for a handful of scenes where humans intervene — including a live-action cameo by an ebullient but sadly isolated Fred Willard — the blips and whirs of robots are the film’s only dialogue. WALL*E’s sound designer Ben Burtt has just the right pedigree, having engineered alien noises for certified classics Star Wars and E.T. WALL*E’s digital squawk is what R2D2 might have sounded like had he sought speech therapy.
Other famous robot references are peppered throughout the film, including the cruise ship’s computer, who seems a distant cousin of HAL’s from 2001. Much is already being made of WALL*E’s resemblance to Johnny 5, the sentient military ’bot at the heart of John Badham’s Short Circuit. But then, NASA’s Mars Rover looked like him, too, at which point plagiarism is simply realism. For the record, Badham’s mechanical puppet was far less expressive.
WALL*E’s CGI-sculpted face is essentially a pair of binoculars, but he’s Pixar’s most natural product vehicle since Toy Story. (Already, enterprising craftsmen are posting guides to building your own WALL*E at home, and store shelves are likely filling with loveable remote-controlled WALL*Es kids can use to help dad sweep up the shed.) He’s certainly more saleable to children than a rat gourmand or a goldfish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.
Robots seem like a no-brainer, yet it has taken Pixar more than a decade to get to outer space — this despite being founded by Lucasfilm, the same company responsible for THX sound and the special effects giant Industrial Light & Magic. Pixar has become our most dependable purveyor of high-tech spectacle. Like early Disney, Pixar has a distinct advantage over conventional movie studios. Audiences in the 1920s could gape as Disney combined sound with moving pictures or infused its reels with colour. Pixar films are similar marvels, its digital rendering years ahead of rival CGI studios like DreamWorks in detail and nuance.
Like all of Pixar’s output, WALL*E is an animated gallery of the world’s best computer graphics. That it’s also an effortless romance shows just how good Pixar can be.
WALL*E opens across Canada on June 27.
Guy Leshinski is a writer based in Toronto.