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Lonely Planet: Pixar's Wall-E: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review



Friday, June 27, 2008

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Reviewed by Chris Wisniewski

The references throughout WALL-E to 2001: A Space Odyssey (the Strauss pieces on the soundtrack, the villainous autopilot computer with a single red eye — a dead ringer for Hal-9000) are more than throwaway in-jokes — they’re sign posts. A sci-fi adventure with philosophical resonance and minimal dialogue, the latest Pixar film may be a spiritual cousin to Kubrick’s movie (as well as those of Chaplin, Keaton, Tati, Spielberg, etc., ad infinitum). There is something audacious, maybe hubristic, in Pixar’s gamble to market a potential blockbuster — to families, no less — so out of step with the expectations of multiplex audiences weaned on a succession of Shreks with diminishing returns. But WALL-E dazzles, particularly in its magnificent first half-hour, a post-apocalyptic love-story in miniature that serves as a graceful introduction to the intergalactic journey that follows.

WALL-E begins as a portrait of desolation and loneliness. Its titular character, a trash-compacting robot, spends his days collecting the garbage of an empty city, building it into mountainous piles — the ruins of a lost civilization. At night, he watches an old VHS of Hello, Dolly! while his companion, an adorable little cockroach, burrows into a Twinkie. WALL-E seems to be the last of an army of robots, many of them strewn amongst the garbage, left by humans to restore the earth to habitability after excessive consumption, and the waste it created, drove them to life aboard a space ship built by the hegemonic corporation BuyNLarge.

The beautiful but haunting long shots of the ravaged, abandoned Earth, untouched by humans for seven centuries, confer a nobility on the planet’s scrappy mechanical inhabitant. WALL-E rises every morning, puts the tracks on his wheels, and goes to work, each day like the one before, until a space craft deposits an ovular white probe bot named EVE. Next to WALL-E, egg-like EVE is elegant and sleek, and when he sees her, he falls head over tires in love to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s recording of “La Vie en Rose.”

Writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has cast two unconventional stars as his romantic leads: WALL-E and EVE are mostly incapable of speech — they don’t even really have proper faces. But who needs dialogue when you have character and scene design like this? WALL-E dances for EVE effervescently, using a hub cap as a hat; she powers a light bulb with the touch of her hand; together, they watch a stunning conflagration when EVE destroys a row of decrepit BNL ships. The feeling that passes between them is elemental and profound in its simplicity.

After EVE makes an unexpected discovery, the film veers into broader, more conventional territory, as the two love-bots make their way to the Axiom spacecraft that is home to Earth’s exiled humans. This fish-out-of-water journey-adventure plot, pretty much the Pixar standard from Toy Story to Ratatouille, satisfies on a basic narrative level but lacks the elegance of the earthbound prologue, and Stanton uses the change of scenery to make explicit the social commentary already implied in the film’s post-apocalyptic set-up. The humans on Axiom are all overweight over-consumers, who spend their lives on mechanical chairs in a state of constant distraction. Children learn their ABCs and the basics of excess at the same time (“B is for buy a large lunch in a cup”). A female voice announces, “Try blue — it’s the new red,” and everyone’s wardrobes immediately change color in accordance with the prescribed trend.

This is an admirable but hypocritical posture for any summer blockbuster to assume — let’s not forget that the Disney logo that precedes the film is only slightly less ubiquitous than the BNL logo that pervades WALL-E, or that the tie-in video game and action figures are available at a toy store near you, or that an animated WALL-E has been jumping across the Internet Movie Database homepage for the past few days to remind us all that WALL-E is the new blue, and he’s in theaters this Friday. Still, Stanton and team Pixar should be allowed some hypocrisy between their raging ambition and their earnest good intentions, because WALL-E is a small miracle of visual storytelling and a technical wonder with real heart.


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