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WALL-E, Dir. Andrew Stanton, Now Playing

Pixar’s latest creation, WALL-E, came to me highly recommended by no one who actually saw it. WALL-E, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight all share this quality. Peer pressure seems to cancel out criticism. When WALL-E reached the point that it was emphatically labeled a masterpiece by the New York Times, I became suspicious. I went to see for myself with my mother, sister, and two young cousins. The teens sat in the back, my mother and I up front among the popcorn-munching, cell-phone talking, heavy-sighing adults, all settling in like one big family. WALL-E generated both engaging and dissonant feelings. The film is concerned with the environment in provocative ways, but a hollow love story undercuts its effectiveness. WALL-E becomes a watered down version of what it could have been.

The first twenty minutes introduces a post-apocalyptic, gritty, hazy, and dust-swept earth filled with towers of garbage. Wide pans across this eerie terrain of junk is enough to cause guilt. wall-e, a little robot who uses his mechanical belly to compact trash into a perfect hardened cube, embodies the only evidence of “life”. We learn later that humans have voluntarily fled the Earth, and in a slapdash government effort, they left thousands of wall-es to manage the trash. As our WALL-E performs his dreary task, he finds time to rescue human ephemera: strings of colored lights, rubber duckies, loose mechanical parts, and random dinnerware, with which he decorates his humble home—a cozy metal box. The box closes tight when a menacing dust storms blows, and WALL-E settles in, meticulously organizing his new-found toys. His greatest pleasure comes from connecting a ram-shackle tv set-up that displays a much-repeated scene from a long-forgotten film depicting a couple singing and dancing, obviously in love. As he stares at this image, enamored with their happiness, we begin to understand that the lonely robot WALL-E craves love. He finds it soon after a spaceship lands near his home and leaves behind a slick white egg, named Eve. Trouble begins here.

This robot possess identifiable gender characteristics. Can you name them? © 2008 Pixar
This robot possess identifiable gender characteristics. Can you name them? © 2008 Pixar

How robots can possess gender mystifies me. The film wants us to believe through names, and later on, voice, that WALL-E is a he and Eve a she. The labels feel arbitrary and act as a cheap way to over-explain a love story. Romance, I think, begins when two beings (in this case, robots) are intent upon making a connection. We are alone until we meet someone we want to impress and in part, possess. WALL-E wants Eve, if for no other reason than that she’s new and pretty. Eve ignores his admiration and when she finally does pay him attention, it resembles pity.

WALL-E's solicitude makes him an interesting robot, a collector of curiosities and an engineer extraordinaire. It was a delight to watch him roam through a forgotten Earth, clambering up piles of garbage to discover discarded treasures. The film falters when he fixates on his mysterious attraction to Eve. His personality shifts. He turns blindly lovesick, determined to win her devotion. And when Eve finally becomes wholly enamored of WALL-E, her transformation, though long expected, feels forced.

The formulaic, clichéd quality of their relationship strips away any romance. It perpetuates a cornball notion of “guy gets girl” and lacks any emotion. wall-e changes from a curious robot to a love drone so quickly (as often happens in Hollywood films), that I couldn’t believe he was the same robot. No longer unique, his personality now serves only as a narrative vehicle. This brings into question the role of love stories in general, and the perpetual reliance upon them as a dramatic arc, especially in animated family films. Setting the bar at this tepid level ensures that audiences won’t be challenged, leaving little room for the absence of dialogue or emphasis on a nuanced atmosphere that was so well defined in the first twenty minutes. WALL-E could have been a apocalyptic treat had it never traveled the well-worn love path.

When WALL-E follows Eve all the way into outer space and gains entry into the space ship where she resides, he is thrust into a comical spectacle of obese, softly undulating forms, known as humans, or more aptly, Americans. They float aimlessly on chairs equipped with limitless soda and digital screens that enable them to talk to one another without physically moving. These people are rendered equal in size and attitude, with little to differentiate between their features other than the color of their skin (a politically correct requirement for family films) and the glaring stereotypes they fulfill. This set-up, created flawlessly through animation (not a hair is out of place), enacts a vanilla approach to a potentially radical premise. Pixar makes a courageous statement: that humans exist in a tacky, commerce-driven disassociated world and spend their time consuming as their brains and bodies go to mush. Yet it feels so phony. The enormous shape of these humans represent a particularly American anxiety. Where else but in America does a future so perfectly mold to a vision of living grossly overweight in a massively huge mall? We are the leaders in this lifestyle and the film acknowledges it—sort of. Pixar can’t possibly pretend they are disengaging from a consumer capitalist platform when owned by Disney. Criticism remains tongue-in-cheek and as safe as possible, exercising little effect on the recumbent bodies sitting next to me in the theatre. Humans would likely seem more menacing and less moronic if the tone from the start of the film was carried through. The humans serve no purpose other than to provide the necessary details for what becomes a too-long chase scene after eve, at which point the film turns slapstick and boring. If waste, consumption, and environmental destruction causes any discomfort—don’t worry. Everything will be neatly wrapped when wall-e melts human hearts as he searches for love.

Serious contemporary issues in WALL-E are trumped by more trivial pursuits. As a family film, it doesn’t dare to presume that children can handle tough questions without immediate answers. To call a film a "masterpiece" is no light thing. WALL-E spreads itself too thin to earn the title. I left the theatre frustrated and felt no empathy for the characters. My sister and cousins loved the film but when pushed to say why, they could say nothing more than that WALL-E was cute. I couldn’t disagree.


Camila de Onis

CAMILIA DE ONIS writes in Brooklyn and thinks Ratatouille was a real treat.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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