First, a word.
If you have not seen Wall*E, feel free to spend some time reading my little meditation on why Pixar is the greatest thing ever, but be warned: the actual review of Wall*E, the movie, is spoiler-tastic, filled not only with key plot points, but my opinions on the aesthetic choices of those plot points. If you have even the vaguest intention of seeing this movie, please stop when I get to Wall*E, go see it, and return there when you’re done. I have no interest in ruining your movie-going experience. This is the virtual version of the “Post Movie Dissection over Coffee at Jerry’s Deli” You shouldn’t be here if you didn’t just plant your butt in the seats.
This review is painful for me to write, and joyous at the same time. Wall*E is Pixar’s first flawed film. The Flaw is brief, about five total minutes of film, and should in now way stop you from enjoying the other 92 minutes of sheer, sublime perfection.
What is perfection, especially when talking about something so subjective as a film? Well, let’s have a look at perfection, shall we?
Toy Story. Toy Story got everything right, from the first frame to the final. An ingenious, multilayered, hilarious, thrilling, touching moral fable about children, greed, pride, joy, acceptance, love and heartbreak, hubris and devotion. Indulge me for a moment, for I just watched Toy Story again this past week, on a 4 inch tour bus screen with 30 High School Students, and yet its genius still shone through. Remember with me…
The outrageously entertaining action sequence, featuring R. Lee Ermy’s band of green, plastic army men assaulting a child’s birthday party, at the behest of a small civilization of toys, sending the military in to assuage their security fears in a changing world.
The instantly recognizable humanity of Tom Hanks’ Woody the Sheriff, facing unexpected displacement as the chosen leader of his tribe. The tribe of toys themselves, both looking to Woody for leadership and resentful of his role as Chosen One.
Buzz Lightyear. My stars, what a joyous creation. All piss and vinegar, lasers and lights. Unable to see, even for an instant, past what he believes to be true, in the face of painfully obvious reality. Woody is justifiably enraged at his insanity and astonished to see his friends shellacked by this impostor.
The entire middle act, where Woody and Buzz, protagonists and antagonists both, find themselves relying on and using one another in their attempts to survive and return home, or in Buzz’s case, save the galaxy.
The descent into Sid’s lair. A place devoid of love or peace, save a little girl who gets constantly harassed by a villain. Where are mom and dad? Ah… asleep or shouting. Sid is no simplistic caricature. Oh, he’s a villain, make no mistake, but the filmmaker’s aren’t content to stop there. They are storytellers, they want you to understand why he is who he is, and their command over their craft tells the viewer all they need to know in short order, that the action may continue.
The unfolding of the final 15 minutes. A breakneck action extravaganza. Dogs, mutant toys, a rocket strapped to a spaceman’s back, minivans, near misses, mid-air collisions, old friends reunited, relationships restored, the kids cheer, the conflict’s resolved.
Oh, and also, some madperson had the idea that the little sentient toy aliens inside an arcade game at a pizza joint would become a mad bunch of cultists who worship, “The Claw,” might be the most wonderfully absurd comedic idea of the mid 1990′s.
For a second, think about the first time you say Toy Story, in 1995 or so. We now take for granted the fact that there was media created before CGI implanted itself into our sense of visual possibility. You had never, ever seen anything like Toy Story. It was a visual wonder. The camera was everywhere and unbound. Visual and sonic information was woven into technologically secured sacred marriage of old-school writing chops, great voice acting, a killer Randy Newman score, and a bunch of animators who were in love with the idea of telling us a story we’d never forget.
Don’t worry, most of them won’t be this long.
A Bug’s Life. This was #2. A Bug’s Life was the one that taught us that perfection could happen twice, and that there are shades of perfection. I have fewer memories of this one, off the top of my head. I remember thinking it was whip smart, again. It was astonishing to look at, again. Denis Leary as a ladybug. Yes, please. The insane, dazzling complexity of the Bug’s world. The one wide shot of a trailer with one moth frantically yelling at the other, “Don’t go into the light…” ”But it’s soo prettttyyy ZZAP!” FUNNY!
Was A Bug’s LIfe as perfect as Toy Story? I dunno. Shades of perfection. A Bug’s Life was perfect for what it was. I am getting the giggles as I search my memory banks for the great lines. I’m gonna have to watch this one again.
Toy Story 2 Uh oh. A sequel already? You’ve only made 2 movies. Against all odds, Toy Story 2 was as good as the first. A wild adventure that expanded the world that was so elegantly created in the first one.
An existential drama… with children’s playthings dealing with their own mortality. The poignancy of Woody’s discovery that the only way to stay needed forever was to surrender his ability to play, or be played with. The bitterness of Joan Cusack’s Jessie, never wanting to love again, ready to surrender true love for something that will last, but is profoundly sadder.
Oh yeah, but it’s a comedy, too. How great is Buzz Lightyear’s toy store encounter with his nemesis, Emporer Zurg, leading to a great confrontation between the formerly deluded hero pitted against the only toy in the galaxy more devoted to his perspective? It’s great right?
Toy Story 2 is one of the great sequels, in company like The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator 2, even Godfather Part 2. I mean that in all sincerity. Cartoons are art, at least to my family.
Monsters, Inc. This was my least favorite of the perfect Pixar canon. A lesser degree of perfection. Still, it did exactly what it was supposed to do, and even though I didn’t find the emotional connection in this one as with the others, it’s still as entertaining a movie as any other I can remember from that year. It made a zillion dollars and had several charms, like John Goodman’s Sully as he falls in love with little Boo, and the astonishing creativity of the final chase scene through a mechanized maze through a matrix of bedroom doors that can open to anywhere. This is a buddy action comedy with a heart, it’s not curing cancer. But it’s still perfect. It doesn’t miss a step, never fails to entertain.
I remember thinking, “How long can they keep this up?” For the first time, we had to wait two years to see, and I am not sure we were prepared for what came next.
Finding Nemo was the first of the four great Pixar movies. This was Pixar’s Pinocchio, their Bambi. Mom died before the opening credits, ya’ll. So did all of Nemo’s brothers and sisters. This was not a movie about safety. It’s undersea environment was an ocean of wonder. Alternately a crystalline beauty and a delight, or a murky world of danger and loss, the world of Nemo was altogether different than anything we had seen before from Pixar.
Consider these subtle changes: Finding Nemo is a road picture, as where the first three had a definite sense of space, and place. At 100 minutes, Nemo was longer by 10-15 minutes than most animated features before it, Pixar’s included. It also moves in less of a traditional three act structure, instead moving episodically as a road picture should, as Marlin and Dory continue their search through the endless vastness of the sea, a father and a plucky sidekick hoping against hope to reclaim his son against all odds. Heavens. It’s The Searchers underwater.
But it’s funny, too. Remember Bruce, the great white who drags Marlin and Dory to his shark infested AA meeting. ”Fish are friends, not food.” Funny. Remember merry band of crazies in Nemo’s prison tank, especially the really nutty one that only shouts “BUBBLES!” VERY funny. Remember, oh please tell me you remember the squadron of seagulls, capable only of yelping… “Mine?! Mine?!!? MIIINNE?!?” as they chase our heros through Sydney harbor. Funny. funny. funny.
Oh, and it also made you weep. Remember the poetry of the sequence where Marlin’s story of bravery sweeps across the ocean, all the way to a dentist’s aquarium, where his despondent son is hoping against hope that his nebbish father might actually come save him?
This was a subtle thing, but for the first time, the scoring duties were transfered to Randy’s nephew Thomas, whose scores never fail to evoke a lyrical and haunting musical texture.
Inexplicably, they decided to outdo themselves with…
The Incredibles. Ask any fan of sci-fi, or James Bond, or comic books, or action movies, and they’ll tell you that The Incredibles just instantly implanted itself in their cerebral cortex upon the very first viewing. This was the first movie directed by someone who wasn’t grown up in the Pixar farm team. This was the creation of Brad Bird, the thus-far under-appreciated creator of the past forgotten gem, The Iron Giant. He’d been brought into the Pixar fold by his old roommate John Lasseter.
Bird was brought in long after they’d started knocking it out of the park, and as evidenced by their first creation together, they gave Brad the keys to the kingdom. I could man-crush on The Incredibles as much as I did for Toy Story (1), but I won’t.
Let’s just say this: The Incredibles was, for me, the first purely grown-up Pixar movie. Sure, kids might dig it, but it was for mom and dad and we knew it. It was PG. It had a real bad guy. It had a great script. Think about all the great exchanges between Holly Hunter’s Elasti-mom and Craig T. Nelson’s Mr. Incredi-dad. Talk about capturing the moment when you must choose between being the superhero vs. raising the next one. When was the last time you were looking forward to hearing dialog from an animated face? (Also – Craig T. Nelson killing it? Whaaa?!)
Let’s talk about the action. Breathless. Huge. Beautiful. This is Spielberg inside a computer. This is Raiders vs. Jaws vs. Return of the Jedi. It’s Die Hard and Goldfinger. It’s X-Men and Father Knows Best. It had Samuel L. Jackson AND that chick from NPR. It was about mediocrity and jealousy. Jason Lee’s Syndrome was Salieri with rocket boots sans religious grounding.
Oh, and did I mention funny? Baby Jack-Jack? Hello?
Cars has been long derided in the blog-o-sphere and by fanboys as “My least favorite of the Pixar canon,” Having recently concluded, courtesy of my 2 1/2 year old son, my 3,445,987th viewing of this film, I can tell you with some certainty that this is simply untrue.
Cars is a little gentle thing, yes, but it was such a love. No great threats here. No barracudas eating mom. No existential toy drama. No movie geek homages. Well… perhaps a few.
Cars was about friendship, and slowing down. It was about the dangers of going too fast. It featured the voice talents of the late George Carlin, and Cheech Marin. R. Lee. Ermy again, and those two guys from Car Talk on NPR. Old voices, gravelly and worn, with a wink and a smile and a good natured sense of humor and drama. Good Lord, even Larry the Cable Guy managed to be endearing. I don’t think we’ve accurately stood in wonder of that present reality. ”Larry the Cable Guy, in the right role, can be…. endearing.” Seriously, try and say that three times. It’s not easy to do.
Then there’s Bonnie Hunt, who could warm up the frozen north with the sound of her voice, Owen Wilson playing a lonely hot-shot with a perfect mix of bravado and relational retardation, and the great Paul Newman, in what may end up being his final role. Tony Shaloub, Michael Keaton, and the ever present and ever wonderful Pixar mascot, John Ratzenburger are all put to use as the great tapestry of characters unfold.
Cars is a gentle thing, it moves slow. When it revs, it revs hard, but at its heart is a little James Taylor tune. If someone asked me to show them ten movies that portray the best of what it means to be an American, Cars would be on that list.
Oh, and forgive me for forgetting… it’s also zingy and funny and loopy and wise. It’s a movie with a sound moral compass. How often can one say such a thing?
Ratatouille was a total and complete surprise. It came out when I was out of town for a week, and then one thing lead to another and another, and Erica and I didn’t get around to seeing it until a couple of weeks after it had opened. Perhaps it was also because it was a movie about… a rat. A chef rat. In Paris. It didn’t feature any big stars. The trailer was somewhat… lackluster. I dunno… by the time we got to it, it had been relegated to one of the smaller theaters in the multiplex. I had low expectations.
I was wrong.
Ratatouille is, I think, my favorite Pixar movie. It’s a movie about art, and artists. It’s about genius, and those who can appreciate genius, and how those who truly appreciate genius are somehow themselves wrapped up in that genius, creating the natural circle of artist, art, and patron. One feeds and nourishes the other. They are symbiotic.
Oh, and it’s funny. It’s gut-bustingly funny. It’s grab the chair and gasp for breath funny. It’s Bugs Bunny vs. Monty Python funny. It’s slapstick, but elegantly and intellectually so, which is the rarest and purest and only truly joyful brand of slapstick.
Ratatouille reminded me that it’s great when filmmakers have something up their sleeve that you do NOT see coming.
So, there it is: perfection. Eight movies, all perfect in their own ways. Eight different shades of greatness. The box office and accolades and fanboy lore have intertwined into a success story that was earned the old fashioned way. As Pixar guru John Lasseter is regularly quoted as saying, “Quality product is just always a great business plan.”
Which brings us to Wall*E. Yes, this is still a movie review, not merely a geekasm.
Wall*E is not perfect. Wall*E is magical, yes. Visually stunning, yes. Romantic and evocative, yes. Thought provoking and timely, yes?
Perfect? No. It’s imperfection might go over the public’s head, and as evidenced by it’s glowing reviews and strong opening box office, it’s going to take an artistically minded, formerly Evangelical Christian to point it out, and that’s me. For the record, I am still an evangelical Christian, but I could write an equally long essay about the difference between Evangelical, and evangelical. That’s another blog.
I think that one of the problems, in retrospect, that I will have with Wall*E is that it was so effectively marketed as The Greatest Thing Pixar Has Ever Done. From the first preview, with the Lords of Pixar reminiscing about a pitch meeting Way Back When where they batted around the ideas for A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall*E.
The setup is brilliant. What happens if, after the human race abandons a used, battered, hopelessly polluted earth, they forget to turn off the last clean-up robot? Well, it turns out that he develops a life all his own. Wall*E is a beautiful character. Childlike, but not childish. Curious, but not greedy. Sacrificial, but he takes care of himself, (see the great bit early on where daddy gets himself a new pair of shoes.)
Much has been said about the nearly wordless opening act, but not yet enough. It’s simply one of the most beautiful, tragic, depressing and uplifting sequences I’ve ever seen on film. Wall*E lives in a rusted, lifeless, abandoned world devoid of life, or love. He is alone, save his friend the cockroach, who can take a laser beam to the face and keep scurrying about. Pixar can make you chuckle even in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Pixar? Post-apocalyptic dystopia? Yup. What makes the opening sequence of Wall*E so astonishing is how much joy it finds in the little things, amidst an unassailable mountain of debris and despair. Wall*E collects little wonders in his plastic igloo cooler as he goes about his day(s). A bra, A Rubic’s Cube, a VHS player (amusingly attached to what appears to be an iPod.) All of these things he discovers as he sifts through endless mountains of our trash.
At night, Wall*E studies his treasures and watches old movies. He obsess over Hello Dolly, of all things, learning how to hold hands, wanting to dance, wanting to… live.
No reason is given for Wall*E’s development of a personality, and none is needed. He’s so rich a character, so immediately accessible, that some sort of ham-fisted forced explanation would just be a distraction. More on that in a moment, ham-fisted explanation, that is.
Wall*E’s world is turned upside down by Eve. Eve is an exploratory probe, searching for signs of organic life. After a terrifying and spectacular arrival in a sleek, monstrous ship, she is set free to flit about and search for her prize. The ship disappears, and they are left to themselves.
Wall*E falls goggles over treads in love with Eve. He follows her at a distance. Old music swells in the background, and Pixar again performs a miracle. Wall*E reminded me of every adolescent crush I ever had. Remember when the mere sight of the object of your obsession made you dizzy? Remember when lust wasn’t about sex? Remember when you could just sit there, stare, and lose focus on everything else in the world? Wall*E captures something so inherently human, and transported my mind back to a season of my life that I thought I wanted to forget. I was wrong. Hormone enabled obsessions are strangely beautiful. They seem so real, and can, IMO, lead to things that are real.
So, Wall*E loves Eve. In a great genre and gender-bending little plot twist, it turns out that Eve is violent, rash, and dangerous. One false move, and she starts shooting. Wall*E survives due to his resourcefulness and kindness, and Eve (ever the teenage girl) allows him to tag along.
When Eve finds what she’s looking for, a programming code inside her takes the plant into her body, and shuts her down and locks her up tight. She is but a tool in someone else’s hands a mechanical slave who is serving a purpose.
Wall*E does something wonderful here. He continues his devotion to a inanimate object that is now not only capable of loving him back, but unable to do anything. Wall*E serves this comatose Eve like the way a spouse would care for her. He sacrifices and endures for love, love that is not (at least in this moment) returned in any measurable quantity.
Now. Up until this point, I was convinced that Pixar had indeed outdone themselves. The visuals are… just magnificent. Sound design, brilliant. Storytelling, otherworldly. Emotional content, rich. But then, the ship returns, and Eve is callously whisked away with Wall*E in hot pursuit. He hitches a ride to their destination, and Wall*E (the movie and the character) takes a strange turn.
See, it turns out that the human race has been living on a space luxury liner for all these 700 years, waiting for their fleet of handy-dandy cleanup robots to clean up the mess they left behind. They have grown horrifically fat, and bored. They float around in their hoverchairs, attended by a sub-class of robots, talking past one another on a 3D internet apparatus, and are fundamentally disgusting, the worst of what complacent humanity can be.
Now, here’s a problem that really messes with the 2nd half of the movie. I think the filmmakers thought that they would need to up the comedy factor in the 2nd half, as to not alienate their audiences after the darkness of the opening. They were right, but the comedy becomes a cartoon… a kid’s movie in the worst sense of the phrase. The humor is obvious, and cheap, far below the standard pop and zing of Pixar’s impossible standards. The human characters are too sad to be lovable, but too annoying to be pitied. I sincerely wish that the ENTIRE story had been told visually, with the humans all mumbling in some Charlie Brown-esque language that the robots cannot understand.
Ok, back to the plot.
Wall*E cleverly shadows Eve all the way up to the bridge, where she is awakened and opened up to discover, the plant is MISSING! The plot thickens! She is assumed to be faulty and sent down to the repair bay for reprogramming, and, as can be imagined, escapes and madcap adventures ensue as they try and track down the missing plant and discover who (or what) stole the evidence from them that the Earth is returning to a livable status.
While they’re on the bridge, we meet the character of The Captain. He is momentarily excited when it’s revealed that Eve is carrying a sign of organic life from earth, but also terrified. No one knows how to actually do anything outside of their slothful routine, so the idea of actually having to, you know… lead, is daunting, but also a bit exciting. After they leave, there’s a short bit where the captain starts to investigate life on earth, via his computer. He goes all through the night, and has something of a transformation process as he starts getting a picture of how far the human race has slid into apathy and boredom.
Now, The Captain is the only human character with anything resembling a story arc. He’s sort of the stand-in amalgamation for the entirety of the blubbery mess below. Herein lies Wall*E’s fundamental flaw. (Spoiler Alert) It’s revealed that The Autopilot, a robot cleverly designed as a futuristic ship’s steering wheel on a telescoping arm with a malevolent red eye, is trying to stop the humans from returning to earth, as his usefulness will be rendered null and void… or something.
Anyways, The Captain sinks the ship of Wall*E with some really low budget dialog as he argues with Autopilot as to the future of their vessel. ”In the past we’ve been powerless, but now life is SUSTAINABLE again…” etc. It’s like dialog that’s a vessel for environmental buzz words, not real dialog. I was watching a CGI fatso read the brochure for Greenpeace.
Pixar has been undone by a great old truth: If you’re more concerned with getting your message across than you are concerned about telling a great story, you’re screwed. I mentioned that I grew up an Evangelical Christian. I also grew up a movie nerd. These two realities were interesting bedfellows.
Every once in awhile, some group of Christians would pool some money and make a movie.
Christian movies suck. Know why? If you’re more concerned with getting your message across than you are concerned about telling a great story, you’re screwed. Ironically, this is why I believe Jesus was successful as a preacher. He told stories with hidden meanings, allowing his listeners to make the connections themselves.
I seriously don’t know if anyone other then Formerly Evangelical Movie Nerds will make this connection, but I did, and it forces me to disqualify Wall*E as another perfect addition to the Pixar canon, much to my dismay.
How would I have fixed it? Are you listening Pixar? If so, you have any job openings for story editors? Here are my two suggestions on how you guys could have fixed it. Any of them would have done the trick.
Make the movie longer. It clocked in at 97 minutes, 15-20 minutes shorter than Ratatouille, Cars, or The Incredibles. Give us more time with The Captain. Let us care about him. Let that sequence where he’s discovering all the things we used to do as a race be as poetic and beautiful For heaven’s sake, smarten up his dialog. Al Gore had better dramatic timing. You guys know better! Did you want to make sure that every kid in America heard the word “Sustainable?” It’s just not a good word for this. It leaped at me like a green tinged freight train. I winced. You guys know better!
I’m all for going green and conservation and accountability. I’m all for stories about sacrifice, and hard work, and love and hope, not to mention the consequences of sloth, ease, laziness, selfishness, and quick fixes. You guys had a killer, killer opportunity to underplay it, and let the viewer make the connections between these themes and the VERY political issue of global climate change. We would have made the connections, I promise. We’re quite bright.
Oh, also… guys… seriously… At the end of the movie, you have what could have been a fantastically emotionally charged moment as the Captain leads the children back to their home planet, and puts the first living thing back in the Earth’s soil in hundreds of years. This could have been a thrilling, hopeful moment. Instead, we’re barraged with this idiot telling the kids something like.. “You guys are going to do sooo much farming… you’re going to grow vegetables, and blah blah blah.” In another decade, it would have been Goofy delivering this bit of dialog.
Ok, my other suggestion, I already mentioned. Make the whole thing a silent movie. How astonishing and haunting would it have been to deprive us of human language through that 2nd half as in the first? How amazing would it have been to force us to reconcile a human future so utterly alien that we can’t even decipher what they’re saying?
Have your people call my people. I can begin work for you immediately. I have opinions.
Ok, so 15 years ago when I started this article, mentioned that Pixar’s imperfection has caused me joy, and it’s still true. Here’s why: Now, I can go and enjoy the next one without impossible expectations. Now that I’ve been disappointed, even slightly, I can go back to simply enjoying the work of master storytellers. I swear I’m not an Anton Ego, guys.
I still really enjoyed Wall*E. I actually plan on seeing it again in the theaters, now that my impossible expectations have been deflated, to attempt to catch all of the hundred of thousands of choices that the filmmakers got so right, and just appreciate their craftsmanship.
Forgive me Pixar, for holding you to an impossible perfect standard. In all fairness, it was your own fault.