Saturday, April 22, 2023


“What if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?” This was the question Andrew Stanton posed at a now famous lunch in 1994, where, following the success of Toy Story, he and fellow Pixar pioneers Jon Lasseter, Pete Doctor and the late Joe Ranft discussed ideas for their next projects. The films that came out of this lunch were A Bug’s Life, Monster’s Inc., Finding Nemo and WALL-E, the last of which had a much longer development time, finally seeing the light of day in 2008. While longtime Pixar fans may feel divided on some apsects of WALL-E, the film received critical acclaim on release and has not only since been preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, but has also seen a re-release through the Criterion Collection, the first Pixar film to do so.

When this film first came out, I distinctly remember director Andrew Stanton not only mentioning the famous 1994 lunch, but also framing WALL-E as the last of Pixar’s original ideas. While a more cynical person could interpret that differently now, considering the studios’ hit-or-miss output after Cars 2 only three years later, it’s interesting looking back on WALL-E now and seeing if it held up well as part of Pixar’s original streak of high-quality releases. Thanks to the Criterion Collection release, it feels safe to say that not only does it hold up now as one of Pixar’s best films, but considering it came out fifteen years ago, its themes are a lot more relevant now than ever before.

In the 22nd century, Earth has turned into a garbage-filled wasteland and the megacorporation Buy n Large (BnL) has already evacuated humanity to space on massive starliners. 700 years later, of the trash compacting robots created to clean up Earth and make it habitable again, only one, WALL-E (Ben Burtt) remains and has developed a personality, including a fascination with collecting random objects of interest and watching a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! One day, his routine is interrupted by the arrival of an unmanned ship that drops off a new robot, EVE (Elissa Knight), that starts scanning the planet. WALL-E quickly grows fond of EVE and makes a connection with her, but everything changes when he shows her his most interesting find yet: a living seedling.

WALL-E (Ben Burtt) is fascinated by random Earth objects.

What’s most interesting about WALL-E’s story is not just the content, but how it’s presented. Much of the first half, in which WALL-E and EVE bond, has the quality of a classic silent film, with both robots expressing themselves largely through gestures and with very little dialogue. So minimal is the dialogue, in fact, that they usually exchange only a single word and only when necessary. As such, this portion of the film effectively shows just how much a story can communicate with very little.

When WALL-E and EVE board the starliner called the Axiom during the second half, however, the film takes on a more traditional approach, with more dialogue-heavy exchanges as the robots interact with various human passengers and Captain B. McCrea (Jeff Garlin). While not perfect, this part of the film still has strong writing, with an interesting plotline about a mysterious Directive A113 deliberately preventing humanity from returning to Earth through AUTO (MacinTalk), who carries a strong vibe reminiscent of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This doesn’t mean the film completely abandons the approach from the first half, however, as WALL-E and EVE still share some mostly silent moments, including a scene where WALL-E guides himself back to the Axiom from space with a fire extinguisher. The climax also leads to a well-earned finale that somehow felt more emotional during this most recent viewing.

While the main theme of the film is the love that blooms between WALL-E and EVE, it’s hard to ignore that the film’s setting lends itself well to commentary, whether intended or not by director Andrew Stanton, on the environment and consumerism. BnL’s actions as a global corporate monopoly led to mass consumption and rampant pollution, resulting in humanity living in space for 700 years, their bodies growing fatter due to not just lack of bone density, but also complacency with having autonomous robots do everything for them. There’s also a technological aspect where the humans in space are so focused on the screens in front of them that they blindly do whatever is says and grow increasingly ignorant of the world around them to the point that they don’t even realize the Axiom has a giant pool. While unintended by director Andrew Stanton, these themes feel more relevant now than ever with increased screen use and reliance on technology, as well as rapid automation slowly replacing the need for humans. That said, the animated sequences during the credits provide a much-needed ray of hope for humanity to once again thrive as they start over on Earth.

It's hard to ignore the potential commentary on consumerism.

Like most of Pixar’s output, the film’s CG still holds up spectacularly well and looks even better on the Criterion Collection release. The sharp contrast between the dirty and garbage-ridden Earth and the sleek, clean and futuristic Axiom is powerful enough, but the amount of detail in each unique-looking environment, not to mention the well-crafted environmental storytelling, helps sell it further. Even the original live-action elements, something unseen in any other Pixar film, are integrated seamlessly without disrupting the story and the Hello, Dolly! Footage is smartly inserted diagetically. What really helps WALL-E stand out from other Pixar films, however, is the focus on simple but emotive gestures the robots use to communicate their feelings and intentions without the need for more than eyes. This focus on gestures also helps make a cockroach, of all things, that WALL-E befriends endearing to the audience.

Of course, the single most impressive aspect is how WALL-E explores rendering air the way Finding Nemo renders water. On Earth, atmospheric and particle effects are animated beautifully, showcasing not only how polluted the air has become, but also the force of air during sandstorms and how they affect stationary objects. This exploration of air also extends to space, where robots and other objects move and behave in a way that convincingly shows weightlessness, not to mention how the vacuum of space interacts with something like fire extinguisher foam.

Space, the absence of air, is rendered convincingly; Right: EVE (Elissa Knight)

The general lack of dialogue in the first half also shows off the talent of Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight, who manage to bring out a lot of emotion with only their inflections. Even on the Axiom, the vocal performances are still very strong, with special mention to Jeff Garlin, who convincingly portrays a naïve captain who really comes around to his duties for the good of humanity. Although AUTO’s voice is rendered with the MacinTalk voice synthesizer, this choice is also very effective in selling the contrast between the cold personality of the ship’s wheel vs the more empathetic human captain. WALL-E also notably uses music from Hello, Dolly! in a very effective way and the original song that plays during the end credits, “Down to Earth” by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, is both fitting and memorable.

When WALL-E received a home video release, it received a new short called BURN-E, which depicts the eponymous robot trying to fix a dead exterior light during the events of the original film. BURN-E’s story fits in very neatly without contradicting anything, even taking certain events into account, and channels the “silent” approach from WALL-E’s first half into an effective quick dose of humor. While not required viewing, it’s a neat bonus that you might as well watch if you enjoyed the film.

As one of Pixar’s final films from their heyday, when every one of their films was considered gold, WALL-E still holds up pretty well thanks to its strong writing, beautiful animation and very relevant setting. Whether or not you’ve seen it before, WALL-E is certainly worth watching now.

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