Where's the Wisecracking Donkey?

June 27, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Any other week, I might be rhapsodizing about the pure fun of watching something as deliciously violent and adrenaline-charged as Wanted. While it's true that Wanted is a cauldron of relentless entertainment, it's not the best movie opening this weekend. Not by a long shot. That honor belongs to the latest Disney/Pixar wonder of animation, WALL-E. This is the movie that has restored my faith in the continuing ability of cinema to delight. Thus far this year, few multiplex gems have gleamed as brightly, and the layers of tarnish were beginning to dim my enthusiasm for this medium of art and entertainment.

WALL-E is almost certainly the best animated film since The Incredibles. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to claim to be the best computer animated movie of all time. In fact, one could even argue it rivals the great Disney films of the early '90s, a run that started with 1989's The Little Mermaid and concluded with 1994's The Lion King ( and included the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast). For a robot with few discernible human features but a very human personality, this is heady company indeed. There is a potential problem with WALL-E, but I'll get to that later.

In recent years, the field of computer animation has been in the doldrums. There haven't been many truly bad movies, but neither have there been many standouts. The promise of the early releases - Toy Story , Shrek, and so forth - was replaced by mediocrity. Family films became kids' films. One can readily argue that none of the Best Animated Picture winners over the past two or three years really deserved the honor. Sure, Ratatouille is a pleasant enough movie, but is it the kind of film for which a single twentysomething male should make a trip to a multiplex? Well, WALL-E is.

Yet if there's a price to greatness, it's that WALL-E may turn out to be too sophisticated for members of its primary audience. The movie is so different from the run-of-the-mill animated features that arrive in multiplexes that it may leave some children, especially those who are younger or afflicted with short attention spans, perplexed. Animated conventions are flouted with regularity. Are kids who have been raised on singing donkeys, dancing penguins, and talking bees ready for something like this, where there's a real plot and a sublime display of emotions? (This is more the purview of anime, not mainstream animated fare.) Part of me worries that kids may reject WALL-E because it represents something unfamiliar. I give Pixar all the credit for being this daring and I sincerely hope that the risk is rewarded at the box office. Because if WALL-E does well, we may be treated to more of the same in the years to come. But if it ultimately fails, a return to animated purgatory may be inevitable.