WALL-E (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
WALL-E Poster

Put simply, WALL-E is about as charming as movies get. In an animated marketplace where everything is starting to look and feel the same, WALL-E stands out because it exhibits a unique identity without losing its appeal to viewers of all ages. It's a romantic comedy where the principals are robots. It doesn't shy away from long passages without dialogue and it doesn't throw in catchy tunes and dazzling-but-pointless action sequences just to keep the younger component of the audience from becoming restless. WALL-E has a heart to equal many of the Pixar/Disney releases to precede it, including Toy Story and Finding Nemo (WALL-E's writer/director, Andrew Stanton, was involved in both), but a sensibility that is more mature. This is one of those recently rare animated films that adults can attend without children in tow. It's good family fare, to be sure, but it's more than an activity to spend some time with the kids. WALL-E is the best mainstream animated film since The Incredibles.

The first 30 minutes of WALL-E are virtually dialogue-free. Nearly 700 years in the future, Earth is an uninhabited wasteland. Pillars of trash taller than skyscrapers dot the city skylines and the planet is surrounded by a garbage belt. Pollution, not global warming, has driven all life into space. The robot WALL-E (voice of Ben Burtt) has remained behind, slowly doing his job day-in and day-out: collecting and compacting trash, then neatly stacking it. His only companion is an indestructible cockroach. Then, one day, WALL-E's ordered life is interrupted by the arrival of EVE (voice of Elissa Knight), a robot sent by a spaceship for indeterminate reasons. She's sleeker and more advanced than WALL-E, but he overcomes his initial fear of her and makes contact. They form a fragile bond - until EVE unexpectedly shuts down. WALL-E first tries to revive her, but when that doesn't work, he is satisfied with protecting her until her spaceship returns. Unwilling to lose his new friend so quickly, WALL-E hitches a ride and soon learns the fate of those who abandoned Earth so many years ago.

As WALL-E starts, it looks much different from the average Pixar film. Instead of the vibrant colors we have become accustomed to, this movie is suffused with browns. This is, after all, a post apocalyptic world where almost all life has ceased. By limiting the artists' palettes, Stanton creates a world that is both alien and familiar, and one that indicates from the start that this isn't going to be "business as usual." The music is also atypical for a Disney animated movie. Instead of jovial tunes by Phil Collins or Alan Menken, we have excerpts from "Hello Dolly!" (WALL-E has an old VHS tape of the musical that he watches repeatedly), Louis Armstrong's "Le Vie en Rose," and "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (popularly known as the "Theme from 2001").

Central to WALL-E's narrative is the "romance" between the lead character and EVE. What's amazing about the way these two interact is that the animators are able to humanize them through tiny gestures. Neither has a real face and they rarely speak anything more than electronic approximations of their names, yet we grow to care for them as deeply as we might any flesh-and-blood couple facing impossible odds in a live-action movie. The task for the animators is even more challenging here than in Cars, because at least in that film the automobiles were given human features and personalities. Here, WALL-E and EVE intentionally remain alien and robotic. Watching the way in which these two interact is the movie's chief pleasure - from WALL-E's initial fear of Eve, to her exasperation with him when she realizes he has stowed away on board the ship and is creating havoc, to her eventual fear for his safety. WALL-E and EVE are a great screen couple.

The film sounds a couple of cautionary notes. The first is the old-school ecological message of what a consumption-based society can do to a planet when pollution runs unchecked. The second relates to what happens to human beings when they become so lazy that all they do is lie around being waited on by robots. One of WALL-E's big heroic moments is when a futuristic human being, the captain of a space ship (Jeff Garlin) literally stands up to the movie's version of HAL. (One wonders whether the Captain's first name, which is not given, might be Dave.)

The presence of serious (or at least semi-serious) subjects does not dilute WALL-E's comedic aptitude. The film contains its share of funny sequences, many of which are entwined in the unlikely courtship between WALL-E and EVE. There's also some humor to be found in the antics of a pair of humans (voiced by John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy) becoming aware of their circumstances. Overall, WALL-E does a superior job of balancing its elements, although it comes up a little short on the "science" aspect of science fiction. The film replaces the real laws of physics with cartoon replicas.

Pixar's most recent two features, Cars and Ratatouille, have been fine examples of animated fare, but WALL-E raises the bar and reminds viewers of the not-so-long-ago era in which every new computer animated film was a revelation. WALL-E doesn't rely on gimmicks like 3-D and it doesn't look like a glorified advertisement for a video game. This movie possesses a vibrant heart and a solid story. The characters, despite being made of metal and having circuit boards for brains, are more human than the average protagonist in a summer blockbuster. There are numerous reasons to see WALL-E but the most compelling of these is that it recaptures a motion picture magic that is too often missing from the high-tech playpens called multiplex auditoriums.

WALL-E (United States, 2008)

Director: Andew Stanton
Cast: (voices) Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Fred Willard
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 2008-06-27
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1