Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wall-E

Well, it's a shame about the rampant fat-phobia, but other than that Pixar's latest offering is an utter delight, and one which reaffirms my conviction that this is a company whose name ought to be synonymous not with dazzling computer animation but with the increasingly rare art of good storytelling. Someone should send a gift package of Pixar films, and most particularly Wall-E and The Incrdibles, to Russell T. Davies, as a demonstration that it is possible to tell a planet- or galaxy-spanning SFnal action-adventure story--for kids--which is chock-full of moving and meaningful character moments and also smartly and satisfyingly plotted and paced. For that matter, the rest of Hollywood should be in on that memo as well, as I can't think of a single recent blockbuster that demonstrates even a fraction of Pixar's commitment to story. Wall-E tells a very simple story--not for Pixar the for-its-own-sake convolutedness of the later Pirates of the Caribbean films--but as is always the case with Pixar films, does not confuse simplicity with stupidity, or with the stupidity of its audience. There isn't a minute of Wall-E that doesn't move its plot along, and though the film is never afraid to slow down in order to allow the characters to get to know one another or show off their idiosyncracies, neither does it use these character moments as an excuse for lazy plotting--there is none of the predictability of Iron Man to be found here, for example, for all that the film's plot has been seen many times before.

Of course, a great deal of Wall-E's expert blend of plotting, pacing, and character exploration can be laid at the feet its parent genre. If you've seen any of the million and one trailers for the film, you'll know that it tells the story of the robot from Short Circuit, who falls in love with an iPod (as, really, who wouldn't?). What isn't as clear from the trailers, but which becomes blazingly obvious from almost the moment these two meet, is that, SFnal, animated, and set centuries in the future, Wall-E is nevertheless a remake of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals. The one referenced repeatedly in the film, both in music and image, is Hello, Dolly!, but really the plot is almost universal to the form. Small town boy meets big town girl. She's got smarts, sophistication, and power, and all he's got is a heart the size of a planet and the determination to match. At first she ignores him. Then she's charmed, and a little intrigued, though still aloof. Then she's annoyed by his uncouthness and relentless pursuit. And finally she sees just what devotion and courage are being laid at her feet, and is won over. (And yes, this is plot that could turn creepy as easily as romantic. It all depends on how it's told, and Wall-E is told expertly enough that one never feels out of step with the writers' intentions.)

All of this, of course, is expressed through the charcters' garbled speech synthesizers, sounding somewhat like less homicidal Daleks, and through the few moving parts they possess. For Wall-E, these are mainly the servos on his eye-pieces (though there's also a lot of physical comedy to be wrung out of his tendency to fold himself into a tiny, shivering box whenever something happens to frighten him), whereas the slick, egg-shaped Eve has only her animated baby-blue eye-analogues with which to express emotion. And yet somehow--call it the Gromit effect--emotion pours off these two. At one point Wall-E loses his personality and become just another mindless, garbage-compacting drone, then gains it back, and for the life of me I can't figure out how this was accomplished, but somehow the Pixar animators manage to show life and personality returning to a face that isn't a face at all, which is made up of plastic and metal surfaces with only a handful of moving parts. It shouldn't come as this much of a shock, since these are, after all, the people who managed to imbue a lamp with personality, but it's still a little mind-boggling when your heart melts.

And your heart will, absolutely, melt. If you don't walk out of Wall-E with a spring in your step, a big smile on your face, and a flutter in your chest, then you've been dead for at least a couple of hours, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one to walk into the movie theatre half-expecting an overdose of cuteness. The trailers for the film, after all, were characterized by their increasing (and increasingly successful) attempts to get their viewers to go awwwwwww, and it was hard not to wonder whether this appeal to the squeeing center of our brains was all the film amounted to, and whether, at feature length, it wouldn't prove overwhelming and ultimately tedious. Well, there is no denying that Wall-E is cute and quite deliberately capitalizing on that cuteness, but the film also proves to be the animated, child-oriented equivalent of Pushing Daisies--though you keep thinking that now, finally, the writers are going to lose the thread, fall so completely in love with their own accomplishment on one level that they'll lose themselves in it, Wall-E remains, throughout its entire running time, smart, well-plotted, and well-characterized, with cuteness a powerful and frequently used tool for getting under the audience's skin, but never an end in its own right.

For all that I do believe that Pixar's films are driven by strong stories rather than strong animation, there is no denying that Wall-E is a computer animated film from a company that is at the forefront of this technology, and certainly there are some breathtaking and, from a technical standpoint, impressive accomplishments on that front. This is a film whose latter half takes place in deep space, and the Pixar animators have a lot of fun painting solar flares, planetary rings, and nebulae. And, as is standard for their products, the film is lovingly and obsessively detailed, so that the audience is sometimes bombarded with so much information that it's hard to take in (though never when it comes to important plot points). Much like The Incredibles, however, the visual genius of Wall-E lies not in artistry but in design. I don't know if any of the animators, artists, or concept designers working on the film ever had jobs designing real-world user interfaces or data presentation systems (given Pixar's connections with Apple, this might very well be the case), but having seen the film I want someone to hire these guys to remake just about every such system on the planet. Imagine a combination of Edna Mode's fully automated house from The Incredibles and the stylized yet instantly comprehensible animations through which Bob Parr receives his instructions from Syndrome in that film, and you'll get something that approaches the elegant complexity of the Axiom, the spaceship upon which the latter half of Wall-E takes place.

The Axiom is run and maintained by robots, humans having been reduced to mindless and almost shapless blobs lounging about on hover-chairs, IMing and drinking down their lunches to their hearts' content (hence the fat-phobia I mentioned at the beginning of this review). When Wall-E and Eve arrive on the ship, they are folded into its complex dance of routine and protocol, everyone moving along predetermined lines. Quite literally, in fact--the Axiom's floors light up, describing paths along which every device and person on the ship navigates. Everything in the Axiom is in constant motion, robots and humans whizzing back and forth at breakneck speed, maneuvering infallibly along these paths, which redraw themselves instantaneously in response to obstructions or unforseen circumstances, which is what Wall-E is. This, of course, is a perfect metaphor through which to express the film's message, with Wall-E's innocent and well-intentioned ignorance of the system acting as a spur for humans and robots alike to look around, step off their predetermined course, and discover their nascent individuality, but to a science fiction fan (and someone who works in computers) it's just as much fun to observe the complexity and intelligence of the autonomous system the Pixar artists have envisioned. (There is, however, in the midst of the film's techno-, and more specifically Apple-, philia, an undertone of disdain for the cult of the new and shiny. Wall-E--beat up, obsolete, and decidedly unpretty--has survived because he self-repairs, scrounging spare parts and prioritizing functionality and practicality over form, an attitude which the flawless Eve finds utterly bewildering but which ultimately saves the day. There's as much love of bare-knucled engineering in this film as there is for industrial design.)

If there is a single serious complaint to be levelled at Wall-E (apart from the fat thing), it is, as others have noted, that this is a perhaps inappropriately cheerful and uplifting movie for one whose premise is that Earth has become overrun with garbage due to our wasteful, consumerist lifestyle. While watching Wall-E, I was reminded of an observation voiced in the Iron Man fanfic I linked to yesterdy, that America, and probably all of the developed world, is enamored with hardware, and with the idea that any problem caused by technology can be solved with even better technology. For all that Wall-E breaks with so much of the stupidity coming out of Hollywood these days, in this respect it, like Pixar's other films, is utterly conservative, and perhaps even more so than Iron Man--this is a story, after all, about humanity being saved by machines, albeit machines with personalities who can fall in love. At least Iron Man restricted himself to fighting terrorism--even he didn't think he could do anything about global warming. It is, however, unfair to demand so much out of what is, ultimately, a product of the Hollywood machine. Wall-E is a good story, impeccably told and beautifully put together. This is no minor accomplishment.

10 comments:

ad said...

There's as much love of bare-knucled engineering in this film as there is for industrial design.

That I like the sound of.

Foxessa said...

The rightwing, climate-change deniers are furious with Pixar for this movie. "They are trying to brainwash our innocent leetle ones that there is climate change and we must change our ways. They are evile, how dare they be evile and use our darling precious sweet inoncent leetle one for their pernicious propaganda against our Great Big Consuming Throwaway All American Best In The World Lifestyle!"

Love, C.

Kellie said...

I love the Short Circuit robot ♥ iPod summary.

The only plot element I couldn't quite follow was why the plant had to be put in an analysis unit in the middle of the Lido Deck. But a peril of watching a movie with a toddler is that one's attention is always divided between the movie and said toddler. It is very possible I missed a viable reasoning. Fortunately, a bonus of watching a movie with a toddler is that one will likely be treated to said movie repeatedly on DVD, thus allowing for the full examination of the film over the course of many days.

I have to quibble with the fat-phobia. I'm not sure what's fat-phobic about portraying as obese a species who consumed their habitat to the point of destruction and have become so over-reliant on technology that they cannot move by themselves or explore their surroundings. Seems the only logical outcome, thematically. Due the way our bodies metabolise food, some referenced biotechnology/genetic engineering advance would be about the only way to avoid this. And it really wouldn't have fit in a movie that emphasized the technology and engineering advances of humanity over the biological.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The in-story reason for placing the plant in the analyzer is that the ship's automated systems would only set a course for Earth once they identified a living sample of photosynthesizing tissue. But really, it's just an excuse for a big climax in which Wall-E saves the day.

As for the fat thing, I think that given the film's assertion that 'lazy, sedentary, and lacking in initiative, therefore fat,' it's fairly easy to extrapolate the other causative direction. Especially given that this the conventionally accepted view of fat people in our society. On the scientific level, I could just as easily imagine the Axiom's passengers as atrophied bags of skin and (porous) bones, and at any rate this is not a film to be watched for its scientific rigor.

Kellie said...

Yeah, I caught the why of the Lido Deck in the first sense, but couldn't help but ask "why not a convenient receptacle on the bridge?" I'll forgive the dramatic license. It was a great sequence.

While an atrophied bag of bones might also be a plausible scientific outcome, it's certainly not the aesthetic route a childrens movie is going to take. Also, I saw the film asserting more that "consumption (often frivolous) without care to or acknowledgement of the consequences, therefore fat." The lazy, sedentary, and lacking in initiative seemed presented as a direct result of becoming over-reliant on technology, seeing as how those three traits immediately vanished as soon as the technology was taken away or the appreciably routine changed.

That is not to say that society (the medical field included) doesn't have problems with understanding and portraying the concept of "fat." But including Wall-E as part of (or even a contributor to) those problems seems to view that element of the movie in a limited fashion.

patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

Midgard Dragon said...

Anyone who's seen the movie knows that WALL-E looks nothing like Johnny 5. Final word.

Tim Ward said...

Wasn' there a scene where it explained that they were all amorphous blobs now because of something to do with the ship being low gravity?

Onkel Danny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rafaelis said...

This is looong after the fact of course, but my main problem with Wall-E (and it's just about the only one I have) is the use of a live actor (Fred Willard) playing the CEO of Buy N Large (Walmart).

The fat people on the Axiom look like typical animated Pixar humans, and the difference between real human and animated human is too obvious to be believable. It did momentarily cause me to lose suspension of disbelief, but never enough to not love this (now) Pixar classic.

Post a Comment