July 8, 2008

Leave It To A Semi-Mute Robot To Say So Much About Humanity

So here, in the the first of what will hopefully/probably be many mini-movie reviews, I just wanted to say a few words about Pixar's latest release, Wall-E.

In a word: wow.

It's gotten to the point over the last decade or so where one needn't really harp on the brilliance and ever-growing accomplishments of Pixar. It's bible. It's known fact. In a cynical world, you keep waiting for them to slip up, to make that flop that inevitably happens. It's ingrained in you that people can't keep making hit after hit. This film, I'm happy to say, breaks that train of thought. It might not be the best Pixar film I've seen (The Incredibles and maybe Monsters Inc. gave us better stories, I think.), but it's certainly the best in terms of visuals, and Wall-E himself (Can a robot be a he? I'm going with it.) is probably the company's most enjoyable and likeable character, if not the most fleshed out, no pun intended.

Spoilers ahead, I suppose, so fair warning...

The basic gist of the story of Wall-E is simple: 700 years in the future, the Earth is an empty, barren wasteland of sorts, humans having jetted off into the cosmos after the planet became inhabitable because of our massive pollution and ignorance. What's left then, by mega-company Buy n' Large (sort of a much, much bigger and more powerful Wal-Mart), are robots put in charge of what's supposed to be a clean-up effort. Wall-E (his name is some sort of acronym, Waste something something, sorry, I forgot...) is the sole survivor of these robots, and goes about his trash-compacting duties dutifully every day, making small squares of garbage that he uses to build massive, skyscraper-esque towers. He keeps this up, basically completely unaware of his terribly lonely existence (save for an indestructible cockroach that serves as his pet), until one day, a spacecraft (launched by the humans -- sort of -- on a massive ark galaxies away) lands and drops off a probe droid, Eve, whose purpose is to scan the planet for any signs of returned life -- plants, basically -- to see if Earth might be again habitable. After a shaky courtship, Wall-E eventually follows Eve back up into space in a hilarious turn of events, and sets off a reawakening for all of mankind to not only their current, pathetic way of life, but to what they must do to retain their old one.

Some people have complained that the environmental message of the film is too heavy-handed, an idea that's been force-fed to us far too often in recent years. Ever since Al Gore's brilliant An Inconvenient Truth, environmentalism has become a very chic, Hollywood go-to device, and hasn't really been used subtly or effectively enough to not induce groans from the movie-going public. For the most part, I agree, but this film doesn't rely on that for substance; it's merely a plot device, giving the story something to move towards as it progresses.

Some controversy has also been stirred over the depiction of the humans in the movie. Basically, everybody is fat. Really fat. Like Louie Anderson ate pre-Subway diet Jared and then somehow merged, osmosis-like, with a wad of bacon grease fat. It's the result of a society, living aboard the pleasure dome-esque space ark, the Axiom, and having robots exist to take care of everything, whilst they spend the day lounging on floating recliners, processed food-in-a-cup in hand and staring at nothing but computer screens all day. It's a great, if not so subtle again, satire on what society's sooort of like even now. I say, though, that if you're offended by that depiction, you deserve it. The notion of the "fat, ugly American" is a horrible stain on our culture, and if it takes an animated film to point that out to people, so be it. I do wish they'd have fleshed out the characters a bit more, though. They exist only to be a backdrop, and are not nearly as life-like as human characters in other Pixar films. But like I said before, it's not about them; it's about Wall-E.

Wall-E wound up being more expressive, more connecting, and more sympathetic of a character than almost anyone else I've seen on screen this year. He's a tad more human in his emotions and actions that you'd expect from a robot, but that's nitpicking; this is a Disney film at heart, after all. In those big, puppy-dog eyes, you find a very lovable character. (He actually reminded me of my dog Clinton in that way.) He's a throwback character in so many great ways, though, from the way his innocence and enthusiasm remind you of how you were as a child, to the way that he utilizes visual gags in such effective and hilarious ways, like an old Charlie Chaplin film.

There's one gag in particular that stands out. Home from one of his trash compacting/foraging days on the job, Wall-E goes back to the storage unit (I guess that's what it was) that serves as his home and place to store and show off all his found treasures. He has multiple rows of bins that rotate, like a Ferris wheel, in which he keeps all of his things, and starts spinning the rows around to deposit what he's found -- a Zippo lighter goes into a bin full of other lighters, for example. He pulls out a spork at one point, and moves from a bin full of spoons to the bin full of forks right next to it, then back to the spoons, then back to the forks, spoons, forks, spoons, forks, and on and on, until he just gives up and puts it in the space between them. Classic.

All in all, this was just a solid film. I've heard rumors that it might be a pick for a Best Picture nominee at next year's Oscars, and while I wouldn't oppose the idea, I'm not sure it's complete enough to stand in the company of past Oscar winners. But it deserves the acknowledgment, if only for its incredible visuals, engaging characters, and the massive scope of its ambition. Mainly, it's just a fun, very warm-hearted movie that knows how to play to its audience, something that you don't see enough of these days at the cinema.

You'd think a movie that features a non-talking (not really, at least) robot who spends most of his time by itself would just seem silly, and end up being boring even in the end. But somehow, it pulls it off. Pixar continues on with its hit parade, unscathed. I'm no longer looking for the flop; I'm just excited it for the next one.


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