Friday, June 27, 2008

"WALL·E" -- * * * *

**WARNING: My review of "WALL·E" reveals a bit more than the trailer does, but I don't discuss anything past the halfway point of a 90 minute movie**

While Pixar's consistent greatness has gotten to the point of being taken for granted, it's often overlooked to what a huge extent they've changed the animation world; these aren't films that settle for being merely 'cute.' Adults, in large numbers, are now going to animated movies on their own. Animated movies are now getting Oscar nominations for their screenplays. Every animated work is now held to a higher standard: the Pixar standard. Even the ones that are favorably received ("Kung Fu Panda") are preceded with "It's no Pixar movie, but..." With Andrew Stanton's "WALL·E," I don't want to say Pixar has produced their best film yet, but I don't want to rule it out either. It's certainly in the upper echelon at least, joining the ranks of "Toy Story 2," "The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo" and "Ratatouille." It's a gutsy, downright exhilarating film, one that I think takes more risks in terms of storytelling and filmmaking decisions than any Pixar film has thus far, but does it while remaining entirely accessible to anyone (of any age) who wants in. A lot of times folks will grade certain films generously because they're "for kids," but "WALL·E" offers originality, comedy, emotion, character definition, and substantive ideas on a level that surpasses most movies, period, not just in the animation world. It's a complete delight, and at this halfway point, my favorite film of 2008 so far.

Opening in the year 2800, "WALL·E" begins with shots of a decimated, unoccupied planet Earth filled with empty, decrepit buildings (all ominously labeled with 'BNL') and massive piles of garbage. As the camera swoops in, we see the planet is not entirely vacated, but is occupied by a lone figure, a robot named WALL·E -- Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class. WALL·E is apparently, one of many such robots that were sent to clean up Earth and attempt to make it sustainable for life, but when the goal was deemed futile, he was the only one (assumedly mistakenly) left behind. Unphased, WALL·E continues to do (as he's done for presumably hundreds of years) what he was made to do, clean up the Earth -- albeit slowly -- and turns garbage into crushed cubes and stack them up. With only a Big Mouth Billy Bass and a cockroach to keep him company, he mostly spends his non-working time wading through the various items humans left behind and watching his favorite movie, "Hello, Dolly!" When a ship drops off a different sort of robot with an indeterminate mission, WALL·E is immediately smitten, and after much wooing, the other robot (named EVE -- Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Allocator) reciprocates. The two have a brief, cordial romance, but when WALL·E presents EVE with a little seedling/plant he's found, she's quick to store it, and very soon, the rocket has returned to take her back. Unwilling to lose his newfound love, WALL·E impulsively grabs hold of the rocket and begins hurtling along for the ride back to wherever EVE was sent from.

Much in the way "Kung Fu Panda" was a genuine Kung Fu film, "WALL·E" is in every respect a science-fiction film, and proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. From its core concept to the places it goes as it progresses, the film has some fantastic ideas, and presents a fascinating -- and a wee bit terrifying -- hypothesis of the future that even gets its biological details right (see, cockroaches really can survive anything!). From its grim view of our future, to the chase sequences, to the exploration through space to the wild ambition on display aboard the space station and the places the plot goes in second and third act, this is a truly innovative work of science-fiction that'll simultaneously make geeks foam at the mouth and introduce kids to a genre they might be heretofore unfamiliar with (albeit setting the bar fairly high early on). Stanton has stated that much of "WALL·E" is based on old science fiction classics that influenced him, and while there are noticeable traces of "Silent Running" and "Alien," it's virtually impossible to miss the numerous nods to "2001: A Space Oddysey;" the infamous music is used in a climactic sequence, and hell, the "villain" of the whole thing is a single, programmed despotic red light/eye.

What's so great about Pixar, besides the boundless creativity on display, is that they address very adult themes in very kid-accessible ways without condescension, so that both chunks of the audience get a rewarding experience out of the deal. Here, clearly, the underpinnings are based in the concepts of environmentalism, and specifically about humanity's habit of consumption, planetary destruction and excessive waste. We find out Earth officially became un-inhabitable around 2110, and WALL·E and EVE's respective missions are to clean up humanity's destruction, and help to begin re-instating some sort of ecosystem. Currently, all of remaining humanity is (and has been for about 700 years) confined to a space station made for their mass consumption, and they're all morbidly obese, gelatinous Americans who ride around in carts, and need machines for everything, even to help them sit up. It's an extremely perceptive and scarily not-too-exaggerated vision of the direction humanity is potentially heading (and in some parts of the country, already is). The potential effects of our willy-nilly destruction of our planet is an issue rarely touched upon in movies, let alone ones targeted at children, and as such, it's a phenomenal way of broaching the subject with young'ns, and doing so tactfully (where it's organic to the story) rather than polemically. While it would be impossible to not take note of such themes, Stanton does all of this without ever letting it overtake the movie or allowing this entertainment to transform into a lecture. It's all going on, but it's almost happening in the background, as the movie never loses sight of the central story being told, which is that of WALL·E's journey and his transformative relationship with EVE.

The movie wouldn't work if we somehow didn't care for our titular figure, but thankfully, that's not the case. For a robot, let alone one who doesn't speak, it's astonishing how well-defined a character and personality WALL·E is. I've always had issues with caring, or developing feelings, for characters that are by definition devoid of genuine emotion, but both "WALL·E" and "A.I." found ways around it in having their robot leads develop personalities, either via glitch or specific programming. Turns out WALL·E is one of the more carefully etched figures we've seen in a movie this year, and the filmmakers have equipped him with delicate character development that slowly allows us in and to go along with him through his emotional journey. WALL·E is a creature imbued with sweetness and child-like fascination, as illustrated in how he cherishes little knick-knacks left behind by the human race, whether they're Rubik's cubes, bras, rubber duckies or engagement rings (though he prefers the case to the ring itself).

But he's perhaps best defined by his obsession with the film version of "Hello Dolly!" Before he goes to "sleep" each night, he watches a chunk of the film on his video iPod and longs for someone/something to share a hand-holding session or a dance with; he also records songs from the film and listens to them on playback as he engages in his single-handed clean-up. When Eve finally arrives (she gets born/programmed by her ship before his eyes), WALL·E's immediately entranced, and his extremely shy and courteous courting of her to the strains of Louis Armstrong's "La Vie en Rose" is irresistably adorable. She initially resists -- she's there to follow through on what she's programmed to do -- and shoots at him whenever he chuckles or makes a charmed noise at something she does, but when she finally subsides, and they "meet cute" and introduce themselves, it may be the cutest thing ever. When she's taken back by her ship, WALL·E's determination is more than just a cute character tic, it's rousing and moving all at once; he's finally found companionship at last, and he's not going to lose it.

It's nothing new for Pixar films to be blessed with incredibly gorgeous visuals, but "WALL·E" has so many stunningly beautiful images and sequences, one would be forgiven for being too transfixed to heed the story/characters much mind on a first viewing. When you see that Coens regular Roger Deakins was a 'visual consultant,' everything starts to make sense. There are some quick visual gags that alternate between amusing (an ad proclaiming "Time for Lunch... in a Cup!" and an "Outlet Mall Coming Soon" sign on the moon) and brilliant (WALL·E playing Pong against an immobile Eve), but the chiefly memorable visuals on display here are the ones that may just drop your jaw depending how big a screen you see them on. I found the animation tremendous at every turn, but I was particularly taken with the sequence of WALL·E traveling through orbit on the back of the rocket, and the film's opening shot of space set to "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from "Hello, Dolly!," as the camera flies towards (and through) a decimated earth with garbage piled as high as the sky. It's a simultaneously beautiful, haunting and darkly funny image that had me from the get-go.

I've read about a dozen articles speculating about what a risk "WALL·E" represents in that its first 38 minutes offer almost no dialogue (WALL·E and Eve mostly just hum and make whirring noises), and questioning whether kids will be able to sit still for an extended, word-free chunk that bears more in common with works of Tati, Chaplin and Keaton than old adventures with Buzz, Nemo and Sully. To this, I ask, are they fucking kidding? If anything, kids are bored by dialogue, and in my experience, they're far more engaged by moments centric on visuals and action than witty banter. Hell, wasn't "Ratatouille" considered a relative box office 'disappointment' because it was too reliant on the screenplay and dialogue for the wee tykes? I think kids are going to go for "WALL·E" in a big way, and if anything, enjoy the first third the most. If very young kids will have issue with anything, I think it might be with grasping the ideas at work here. The actual concept of robots and understanding the whole being-programmed and lack-of-free-will elements can be a bit jarring or confusing (during some quieter moments, I heard a toddler or two ask 'Why did he/she do that?'), and some smaller ones may not quite comprehend how the earth ended up this way, or why all these people are all so fat and can't walk. I think WALL·E and EVE will be their eyes and ears and largely get them through it, but it is kind of heady stuff for little ones.

Even as someone who loves the film, some of the ejaculatory hyperbole I'm reading (particularly on Ain't It Cool News) seems to take expectations to an absurd, almost impossible-to-reach degree, and I've already talked to two different people who, while still liking the film, found themselves to be somewhat let down. To be blunt, you should be excited about the emotionally intimate, aesthetically epic "WALL·E" -- I love it unabashedly, regardless of what any review can or will ever say about it -- but I worry about overhyping it. I'll be the first to admit, it's not a perfect film (I'm still working out how I feel about the brief use of real human actors). That said, if you are at all susceptible to the magic that movies are capable of, you really have no excuse to miss this. Pay the 'G' rating, with its implications of being kiddie-oriented, no mind; "WALL·E" is more thoughtful, daring, entertaining and emotionally satisfying than anything else playing in theaters right now, and I can't recommend it enough.


Blogger Steve Schwartz said...

very good review! i can't say how much i loved this movie. i think the first 40 minutes were my favorite in a film, over the past five, maybe even ten years. andrew stanton has proven himself once again.
it was in ever way a classic science fiction film, in a time when the genera has been sort of fading away. i was expecting a masterpiece, and while there were some bugs (live action, which gave a horrible taste in my mouth to happy feet a few years back) it really came through and met my impossible standards.
this has been a great year for the animated film.

11:41 PM  

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