"Yeah, I liked it. It was cute." From friends, co-workers, my wife, this has been the reaction to the newest Pixar film Wall-E. And entitled to it though they may be, it confounds me. To say Pixar is operating on an entirely different level than those making other CG films - exhaustingly noisy, formulaic disposables about kung fu pandas and surfing penguins and astronaut chimpanzees - should by now go without saying. To compare Wall-E to those cartoons is an absurd proposition. About those, at best, one could perhaps say, "Yeah, I liked it. It was cute."Wall-E, however, can only be critiqued alongside its true peers: E.T., Star Wars, Babe.
It's a masterpiece. Not only Pixar's best, but one of the best, most moving animated films of all time... I'd go so far as to say it's simply one of the best science fiction films of all time. From the vastness of Earth circa 2815 A.D. to the dizzying heights of the skyscrapers of garbage - all that remains of mankind on this world - the scope and vision and beauty of the imagery, the sweeping elegance of the score, the perfect ways in which information is revealed, the almost entirely dialogue-free first half of the film... director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and the Pixar folks are simply master storytellers.
Consider the opening, as we soar among these spires of compacted cubes of junk and see among them move a single object: a small robot, Wall-E. Day after day he gathers the refuse left by a civilization that long ago abandoned its unlivable home, squeezes it into his trash compactor body and makes of it another building block for his growing city of trash. In the debris he discovers treasures, trinkets, jewelry, toys, curiosities he takes back to the cargo container in which he powers down and sleeps, adds them to his collection. He is alone, the last robot left behind to clean up the mess. And he is lonely.
Here there is a crossroads, for to know little more than what I've just described would make for a film spilling over with surprises and revelations. If you've yet to see the film, then, read no further. Know only that it is a wondrous new classic, and that to miss seeing it in a theater would be a shame. Its vastness would be hard to duplicate on any home screen. If, like so many before me, you've already seen the film, then read on... for from here on there be spoilers.
It can be argued that the major shift in tone and story that occurs halfway through the movie takes a bit of the thunder out of the film, moving us from a world of echoes and vestiges of humanity to a pretty overt commentary on consumerism and apathy. And it's true, I agree to a point. It would have been a bold move to have humanity's presence in the film be strictly made up of old recordings, songs and leftover junk. What a thoroughly haunting film that would have been. As it is, yes, a bit of that haunting quality of the first half is sacrificed once the story moves to the Axiom, a spaceship on which the last remaining humans left Earth some 700 years earlier. Be that as it may, seeing as this was the choice the storytellers made, I'd maintain they never step wrong. Aboard the Axiom there is still one surprise after another, one jaw dropping visual after another. Had we remained on Earth, consider the images and sequences we would have lost: Wall-E tagging along on the side of the rocket and moving through space, sweeping his hand through a thin ring of ice and stardust... the hilarious back and forth between Wall-E and the little cleaner droid... the captain learning about Earth's history... Wall-E and Eve's dance in the vacuum of space. Give me this movie, with these scenes, any day over a more perfect film without them.
I'll admit a huge factor in my feeling for this movie is the nostalgia it evokes simply through the voices and sounds of the machines and robots, in particular Wall-E himself. It feels like a movie from my childhood, and I felt like a kid again watching it. Sure enough, as the credits revealed, the voices and sounds were performed by Ben Burtt, the sound designer and editor whose voice work helped make R2D2, and the hundreds of other machines, aliens, holographic chess pieces, and droids from the Star Wars films, so memorable. For me, even before it was confirmed that it was Burtt behind the curtain at the mic, the effect was potent. It would be a very different movie without his contribution. It should be noted, too, that it seems Stanton sought out these icons of science fiction cinema to take part, as Sigourney Weaver performs the voice of the Axiom's ship computer.
What remains to be said but that the bar has been raised higher than anyone could have expected? How any self-respecting studio can release Space Chimps or Fly Me to the Moon with a straight face after Wall-E baffles me. With this film, Pixar has proven once again why they're the best. I love this movie.