I’m going to get the biggest spoiler out of the way right away, so don’t click further if you want to remain unaware of a major theme which is not revealed until about an hour into the film: 700 years of space life, served only by robots, has led humanity to consist exclusively of hoverchair-bound, obese media junkies whose biggest concern is what processed foodstuff is coming through their Large-Slurpee-Straws. This will, and already has, led to some serious discussion in the fat acceptance movement, including claims that the film is just another salvo in the “obesity epidemic” wars. I find this to be an incomplete, if understandable, sentiment.
While it’s true that there are several sight gags based partially on the obesity (and partially on the boneless, atrophied-muscle evolved helplessness) of our spacegoing descendants, the downfall of earth is not tied to obesity in any recognizable way, but rather the consumerist culture. The literal skyscrapers of garbage that the trash robot WALL-E creates (because of his “directive”) are visual shorthand for whatever consumer-driven apocalypse caused the nightly dust storms which have killed the Earth.
All of which made it hilarious to look at what was handed to my son as we walked into the theater:
That’s right, it’s a WALL-E watch! A rubber bracelet around a cheap-ass LCD watch, which looks more like it should have come with a showing of E. frigging T., wrapped around a piece of cardboard, stuffed inside a plastic bag along with three – count ’em THREE – insert cards advertising “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”!* And judging from the four or five of them I saw stuffed into the garbage can (and one on the floor) on the way out of the theater, the ‘message’ of the film didn’t exactly hit home.
But it’s not the first anti-consumerist film made and/or distributed by a massive conglomerate to fail on that level, so let’s consider another level: As a piece of popular art, the film succeeds wildly. The first half-hour or so is frankly a masterwork, an absolute clinic not only in grand-scale animation, but (basically wordless) exposition and character development. In fact, as I watched it, I slowly got angry in retrospect about all the times I’ve forced myself to swallow the way Hollywood normally does exposition. (The worst offender, of course, is CSI. If I have to hear one more professional crime scene investigator explain to another one what a test tube is for, I’m going to kill someone. Rip from that headline, Law & Order!**)
We so thoroughly inhabit WALL-E’s world that, when something happens to change it – the arrival of his object of desire, EVE, the strongest female character Pixar’s ever coughed up; but hey, she’s a robot, that makes it easier, right? – we experience it as he does. Watching the first half-hour of WALL-E – the first hour, even – feels like a rebuke to the way we have consumerized our watching of movies.
Having said all that, then, it’s going to sound like a bigger criticism that I intend when I describe the last act of the film as a fairly typical Disney/Pixar adventure sequence. (There’s a couple of set pieces that feel like they opened the animation files for the door factory chase from Monsters, Inc., changed a few 1s and 0s, and rendered the whole thing again with robots instead of doors.) It did disappoint me a bit, actually – concerns about the nature of future humans aside, they were kind of a letdown plotwise – but I was just about hooked enough to not care.
That’s actually damning it with faint praise – the truth is, the opening sequence was so incredible that it set a standard which no film, animated or otherwise, is likely to live up to. If a film’s not going to be sublime from start to finish (and I’m pretty much still waiting for such a film) then its job is to make the sublimity afterglow remain long enough so it can get the workmanlike stuff done. WALL-E succeeds in that, better than any film I’ve seen this year.
* I shit you not.
** I watch a lot of TV late at night.