Mrs. Speculator and I have been excited about WALL-E for some time, finding the trailers to be engaging and cute, and relying on the cachet that just coming from Pixar brings to a movie. And of course, the reviews for WALL-E have been huge, describing it as one of the best movies of the year. So it was with big expectations that we took our nephew to the movie this past week. And we all enjoyed it a good bit, but I appear to be in something of a minority when I suggest that it isn't all that it was made out to be.
First, the good news: the animation, especially in the scenes that take place on Earth, is just spectacular. Except for WALL-E's friend the cockroach, everything on Earth is animated in a super-realistic fashion. If you've seen the trailers where WALL-E is chased by grocery carts, they are great evidence of the verisimilitude of the animation. Of course, this leads to wondering about the value of animation for the viewer if it is so life-like that it can't be distinguished from real actors, but that's a subject for another time. Suffice to say that the animation is engrossing and absorbing so that when they end up on a spaceship with people animated not so meticulously, it's a little bit jarring.
And there is WALL-E himself. He is a thoroughly engaging character, expressing more personality than any other characters in the film. The much-discussed first half-hour of the movie, with its lack of dialogue, is an extended set piece spent filling out the character of WALL-E (and the problems with Earth to some degree). WALL-E may be the perfect naïf, expressing what is best about people without any of their foibles or faults. I'm reminded to some degree of the best Charlie Chaplin films, where generally the naïve hero is just moving along innocently in his life's patterns until something disturbs them and he has to cope. That WALL-E's emotional foundation comes from repeated viewings of Hello Dolly! only enhances his naiveté a well as giving the animators opportunities to have WALL-E dance.
WALL-E's love interest, EVE, is initially less developed than WALL-E, but she grows into a more fully realized character as the film moves along. She has purpose beyond WALL-E's single-minded devotion, and is often faced with difficult choices that resonate with audiences of all ages. The viewer expects that she will persevere and manage to save the human race as well as WALL-E, but it is the verve with which she acts and the setting of those actions that sets this film apart. I think a really strong argument could be made that she is the true hero of WALL-E, much as the hero of Rain Man is Raymond's brother rather than the Rain Man himself.
Unfortunately, the glowing reviews of WALL-E generally indicated that this was a message movie, and I had expected denser plot and a moral, much like Ratatouille. However, this is not a complicated movie at all, with a really straightforward plot. I find myself arguing with myself that this should not be considered a weakness for the movie, and am slowly winning that battle. But while engaged with the animation, brighter viewers may not be quite so with its basic premise that "good guys always win out in the end." I've seen articles with people expressing concern about the movies views on commercialism and obesity, but those are not what the movie is focused upon. That the Earth cannot sustain life is a fairly standard science-fiction trope and how we get to that state is never explicitly stated. That the world seems dominated by a single global corporation is also fairly common in science fiction and the source for more humor than any diatribes. And if anyone complains about the obesity of the humans aboard the starship Axiom, they missed the explanation given by the movie—extended stays in space remove bone mass. Laziness and corporate sloth is not the cause of the humans' appearance, it is the effect of a scientific premise that the movie deftly explains.
Ultimately I find myself making two comparisons. First, I can't help thinking of Ratatouille, perhaps my favorite movie of 2007: WALL-E is animated far more realistically and meticulously (which is saying a great deal given how stunning the animation for Ratatouille is), but its story is not nearly so engaging. Its main character is equally loveable but not nearly so developed as Remy in Ratatouille. I also find myself making mental comparisons with the 70s science fiction film, Silent Running. Again, the backdrop is an Earth in the midst of an ecological disaster, and again humans and robots must work together to try to save mankind. There are as many differences in the movies as there are similarities, but the lasting images from both of them are the robots stars as metaphors for the goodness inherent in their human masters.