Monday, July 07, 2008

Wall-E

When Luxo Jr. first made his appearance pushing balls around on Sesame Street, we knew that the animation was something special. What we did not know was that the makers of those short segments would go on to become the 500 pound gorilla in the family entertainment industry. But that is just what they've become, with an unbroken string of successes from the first Toy Story movie in 1995 through 2007's Ratatouille.

And Wall-E is the latest entry in that list. It's obviously far too early to know how it will eventually succeed at the box office, but it had a bigger opening weekend than either of the last two Pixar films, both of which ended up doing over $200 million in the US.

Wall-E is essentially a trash compactor on wheels. Once upon a time, there were apparently hundreds of Wall-E's, but all indications are that he is the only one left working. And the work he's doing is cleaning up the planet. The human beings left, having rendered the planet incapable of supporting life, and Wall-E remained behind to clean it up. Which he does. He goes about his business of gathering the trash, compressing it into little cubes, and stacking the cubes into skyscraper sized piles. He's curious about many of the things that he sees, and has gathered an impressive collection of artifacts. He works during the day, returns to his collection at night, and watches Hello, Dolly on his video iPod.

And then one day, everything changes. Something large comes out of the sky, and when it departs, there's a new robot left behind. Smooth and sleek (and very deadly), the Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (Eve) definitely intrigues Wall-E. Boy meets girl, and (not for the first time) boy is more interested in girl than they other way around. And, also not for the first time, various obstacles threaten the relationship. What the obstacles are, how they are overcome, and what results when they are overcome - those are the things that make up the rest of the film.

I have mixed emotions about Wall-E. It was certainly entertaining, and one thing remains true - each time Pixar releases a new film, the state of the art in computer generated animation takes a step forward. It is never boring, and Pixar understands, the way that other animation producers have not, that it is character and story that make movies, not just special effects.

But I had difficulty suspending my disbelief, and, as much as I enjoyed what I was watching (most of the time), it never transported me to another world the way that some of their earlier efforts did. Wall-E is, as all of Pixar's characters have been, fully realized, tremendously expressive, and just plain fun to look at. But the film never completely drew me in the way that Pixar's previous efforts have. There was a barrier, a threshold that I never crossed.

It would be patently ridiculous to attack the movie as implausible. They have made a movie with a certain set of assumptions, and, as quibbling over why the robot garbage disposal has sentience would be both pointless and unfair, I won't do that. Nothing in Wall-E, at least nothing related to the robot characters, is any more implausible than events in Monsters, Inc. or Cars or The Incredibles, all of which I love unreservedly. So I want it clearly understood that I am not challenging any of the robot actions, feelings or relationships on the grounds of implausibility. Within the universe the film inhabits, those things are all fine and essentially consistent.

The problem, I suspect, is that they have made their universe too much like the one which we currently inhabit. That will sound, again, inconsistent on my part - after all, don't the characters in Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story and Cars inhabit our own universe? But the answer to that is actually, "no, they do not." The characters in Monsters, Inc. inhabit a universe like ours, but with a fundamental difference - there really ARE monsters that jump out of closets and scare children. The Toy Story universe is like ours, but with a fundamental difference - toys come to life when we aren't watching.

But in Wall-E, the producers seem to be implying that it is our universe. The planet shots are Earth and they talk about returning to Earth. Wall-E's collection includes a light bulb and a Rubik's cube. And he enjoys watching Hello, Dolly on his video iPod. The first twenty minutes, as entertaining as it is, as visually interesting and spectacular as it is to watch, feels like a twenty minute lecture from the Sierra Club or Al Gore. (OK, it probably feels like 20 second lecture, which would feel like a 20 minute lecture, from Al Gore.) A lecture on conspicuous consumption and consumerism from a group of people who have generated billions of dollars by selling leisure activities and related action figures. I have no objection to a movie having a point of view or trying to make a point, but a little bit of subtlety would be OK, too.

And this, I think, is where I lost the ability to suspend my disbelief. The premise that, sometime in the next century or two, human beings would have "cluttered" their way off the planet was not one that I was able to buy. Talking, sentient trash-compactor? No problem. Skyscraper sized piles of garbage everywhere? Sorry, I'm unable to suspend my disbelief that far. (For what it's worth, I wasn't alone in that - my kids felt the same way.) One of the strongest trends in human development is the trend towards reducing pollution and cleaning up the world as technology increases. Indeed, there is not a thing in the movie more implausible than its premise that the same society produced both the mess that Wall-E is cleaning, and the pristine paradise of a spacecraft on which the humans have taken shelter. Wall-E's evolved sentience is a lot easier to swallow than that.

Societies that aren't merely struggling to feed and house themselves develop arts and leisure activities, and then they start doing things like cleaning up the air and water. Societies, like people, move up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and more advanced societies (as this one had to have been) reach the need for "self-esteem" and then "self-actualization." And the focus turns to technology, and the technology increases the amount of recycleable and recycled material1. In other words, while there are both legitimate environmentalists and strident "watermelons" (green on the outside, red on the inside) peddling apocalyptic scenarios, none of them feel real or likely. And Wall-E's premise of a world deserted because the discard piles got too high is less likely than most.

All that said, there is no dialogue during that opening section. The movie does not actually lecture on the topic of trash. If you aren't already sensitive about the subject, or if you agree with the environmental extremist point of view, it may well be possible to suspend disbelief and be completely drawn in. It certainly wasn't preachy the way the unwatchable Happy Feet was, and I don't want to suggest that it was.

No, it just shows Wall-E going about his business. And he's certainly amusing to watch. The film never ceases to be entertaining and visually impressive. And the human beings do show some initiative and gumption at the end. Pixar is going to make a lot of money, again, on Wall-E, and they'll deserve to, as they've made another wonderful entertainment, and I'm glad to have seen it. But I didn't walk out of the theater with the same affection that I had for the others. And five years from now, I suspect, there will be millions of Wall-E figures and disks adding ironically to whatever clutter and consumerism problems that the producers of Wall-E are concerned about...




1 - This remains one of the big reasons that incurring massive economic damage now in hopes of mitigating against potential future climate changes which are likely to be, on the whole, far less costly, is a bad idea. IF mankind is actually causing global warming and IF global warming is actually going to be bad for humanity (and those are both big IFs), the best solution is far more likely to come from technology developed in a free market than in draconian restrictions imposed on the world's economic engine.


Update: Baseball Crank agrees that "the trash-will-overwhelm-us doomsday scenario was self-evidently absurd even within the context of the movie (they show the humans' new spaceship home as gleamingly spotless because they have the technology to jettison their garbage into space)..."

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