You've got to hand it to Pixar, the friendly folks behind such movies as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille: They never rest on their laurels. They've revolutionized the world of animation and made billions of dollars doing it, but they keep pushing themselves and keep pushing us. (Ratatouille was a rat, for crissakes.) With WALL-E, their latest release, they almost seem to be pushing us aside. I wouldn't quite say it's inappropriate for kids, but I could sense the ones at the screening I attended trying to enjoy themselves, looking for a way in. (Or maybe that was just me doing it.) When director Andrew Stanton threw them a bone - some little bit of high jinks - they'd grab for it like a lifeline, laughing almost too loudly. But there were a lot of arid moments in between, where they were respectfully, suspiciously quiet.
Call it the post-apocalyptic blues. WALL-E is, of course, a robot, perhaps the last robot left on the planet. Specifically, he's a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class, a trash compacter, and there's certainly a lot of trash around. Only a few short years from now, Mother Earth has become one giant garbage dump, and WALL-E's job is to squeeze the detritus into cubes and stack them up until they've formed ziggurats of waste, like the temples of some ancient civilization. To say that the movie's vision of where our consumptive patterns are taking us is bleak is to engage in understatement: It's downright Blakean. And the computer animation is so photo-realist you almost don't register it as a cartoon. You aren't going to find Nemo swimming around in there, in part because there isn't a drop of water anywhere. It's a desert filled with junk.
Through that desert roams WALL-E, performing his Sisyphean labors by day, kicking back at night with his collection of pop-culture artifacts: a Rubik's Cube, some Bubble Wrap and (one of those weird Pixar touches) an old, battered videotape of the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly! Clearly modeled on E.T., with his long, thin neck and large eyes, WALL-E is a blank screen upon which we can project our longing for electronic critters, and the movie's creative team has done a nice job of imbuing him with the soul of a new machine. His blips and bleeps are reminiscent of R2-D2, whom sound engineer Ben Burtt also gave voice to. And his movements were inspired by Charlie Chaplin, or so I've read. You do suddenly realize how mechanical the great silent-film comedian was, bobbing and weaving as if controlled by a gyroscope. He was a soulful machine, too.
Like Robinson Crusoe (or Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Will Smith in I Am Legend), WALL-E appears to be all alone. And he's clearly lonely, having absorbed (downloaded?) some human emotion from watching Hello, Dolly! Then, from a spaceship docked briefly over Earth, emerges EVE, a probe-bot who looks like the latest product to come off the Apple assembly line. Shiny, smooth and curvy, EVE's all woman, whatever that means in this context, but she also packs a wallop, shooting first and asking questions later. In no time, WALL-E's head over treads in love, and it's wonderful to watch the two of them get to know each other using the various tools at their disposal, dialogue not being one of them. That we can work up emotion for this pair of glorified circuit boards is a tribute to the animator's art - love in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Having fulfilled her mission - finding a sign of plant life - EVE is called back to the Mother Ship, and WALL-E comes along for the ride, a castaway turned into a stowaway. Their destination, a giant space station called Axiom, is Stanton's vision of mankind's future, and you're going to want to brace yourself, because it's a lollapalooza. With everything taken care of by machines, Earth's former inhabitants spend all their time racing around in mobile Barcaloungers, their eyes glued to computer screens, their bodies swollen to whale-blubber dimensions. It's The Matrix by way of Jenny Craig, and we get the connection: We're the robots, wedged into our movie-theater seats, our eyes glued to the screen, our chubby cheeks stuffed with popcorn, our cup-holders runneth over. What's amazing is that Stanton doesn't sugarcoat anything except the Super Size Me drinks everybody's sipping on.
It's a hellish vision, worthy of the great satirists from the past. But Stanton may have miscalculated by turning the entire human race into a big fat baby; the movie doesn't seem quite...human. Yes, WALL-E's as cute and lovable as E.T., but E.T. had Elliott, the boy half of that boy-and-his-dog story. WALL-E has only EVE. And isn't there something slightly odd about being told that we're all becoming consumption machines by a machine designed for consumption, a piece of software programmed to lure our fat asses to the box office? There's a lot to look at in WALL-E, a lot to think about, and you have to admire a company that's willing to spend its accumulated good will trying to slap some sense into its young audience. For what's the message kids are going to take away from this movie, that Homo sapiens is an invasive species, a vicious weed? Aren't they a little young for such inconvenient truths?