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WALL·E Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 1, 2008

  • Movies review


    WALL·E Review
    Well, after a long wait for its arrival in the post, WALL-E's excellent Blu-ray is finally here with me. But here's what I said about the film back when it made its debut at the cinema, with only a couple of very slight additions.

    “Too much garbage in your place? There is plenty of space out in space! BnL StarLiners leaving each day. We'll clean up the mess while you're away.”

    My eyes have died and gone to heaven. And I have absolutely no doubt that yours won't mind making the same trip with Pixar's latest fable, WALL-E, either.

    “Voice activation required.”

    “Er ...”

    “Er - accepted.”

    The far distant future has seen the Earth consumed by the insurmountable waste of an apathetic mankind, the population having relocated to deep space aboard the vast, world-ship Axiom. They leave behind a dusty, parched smog-planet that is now home to an industrious little clean-up robot called WALL-E, who sifts the skyscraper-high mountains of garbage in a thankless campaign of tidying that will take him forever and a day to finish ... if he works through his lunch-breaks, as well. His is a desperately lonely existence; left with no-one but the only living thing that could thrive in such polluted devastation - a cockroach that doesn't mind being occasionally run over by WALL-E's little rolling tracks and has a quasi-cuddly knack for tickling the droid's rivets. Back in his ramshackle converted container-truck home, a respite against the fierce dust-storms that sweep through this hazy, abandoned Manhattan, the little robot enjoys playing with the collection of oddments that have caught one of his binocular-like eyes - a Rubik's Cube, a spork, a bra (which should give you an early indication of what his idle thought-processors may dream about) and a couple of garden gnomes - and watching a prehistoric VHS tape of Michael Crawford singing and dancing in “Hello Dolly”. Lonely and romantic. It's not a good combination, is it?

    But things are going to take a turn for the emotional and the decidedly cosmic and little WALL-E is soon going to find himself becoming the catalyst for a galactic migration of mind-boggling proportions. When a probe sent out by the far-distant Axiom to examine whether human life on old terra-firma could be sustainable once more lands on his patch, WALL-E is immediately smitten by her gleaming curves and soothing electric blue eyes. However, the course of true love never runs smoothly and WALL-E is going to have his work cut out trying to convince the diligent and dedicated EVE that she and he were made for each other. This first act of the movie is utterly bewitching - their courtship is a string of failures amid the strangely painterly squalor and gentle comedy becomes the order of the day. Our hero is pathetic at wooing his duty-bound companion and her formidable arm-mounted laser-canon is a tough obstacle to manoeuvre around ... bras are so much safer. But, inch by fledging inch, a quirky bond is developed that is as touching for us as it is for the ever-hopeful WALL-E. Until, that is, events dictate that she must return to her masters with proof that something still lives on Earth, prompting our hapless, bug-eyed Romeo to pursue her to the ends of the galaxy, ignorant of the bigger picture, just content in the knowledge that he wants to be with EVE.

    Andrew Stanton returns to the director's seat of a Pixar picture after the incredible success of Finding Nemo. Having written the screenplay as well, it is clear from his approach to WALL-E that this is meant to be something a little different from their usual stable. With such an epic canvas to work from and such endearing characters and situations to exhibit, it is also clear that whatever departure the studio has made from its usual cutesy lovability, it has not been in vain. Although I would personally cite The Incredibles as my favourite Pixar movie so far, few would dispute the fact that WALL-E may well be one the brightest gems in their illustrious crown.

    The animation, as you would expect, is nothing short of exquisite. If The Incredibles blew you away with its lush jungle and fancy action, Monsters Inc. surpassed the troublesome area of pixel-perfect fur and the double-whammy of Cars and Ratatouille proved the studio's visual versatility with sun-dappled chrome and indulgent Parisian chic respectively, then WALL-E literally aims for the stars ... and bags 'em, too. This is the kind of imagery that smothers you so completely that you'll be wiping glittering petals of colour off your shirt and out of your hair for days afterwards. From the now-requisite top-down view of New York - weirdly configured with mountains of rubble replacing some of the high-rises that have tumbled - to the gawp-inducing vistas of space - a metal finger ripples through the star-strewn rings of Saturn and an opportunist WALL-E, hitching a lift on EVE's returning automated ship, takes advantage of a sun-flyby to recharge his solar batteries. So many shots and set-pieces command the attention. A fire-extinguisher-assisted ballet through space becomes the romantic highpoint of the movie and if your heart doesn't melt to the delicate strings of Thomas Newman's galactic harp serenading our two kindred spirits, then you just haven't got one. EVE's powerful rage at being held-up by a pesky industrial magnet reduces a derelict row of ships to molten steel in a terrific show-piece of grand-scale destruction. Robotic PMT written large! The first time that WALL-E gets EVE back to his junkyard-cum-bachelor-pad is a brilliant episode of almost sit-com sight-gaggery - all the little knick-knacks that our hero cherished but found unfathomable to work out are solved by EVE in the blink of a photo-receptor. Who doesn't wish that they could pop bubble-wrap with such speed and precision? And the heart-rending 24/7 vigil that WALL-E mounts besides his love when she has gone into stand-by mode lock-down would have had the aisles awash with tears if Stanton hadn't wisely switched the tone into one of fuzzily soft farce. But there are numerous throwaway delights as well - a nice row of portraits depicting the Axiom's previous captains reveals the evolutionary decline that the human race has undergone during their lazy exile; an over-zealous little scuttlebutt, or scuttlebot, that spends most of the movie obsessed with cleaning up the foreign contaminants that have slipped off WALL-E's mini-tank-tracks; a hunt for a tiny plant growing inside a boot that becomes an almost cosmic recreation of Titanic's iconic tipping-up passenger-slide. But you have to give the animators credit for a sublime riff on I Am Legend's opening sequence with a bumbling WALL-E standing in for Will Smith's roaring Mustang as he scoots through the canyons of garbage, his lonely existence just as affecting as Smith's Robert Neville in its implied magnitude.

    “A is for Axiom, your home sweet home. B is for Buy 'N' Large, your very best friend.”

    You also have to admire WALL-E's tenacity in the face of the Prime Directive-enforced snubbing that EVE deflects his advances with, but it is abundantly apparent that he's a pain-in-the-ass of a paramour if you happened to be on the receiving end of his ceaseless affections - a whining, doe-eyed pest who just won't let go. What would have been a neat idea would have been to have him fall for every passing feminine 'bot that he came across aboard the Axiom, jilting his supposed true love in the face of unparalleled temptation overload. He clearly has some pent-up frustrations that the other robots don't. But the smart play is the silent movie shtick of injecting the pathos and downtrodden lack of luck that the great Chaplin made so effortlessly engaging. Covered in the grime of his day-job and patently several hundred years behind the streamlined technical prowess of EVE's hyper-specialised working girl, he is the street-bum hanging off every bleep and machine-sultry intonation that the Apple of his bean-can eye happens to throw his way. Both, of course, are just working-Joes servicing a greater power, but the class barrier is definitely an issue that our ungainly little underdog has got to bridge.

    Star Wars sound-man Ben Burtt lends his mixing desk-processed tonsils to WALL-E while Elissa Knight provides EVE's amiable bleeps and hoots. Their dialogue, what there is of it, tends to consist of the oft-lamenting and desperate cries of either “EVE-AHH!” or “WALL-EEEEE!” from the plaintiff pair as circumstances keep on heaving them apart once their bond has been formed. But there is a terrific turnaround homage for Sigourney Weaver who now voices the Axiom's rather Hal-inspired rogue computer in a neat spin on Alien's nefarious and hidden-agenda'd Mother. Cleverly, we also get familiar cheese-ball Fred Willard perfecting yet another slimy salesman-pitch as the blast-from-the-past CEO of Buy 'N' Large, the seething vast conglomerate that spearheaded Man's shameful eviction from the planet in the first place. Witnessed as a live-action human on the view-screens (along with numerous other humans in early promotional footage of the Axiom's hi-tech luxury), he offers smug advice and smarmy platitudes, though now long, long dead. And, yep, you guessed it - John Ratzenberger is in there too.

    Comments have been made that the film loses some of its elegant steam once we leave the Earth, and this is certainly true. The pace may become increasingly frantic, with numerous chases and robotic escapades, but this still adheres to fairly typical Pixar momentum. It is necessary and tremendous fun, of course, but you still kind of wish that more time could have been spent on the dried-up cesspool of home, as ironic as that probably sounds. It has to be said that a certain demographic may feel a little self-conscious once we reach the Axiom, what with the remnants of humanity now reduced to oafish slobs riding around in floating armchairs, their every need attended to by a gazillion robots who provide their food and entertainment via drip-feed and the world around them nothing more than an artificially manufactured virtual reality. Centuries of inactivity has swollen them - us - into bloated wasters with button-consoles stretched to accommodate their chubby, mostly useless fingers. As the Axiom commercial proudly declares, “You don't even need to walk!” and these star-travelling chubsters definitely struggle to do anything other than call for assistance, which they even do when they need their seat reclining. Perhaps most poetically disgraceful of all is the fact that the celestial beauty that surrounds them on their immense pleasure liner is replaced by incessant view-screens shoved like garish blinkers right before their very faces - often of the person sitting immediately next to them that they happen to be talking to. This distinctly unflattering observation about the direction in which society is headed is much less cutting than you might think, though. And I seriously doubt that many kids would grasp the warning spread so luxuriously in front of them about our lardy culture, but then this is hardly the major point that will ensure the film's fond familiarity in the canon of Pixar. WALL-E works on many different levels. The kids will see cute robots falling in love and having madcap adventures, whilst the adults - who will get a heck of a lot more from the film - will smirk inwardly at the sheer audacity of Stanton's eyebrow-cocked vision of Mankind put out to pasture and its formative waddling steps back towards its heritage. This vital lack of discrimination when it comes to just who the story is plotted for is another ace up Pixar's harlequin-patterned sleeve. The phrase “kids of all ages” is actually redundant here as so much of WALL-E is aimed squarely at the more mature sensibility. You can't miss the irony of the notion that technology will soon be spoon-feeding us - we don't even need actors, sets or props to make movies any more as WALL-E's complex computer razzmatazz pointedly reveals. And the idea that we are impotent slaves to the march of progress is a delicious conceit that carries on the grand sci-fi trend started way back by the likes of imaginative pioneers H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, so WALL-E is in fine genre company.

    “This is called farming! You kids are gonna grow all sorts of things! Vegetable plants, pizza plants...it's good to be home!”

    Paying visual and thematic homage to Short Circuit, 2001: A Space Odyssey and, especially, Doug Trumbell's underrated Silent Running and taking a few hedonistic hints from Logan's Run to boot, WALL-E makes a powerful message but treats it with such candy-coated kid-gloves that nobody will mind swallowing it. Yet, isn't it perverse that the film is at its most evocative and striking amid the termite-towers of humanity's gross detritus? Somehow the gleaming, mesmerising neon of mankind's couch-potato future seems to lack the true vigour of the frightening, yet beautiful setting they left behind. Just as I Am Legend was much, much better when Will Smith's Robert Neville was all alone (or traipsing the streets of the Apocalypse with his dog), the real interest and novelty is in seeing WALL-E go about his day to day business, adrift under the vastness of solitude. This is where the atmosphere is at its most acute. Stanton may not want to dwell upon such visually sublime melancholy, but he does sneakily supply a surreal reflection of 9/11 when a tower of WALL-E stacked rubbish crumbles to the ground in the shock-wave of a landing spacecraft, smothering the dead metropolis with a cloud of dust.

    Taking his typically textured orchestrations and applying them wonderfully to the film is Thomas Newman. Already having scored Finding Nemo with, what some would call, a little more seriousness than the average composer for a kids' animated movie would have done, his music for WALL-E is a definite treat. Despite that determined Michael Crawford cropping up frequently and a majestic mock-romantic montage unfolding beneath the crooning royalty of Louis Armstrong, his score is thoughtful and reflective at times, upbeat and action-packed at others, yet there is a luscious vein of sweet longing at its core that is very affecting. Score-fans may also pick up on several sly references to Jerry Goldsmith's music for the original Alien (especially as EVE's probe-ship first lands, recalling the Nostromo's touch-down on what became LV-426), as well as the more overt use of 2001's mimicked-to-the-hilt opening cue “Also sprach Zarathustra” from Richard Strauss.

    Pixar almost do the unthinkable, as well. Not since I was a kid reeling in tearful agony at Rick Baker's shoddy-suited seventies King Kong getting shot-up and nudging his love out of harm's way atop the World Trade Centre have I felt like pawing at the screen to physically urge something to happen. Trust me, you'll know the moment when it comes. And this, of course, is where Pixar always win over any other animated studio - emotion. Not just superficial, sappy moralising about friendship and togetherness, but real tangible emotion that tugs at the heartstrings despite the characters being either children's toys, make-believe monsters, gurning-grilled cars or little wiggling, day-glo fishies. Perhaps with The Incredibles they peaked with an instance - albeit fleeting - of genuinely human poignancy as Mr. Incredible admits his fears to Elasti-girl, but their genius lies not so much with the most accomplished, jaw-dropping visuals at any given time, but with their effortless tuning-in to feelings that we can all associate with and attaching them to unorthodox characters. Look at these two robots - as inarticulate and expressionless as pedal-bins, yet the animators sprinkle what can only be described as magic-dust over them to make you honestly understand every damn emotion, every flicker of joy, upset, wonder and jubilation. Compared to WALL-E's and EVE's range of sensitivity, most human actors are reduced to little more than those pedal bins I mentioned, and possibly without half of the charm.

    I would hesitate to call this a masterpiece, although many others already hail it as such, but there is definitely gold within WALL-E's little tin-box body, and seeing it again at home now gives you time to happily scout around those mesmerising backgrounds for things that you may have missed first time around. Its atmosphere is euphoric and moving - a little story and a very BIG story both inextricably entwined - yet it provides brisk adventure and chuckles aplenty - and, refreshingly, some satirical barbs at mainly our expense. Pixar just go from strength to strength and it is hard to imagine just what they will come up with next. Awesome and very highly recommended, indeed. This would possibly have been my favourite film of the year ... until The Dark Knight roared into town and scooped up the title.