“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 - 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-break. 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 droid's rivets. Back in his ramshackle 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 dream about) and a couple of garden gnomes - and watching a prehistoric VHS tape of Michael Crawford singing 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 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 the 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 their crowning glory.
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. 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 showpiece of grand-scale destruction. 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. And the heartrending 24/7 vigil that WALL-E mounts besides his love when she has gone into stand-by mode lock-down would have the aisles awash with tears if Stanton hadn't wisely switched the tone into one of 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 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.
“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. 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. 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 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 in the first place. Witnessed as a live-action human on the view-screens, he offers smug advice and smarmy platitudes, though now 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. 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, 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 even when reclining a seat. 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 before their faces - often of the person sitting right next to them that they happen to be talking to. This distinctly unflattering observation about the way society is headed is much less cutting than you might think, though. 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 immediate success. 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. 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 anymore 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 2001: A Space Odyssey and, especially, Doug Trumbell's underrated Silent Running, and taking a few hedonistic hints from Logan's Run, 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.
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 montage 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, 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 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 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. 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. It is so easy to become swept away by the first impressions of a movie, but there is definite gold dust decorating WALL-E and I know for a fact that I cannot wait to see it again, and not just to scout around those mesmerising backgrounds for things that I missed first time around. Its atmosphere is euphoric and moving, yet it provides brisk adventure and chuckles aplenty - and, refreshingly, some satirical barbs mainly at 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. Possibly my favourite film of the year so far ... until The Dark Knight roars into town.
There is more information regarding the picture and sound for WALL-E in the Verdict.
And the colours? There's nothing to touch them - scintillating, vibrant, rich and almost medicinal in their mind-becalming beauty.
This will be dynamite on Blu-ray.
WALL-E has a tremendous sound design, too. Full of intricate bleeps and bloops, the film places atmospherics - the dust storms, the lightning and rain - all around you, provides innumerable scuffles and scrapes through the rubbish mounds, supplies neat little scamperings for the tiny feet of the cockroach and, naturally, fills the environment with hustle and bustle and pin-sharp steerage aboard the Axiom spacecraft.
The teeming thorough-fares of robots and bulbous humans create a wall of detailed sound - whooshes, voices, and impacts - and this is conveyed with wonderful directionality. The bass levels that I heard were excellent, too. The blasting of EVE's laser canon provide some awesomely bombastic explosions and the landing and take-off of her carrier-vessel will shake the foundations when WALL-E eventually comes to Blu-ray. Thomas Newman's score is warmly melodic and sweeps across the roof of the film with delightful ease. Again, as with the scintillating picture, the audio should prove to set a new benchmark for top-tier lossless performance.Absolutely entrancing.
From its lingering, haunting I Am Legend-ish first act to its pell-mell, retina-scorching free-for-all in the midst of a pampered civilisation, WALL-E is a dream-factory splashed before you. There is adventure, humour, pathos and an emotional splendour that is totally unique to Pixar. The message is cool and there if you want it, but the film has many textures with which to spellbind you, many emotional levels that bring personality not just to the myriad moving pixels on the screen - we're way beyond just admiring animated characters now - but to the all-too believable relationship between two metal buckets. CG is just a tool, but in the hands of a genius, it can create much more than just the appearance of life.
The film may drop a gear by slipping back into the more formulaic race against time scenario, but WALL-E is a triumph, however you cut it. Nothing less than a 9 out of 10 ... and even that mark may rise after the dust has settled.
See it now.
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