Programmed To Delight
If you are planning some family time this 4th of July weekend, there's actually a film that might make everyone happy - the latest Pixar/Disney venture WALL-E (opened June 27 throughout San Diego). The story is simple and sweet enough to keep the youngest family members happy yet the animation and storytelling is sophisticated enough to impress the adults. And, if I'm to go by what the KPBS Teen Critics have to say, WALL-E serves up a love story that teenage girls AND boys can both embrace. Now that's no easy feat.
But before I get to the feature WALL-E, I want to compliment the delightful Pixar short that precedes it. Presto pits a smug magician against his starving bunny assistant who just wants to fill his empty stomach with a carrot. The magician goes on stage but the rabbit refuses to perform until he's fed. This causes a series of hilariously escalating slapstick encounters between the two. The animation is crisply entertaining and the characters offer a clever contrast between the soft, fuzzy bunny and the tall, angular magician. I applaud Pixar for keeping the animated short vigorously alive by including ones with their features. Last year Ratatouille had the wonderfully funny Lifted (about an alien trying to figure out which switch to throw to abduct a human). These shorts stand on their own as stellar works of animation and they provide a perfect lead in to their features.
Now to WALL-E. Set hundred of years in the future, the film presents us with an earth devoid of human life. People have fled the planet (they now atrophy away on a space cruise ship drifting through the universe) and left their garbage behind. Also left behind were robots designed to clean up all the trash by compacting it into cubes and then stacking the cubes into structures. But it now appears that only one lonely robot remains and he dutifully goes out every day to collect interesting objects and compact the rest into building blocks for his deserted city. This last little guy is the WALL-E of the title.
Although he's just a robot, WALL-E appears to feel the strain of solitude. He comforts himself with a cockroach companion and a flickering scene from the Hollywood musical Hello Dolly (why this is the only film clip that remains can only be explained by the fact that the rights must have been cheap for a scene without Babs). Then a giant space ship drops a shiny new robot on the planet. WALL-E is beside himself with joy. Only problem is that the new sleek girl bot keeps trying to blow him to smithereens. A truce is eventually called as WALL-E discovers the robot is named EVE. Then he falls in love. But since the course of true love never did run smooth, WALL-E has to jump through quite a few hoops to prove his affection - and save humanity in the process.
The first half of WALL-E is essentially wordless. WALL-E (voiced by Oscar winning sound effects wizard Ben Burtt who created the sounds for Star Wars light sabers, R2D2, and Chewbacca) utters sounds and communicates effectively enough but he doesn't really engage in dialogue. He putters about the planet picking up things that interest him - cigarette lighters, Rubik's cubes, spare parts - and he decorates his home with twinkling lights. WALL-E may be a robot but he has an appreciation for the quirky things in life. Like any clever child, he finds ways to entertain himself with practically nothing. At one point he tries to impress EVE with the delights of popping bubble wrap. This first half of the film is exquisite. The animation is spectacular but without being show-offy. I can't think of any other animated film that credits an award-winning cinematographer (in this case Roger Deakins) as a consultant. I'm not sure what he did but the first half of the film displays a very cinematic use of light. This first half presents a dirty and rusty view of the future where nothing is new or clean, and a hot dustiness colors the sunlight. In this first half, WALL-E employs no dialogue and limited "facial" expressions, yet still manages to develop a spunky personality without being cloyingly cute.
The film only runs into problems when the humans enter the story. At that point, the film takes on a more conventional narrative and the animation takes on the slick sophistication of a shiny future, and the originality of the first half starts to disappear. Fortunately the film doesn't try to hammer a message home but rather lets a message slowly emerge about how humans destroyed earth and let their bodies turn into blubbery masses through lack of physical activity (if a human falls off his chair he's like a turtle on its back and cannot get up.). The points are nicely made but resist preachiness.
Written and directed by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, WALL-E's lead robot harkens back to Silent Running's determined little droid and to the appealing personality and audio qualities of R2D2. There's also a reference to Kubrick's 2001 with robot that possesses a "red eye" like HAL and a similar kind of power trip. It's also funny to have Sigourney Weaver (who fought off aliens and lent her voice to a computer that stalked Bender in Futurama) provides the voice of the ship's computer. I have to admit, though, that the initial trailers completely turned me off because the film looked painfully cute and the robot brought back bad memories of Short Circuit.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find so much whimsy and charm in the film. It's also surprising that the film doesn't cater to young audiences in its choice of music. There's no pounding rock music here just a lovely Louis Armstrong song and a few other oldies.
WALL-E (rated G for all audiences) is not as consistently on the mark as Pixar's Ratatouille but it reaches higher highs than that culinary comedy did. The romance between WALL-E and EVE proves unexpectedly touching. When EVE shuts down as she waits for her spaceship to return, WALL-E desperately tries to restart her and he does all he can to impress her -he takes her on a boat ride through sludge, shows her the sunset, and drapes her in lights. The efforts all seem futile. But then later when they are on the space cruiser, EVE uploads some random images from the time she was shutdown on earth and we suddenly see her point of view as WALL-E strives to show his affections for her. Getting this alternate and unexpected perspective proves sweetly touching and goes to cementing the romance between the two very different robots. It's in moments like this that WALL-E achieves something sweetly sublime.
NOTE: Stay for the credits and the visual riffs on classic artists like Van Gogh and Seurat.
Companion viewing: 2001, Silent Running, Star Wars, Ratatouille