I’ve been thinking about dystopian and post-apocalyptic storytelling recently, and it dovetailed with some thoughts about Disney from a while ago. So I started thinking about the movie WALL-E. I wrote some stuff to a file a while back, and thought I’d put it up here.
It’s been a while since we saw the Disney/Pixar offering WALL-E. I recall that when we saw it, I was expecting to be as charmed by it as I have been by most of the previous Pixar films, including such offerings as CARS, FINDING NEMO, TOY STORY (1 and 2), and RATATOUILLE.
And I think WALL-E was as good as those movies (and maybe better in a lot of ways), but not nearly as charming. I don’t know how to explain it…I think those other stories all take the Disney formula (if you don’t know that formula, no sense in trying to explain it) and used it with their own unique twists. And they’ve worked, so much so that they are really the class of Disney animation currently, and have been for a long time, since the days of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN.
But – WALL-E presents a much more complicated story than any of those. It’s FAR less happy than any of them, far less funny, and more touching in a lot of ways. It’s also more of a dystopian SF adventure than anything I’ve seen previously done by Disney. (I wonder what that will mean to repeat business for this film – while I liked it, I can’t see going back to the theater to see it with the kids like we have done for other Pixar films…)
(THIS SYNOPSIS LIKELY CONTAINS SPOILERS – READ AT YOUR OWN RISK…)
In case you don’t know, Wall-E is a little robot whose name is an acronym (exactly for what, I can’t remember-waste allocation something something – Earth). He’s the last one of his kind to still be operational, to still be functioning in his task to clean up the waste and garbage left on the planet by humans as they’ve abandoned their planet for a life in space. He’s a fairly low-tech looking thing, yet he has intelligence and self-awareness. He is lonely, as you might expect, with only a cockroach as company for who knows how many of the last 700 years. Yet he goes about his tasks diligently, compacting and stacking trash into skyscraper sized piles all around the city.
Into this world comes EVE, a sleek “female” robot whose “directive” is classified. Fortunately for Wall-E, she doesn’t vaporize him immediately (I wondered about her defensive responses – was she programmed to find monsters on Earth? Why is she so quick to shoot first at anything that moves?) and after he follows her around for a long time, the pair of robots fall in “love”, or something like love at least.
When Wall-E is showing her his treasures, artifacts from humanity’s past that he’s collected in his day to day toils, he presents her with something different – something he hasn’t come across in a long time. A small living plant. EVE’s response is dramatic. She seizes the small plant, places it inside of her metallic body, and goes into a sort of catatonia. On her body a green leaf flashes over and over. And sure enough, soon the ship that left her comes to collect her, and she is being delivered to wherever she came from originally. And of course, Wall-E can’t let her go like that; he chases her down and ends up going on a trip through outer space to her final destination: the star cruiser Axiom with its cargo of humanity.
And herein lies more dystopian elements. Humanity has changed – low gravity and a life of leisure has turned them into a bunch of lazy blobs who are content to be waited on hand and foot by their robot tenders and don’t even think about life or interaction with each other. Their captain is a pleasant but seemingly not too “bright” blob voiced by John Goodman. (John Ratzenberger makes his usual appearance as a passenger who is forced to interact with others by Wall-E’s intrusion into their daily existence.) The Buy-N-Large Corporation is the benefactor in all of this – the corporation is the entity that built the robots, that sent humans into space to live while Earth is supposedly being cleaned up, and that promoted this lifestyle in the first place – a sort of bad guy who isn’t really even there anymore.
Of course, Wall-E and EVE save the day, getting the plant to the proper place which results in the ship returning to Earth, against heavy resistance from the robots who now seem to embody the Corporation. It’s a touching conclusion at times, watching the humans get back on their feet, literally and figuratively, and relearn the joys of living, as the captain watches Wall-E and EVE dance through the space around the ship, and as the passengers are forced to interact with each other and simply act to save themselves. The captain outwits his robot overseer in the end, and humans return to Earth, which is not really “ready” to receive them but which needs their attention to be reborn. All very optimistic, at the end, and positive.
It’s a cautionary tale, however, warning against a lot of things – not the least of which is excessive consumption, corporate greed and a trend toward indoor (computers, video games, big screen tvs, etc.) entertainment vs outdoor activity. It seems to warn against technological achievement just for the sake of achievement, with no attention to the good or bad results of such achievement. Maybe most of all it warns against the current trend of not looking beyond tomorrow. I think there are some heavy social and political themes buried in the cartoon medium within which director Andrew Stanton and Pixar work best. Probably a lot more of them than I’m getting to here…I think someone could expand on a lot of these things and dig far deeper into this story than I’ve done.
And that, by itself, was very unusual for a Disney or a Pixar type story. So, while WALL-E was not nearly as charming or uplifting as other Disney fare, it was certainly deeper and more socially aware than almost anything they had done in this medium to that point in time.
We never did see it again in the theater, but we did buy it on DVD, and we’ve enjoyed it more than once on our own home screen. I’ve grown even fonder of the film as time has passed.
Maybe it’s time to watch it again…