More than we like to admit, we want to believe we live in a world where some kind of material object is as good or better than it’s ever been – whether that object is a phone, car, ring, or what-have-you. To us, our lives are exceptional, and our times should reflect that. Media is no different. For example, we want to think we’re in TV’s Golden Age, as evidenced by the shows described by this book and the fierce ongoing online debates – were those really TV’s best shows? Is the Golden Age still going or did it end when Breaking Bad did?
Today, I’m thinking about Pixar, and how its quality throughout the first decade of the 21st century served as compelling First Evidence that at least some movie company was making films that were as good as any in history and better than many. Now that we’re halfway through the century’s second decade, can we still point to Pixar as proof of our exceptional status? Or has Pixar become just another company, and our lives no more exceptional than the ones our great-great-great-grandparents lived? I don’t have the answer. But I do think everyone would agree that in 2008 we were still in Pixar’s Golden Age. So I’m looking back on a review I wrote then to see how much of it would sound surprising if written right now. No answers today; maybe next week.
Here’s the unedited review:
Wall-E, the character, is what you get when you combine R2D2 with Short Circuit’s Number Five with a great silent comedian (e.g. Chaplin, Keaton). The combo works. Wall-E, the movie, is what you get when you combine A Boy and His Dog (or some similar last-man-on-ruined-earth tale) with a sort of Battlestar Galactica-Star Treky centuries-distant spaceship society with, well, of all things, a kiddie movie. This outrageous combo, when it works, seems revelatory – but when it doesn’t, it feels dreadfully misconceived.
Spoilers and snark follows; plot summary doesn’t. Disney and Pixar’s Wall-E opened to the sort of rapturous reviews that make you wonder if the reviewers co-wrote the script – if this was the sort of film that plays almost too well to critical prejudices. One thing the critics have in common with the fans is that we all want cinema’s greatest hitting streak – Pixar’s – to continue. For me, the clunky Cars almost broke it (call it an infield pop-up grounder beat-out), but Ratatouille was a smashing return to form, easily in my top 3 of 2007. Wall-E is both more and less than Cars, far more audacious and ambitious, but often atonal and abstruse.
In the 21st century of Wall-E, Wal-Mart paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Wal-Mart is here called BnL, for Buy-n-Large, which wasn’t quite a clever enough gag for me to cease my speculation that Barenaked Ladies wouldn’t somehow manifest. One indisputably awesome service that the film provides is to put the kibosh on any dreams that the megachain may have had about a kid-friendly mascot named, say, Wal-y. Now I don’t know about 750 years into the future, but I do appreciate five months into the future, when Wal-Mart shelves will be packed to the brim with endless copies of Wall-E – surely this meets at least one definition of subversive. Less rage-against-the-machiney is the film’s machine called (coyly enough) Eve. Just in case anyone missed her resemblance to an Apple product, the boot-up sounds are plenty Macintoshy, and her mother ship’s voice is from a Macintosh text-to-speech program. Wall-E responds to our energy crisis with a synergy surplus.
Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that Hello, Dolly! isn’t a Disney film – yet its footage rankles anyway. Is it too much to ask that the first human images in Pixar history come from something other than Hollywood’s least reputable, most cringe-worthy filmmaking? Of course the unlikelihood and randomness is part of the point, which means that an old video of Annie Hall or Before Sunrise would have been too much, but couldn’t Wall-E have learned about love and dance from something between the quality levels, like maybe a Christian Slater romantic comedy? This might not matter so much if Hello, Dolly! wasn’t basically responsible for the lead character’s motivation. You’re asking us to fall in love with someone who learned how to fall in love through a musical that plastic? Next you’ll be asking us to love the nerd on the Mac commercials.
Let’s just say it: Wall-E’s motivation is one of the two biggest problems with Wall-E. Pixar’s love stories used to be convincing – when they were between two males, e.g. Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sully. Pixar hasn’t really had a convincing love story of young breeders, even as a subplot. They don’t quite know what to do with hormones, partly because the females are inevitably under-written. The romance was the one off-flavor element of Ratatouille, and seeing the vivacious girl get with the reformed jock did nothing for Cars. Now that Wall-E has put the star-crossed lovers at center stage, it starts being weird because they’re ostensibly children. Or are they the familiar working schlub/perfect over-achiever duo that we’ve seen in about 100 movies of the last 10 years? Or are they Jack and Rose – since Titanic, have any two film leads shouted each other’s names quite as often and insistently as Wall-E and Eve? (Give the filmmakers credit for acknowledging Titanic in a big deckchairvalanche.) Whoever these robots are, their love is never quite unforced, and their big moment – floating on the outside of the ship – is oddly truncated. Has it finally come time for Pixar to hand over lead duties to a female character?
Wall-E’s other major concern is the absence of a strong villain. Pixar antagonists haven’t typically commanded much screen time (Kevin Spacey’s Hopper in A Bug’s Life is the exception) – and we never needed more of them. Whether they were the neighbor kid in Toy Story, the dentist in Finding Nemo, the food critic in Ratatouille, or Syndrome (ah, Syndrome), we got just enough of them early to make for juicy payoffs late – we understood their menace even while it lingered offscreen most of the film. Wall-E got the amount of screen time right, but nothing else. The character eventually named Auto (swipe at Cars? homage to Airplane!?) is confused and confusing. He doesn’t get a good entrance, so we’re not really sure about his malevolence for a while. If he controls the ship, shouldn’t he be able to handle a couple of rogue robots, particularly after they’ve fallen overboard? Isn’t the Axiom (the spaceship) sorta like how Homer Simpson described beer – the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems? Finally, isn’t Auto right? How does a lone plant prove that Earth is ready to support human life? Yet all of this could have been fixed, just by defining him earlier and better, as the other films did with their bad guys. When Eve first landed, we might have seen the HAL-like red light in the window of the drone ship, accompanied by some ominous music. When Wall-E first arrived on the Axiom, the film might have gone to the red light as it did something sinister – yet over-protective, perhaps – with the captain. None of this would have altered the film’s beautiful sense of awe and wonder.
Supporting, two-scene characters in other Pixar films have been as perfectly calibrated as a French appetizer – the nonpareil examples being Bruce and Crush in Finding Nemo, and Edna E. Mode in The Incredibles. But Wall-E muffs this; from the way the extra robots are staged at the climax, you can tell that they’re supposed to feel like the extra toys in Toy Story or the extra cars in Cars, but we never knew them close to that well. This was attempted half-heartedly, as when one random robot reveals hidden reservoirs of strength in a corridor skirmish. Equally half-hearted is the relationship between the bloated humans John and Mary – there’s a wisp of a suggestion that Wall-E and Eve have shown humans how to love and changed humanity forever (“I didn’t know we had a pool”) – but this should have either been far more explicit or utterly cut. I’m guessing the DVD outtakes (not the pre-scripted ones for the credits, but the real ones) will expand on the supporting robots and John and Mary, but right now they’re unfinished.
Wall-E – and, for that matter, I Am Legend (which continues Hollywood’s other current winning streak, you know, Will Smith) – are unimaginable without the prodigious box office success of that other dialogue-impaired, man-alone film called Cast Away. Eight years on, it’s funny how well Cast Away has aged. Before Survivor ever aired, Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis realized that a modern Robinson Crusoe story could be made to work (the space between the two words in the title isn’t insignificant), and they came up with the most successful drama of the 2000’s. On the DVD commentary of Lost, ABC producer Lloyd Braun says that the show originated in his head as Cast Away – the TV show, but it’s almost like the producers of I Am Legend and Wall-E said hey Braun, that’s not Cast Away, we’ll show you Cast Away. But Cast Away, whatever its problems, had the courage to follow through on its thematic desolation – Chuck (Hanks) does lose her in the end, and though there is always at least a speck of hope (in anyone’s life), by the end Chuck is still cast away. I Am Legend and Wall-E – neither of which will be found in the drama section of any video store – don’t dare end that way, and they do feel like less for it.
My biggest question after watching Wall-E is: can Disney values really be combined with the term coined by John Stuart Mill to mean the opposite of utopia – dystopia? I know they’ve succeeded with Autopia and Dinotopia, but Dysneytopia may be verging on dysfunction. I wouldn’t expect film critics to know this, because they’d have to know Disneyland well, but Wall-E doesn’t resemble the Short Circuit character as much as he does RX-24, the Pee-Wee Herman-voiced host of Star Tours. One can only assume that kids who visit the Magic Kingdom now think that RX-24 is Wall-E, and that may actually be a relief to parents: here’s the kids’ shiny new Wall-E toy now associated with the safe, optimistic, cheerful, high-note-scored future that was presumed in just about every space vision offered to children before Wall-E. It’s one thing to present colonial violence in Pocahontas – we’re in an era beyond that (right?) – but to show children that the future is full of melancholy and despair is quite a mixed enchilada to serve. Where can’t they set a story now? Modern Darfur?
Let’s not get it twisted: for adults, the daring and chilling vision of the future is one of many great things about Wall-E. Wall-E’s initial encounters with Eve are tender and lyrical. The movie abounds with clever, sweeping visions, from the roach’s movements to the trash piles that get confused with skyscrapers to the sedentary 28th-century humans (I like that the film slightly backs off its condemnation of its audience by blaming anti-gravity) to Fred Willard’s bits (if any current actor is in the old Disney Fred MacMurray mold, it’s him). I personally loved the vague plant-womb implications of Eve, with the concurrent implications that Wall-E’s womb is only good for compressing trash (although I don’t know what I’d say to a kid who asked me why Eve didn’t just take the cockroach, which she met ten scenes before she saw the plant). Any Pixar film, in terms of richness of detail, character development, and attention to theme, is still leagues ahead of solid celebrity-based cartoons like, say, Over the Hedge or Madagascar or Happy Feet. Unlike any other Hollywood success story since Stanley Kubrick (and of course, Wall-E loves it some 2001), Pixar has refused to dilute its brand by serving as co-producer on other projects – the only way you see “from the producers of Toy Story” is if we’re once again in the presence of a full Pixar animated film. This abundance of quality and loyalty probably can’t continue; won’t some 3rd animator on 1995’s Toy Story eventually want more money and work for someone else? If Pixar was a musician, there’d be no live albums, no B-side rarity stuff, no covers, nothing based on anything else – just a decade-and-a-half of great original work. It’s a tribute to Pixar’s integrity that I can even spend the whole essay comparing Wall-E to their previous features. So yes, we all want Hollywood’s greatest hitting streak to continue, and the good news is that it has. We are still living in the Pixar salad days. But this time, a few key ingredients went missing.