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WALL·E   A+

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: G
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writer: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, Macintalk, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver.

Review by Rob Vaux

Is WALL·E the best Pixar movie ever? That may be jumping the gun just a bit. We'll see how well it ages alongside the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo before handing it such an illustrious crown.

But is it the best movie of the year so far? By a country mile.

We have been starved for something like WALL·E. We've waded our way to it through film after mediocre film, starting in January when the last of the Oscar contenders straggled across the screen. Oh, there have been some decent ones between then and now. Even a few good ones. But nothing that gets people to sit up and take notice. Nothing that trumpets the artistic potential of the medium for all to see. Nothing that shocks us out of complacency, or enthralls us with its vision, or shows us that imagination still powers the best and most wonderful kinds of storytelling. Six long months of the occasional pretty goods, the recurring not bads, and a colossal pile of "Dear God, what is that stench?"

Then Pixar shows up and reminds us how outclassed the rest of the field really is.

I could go on at length about the things everyone expects from them: the stunning animation, the endearing characters, the brilliant humor that subtly illustrates some marvelous corner of the human condition. WALL·E has all that in spades, evinced most strongly by the titular robot -- a sentient trash compacter with the heart of Cyrano and the soul of Buster Keaton. But it has more: so much, much more. It makes chilling, eerily plausible predictions about the fate of the planet -- and ourselves as well -- pointing a viciously satirical finger at both the looming environmental catastrophe and the fact that we can't get off our fat asses long enough to do anything about it. And yet it does so without condescension or preachiness, avoiding the "tsk-tsk" egotism of celebrity ecologists and their ilk. Its apocalyptic vision is as quietly disturbing as anything placed on film, but it presents that to us with such surprising whimsy -- with such palpable joie de vivre -- that you're scarcely aware of the troubling implications until you have fully digested them. It knows how badly we've screwed things up, but it believes with all its heart that we can find a way to make it better again. And it strikes that balance without giving short shrift to either side.

It begins on the Earth of 2800 A.D., long abandoned by humanity and now relegated to a giant waste heap. Our plucky little hero has been doing his job down there, building giant towers of trash block by block, for the last seven centuries. His fellow droids all fell apart long ago, but he keeps on trucking -- driven, perhaps, by the unforeseen development of a genuine personality. He found an old VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! for one thing... and he loves it. He's built up a really cherry collection of knickknacks buried beneath the junk. And he's made a friend out of the only other creature left alive on the planet: a tenacious little cockroach impervious to injury and subsisting on the bountiful harvest of Twinkies scattered across the landscape.

Their routine is upset by the arrival of Eve, a sleek little probe droid sporting an iMac chassis and a mean way with a laser beam. WALL·E is entranced, of course, and his dogged, often-inept efforts to win her heart eventually lead him off planet, where humanity has been reduced to protoplasmic blobs of mindless consumption aboard the intergalactic equivalent of a Carnival cruise. They float around on space-age Barca loungers, too obsessed with the screens in front of them to stop and look at the wonders of the universe just outside their window. But WALL·E is most definitely a glitch in that matrix, and his increasingly chaotic trip through their infantile Shangri-la may finally show them what they've been missing.

Director Andrew Stanton could have relied solely on the pratfalls-and-daffodils concept to sell the film. WALL·E's various comic dilemmas use the same mixture of grace and buffoonery perfected by the great comics of the Silent Era, while his devotion to Eve remains supremely touching without descending into excess sentiment. A few clever riffs on earlier sci-fi classics pop up -- Blade Runner, Brazil, 2001, and Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the spaceship's computer -- though Stanton is smart enough to keep them understated rather than overt. Even if it had stuck solely to that formula, WALL·E could have breezed into the winner's circle without a second thought.

But one of the reasons Pixar does so well is that they never settle for "good enough," and the film's social conscience holds as much elegance as the simpler pieces of comedy. The larger environmental subtext frames the action without intruding upon it, informing us through subtle cues and unspoken assumptions that linger disturbingly in the memory. Live actors appear for the first time in a Pixar production -- most prominently Fred Willard, who pops up in an old news clip as the CEO of a world spanning corporation called Buy N Large -- to remind us who is ultimately responsible for this catastrophe.

And yet walking hand in hand with that is an equal sense of optimism: the sunny belief shared by all of Pixar's films that the better angels of our nature can triumph. WALL·E keeps that tone in the forefront at all times, maintaining a constant ebullience even amid its most ominous implications. Far from undermining each other, the two sides actually enhance their respective contributions. The film's darkness is real and thus its faith in a solution is real too: not a cheap sellout wallpapering over an insurmountable problem, but a gentle call to action reminding us that we still have the capacity to do incredible things.

Could anyone else have pulled off such a stunt? Could anyone else have placed such a message in a more supremely winning package? Precious few films can blend narrative and purpose so seamlessly as WALL·E does or achieve such a near-perfect combination of everything we go to the movies for. Not only does it provide further proof of Pixar's unprecedented brilliance, but it may have actually elevated their game to a whole new level. I don't know whether to be exulted or terrified: it's simply not natural for anyone to be so good at so much for so long. In a year dominated by mediocrity, their achievement shines all the brighter, but even if we were deluged with cinematic greatness, WALL·E would still be something special. A rose (or robot) by any other name has rarely smelled so sweet.

Review published 06.27.2008.

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