Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL-E: True heart

WALL-E (2008) • View trailer for WALL-E
Five stars (out of five). Rating: G, although perhaps too rough for very young viewers
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.27.08
Buy DVD: WALL-E • Buy Blu-Ray: Wall-E (Two-Disc and BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Now I get it.

All John Lasseter's efforts since his humble origins with 1984's The Adventures of Andre and Wally B — all the hilarious short subjects and increasingly accomplished feature films — have been part of a calculated plot.
Whatever else he does during an average day of scavenging and trying to clean
up the hopeless mess that has been left on planet Earth, the little robot hero of
WALL-E must charge his solar cells via some direct exposure to sunlight. This
will become a serious issue, when events propel the resourceful 'bot into an
adventure that takes him far, far away from good ol' Sol.

The entire American viewing audience has been positioned, as a result of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and the rest, to expect nothing but greatness from Pixar. We expect classics every year. Indeed, we've known for months that WALL-E was one of this summer's few sure bets.

And now, recognizing that we're all properly primed, Lasseter & Co. have made their move.

Because WALL-E is far from an ordinary Pixar flick.

Oh, sure: It has the same gorgeous animation, the same meticulously detailed character work, the same aw-shucks cute touches that we've come to expect from Pixar.

But WALL-E includes something else — something extra — that we've never seen from Lasseter's crew.

This one has teeth.

Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and co-writers Pete Docter and Jim Reardon clearly are fans of cautionary science-fiction, because they've made a Silent Running for the early 21st century. Utilizing Pixar's masterful storytelling skills — and they are considerable — Stanton has produced an unflinchingly savage indictment of corporate greed, wasteful human behavior and our unwillingness to be better stewards of planet Earth ... and wrapped it all up in the irresistible saga of a forlorn little robot cursed by having developed a personality.

You think it was tough, when Bambi learned of his mother's death? You think it was hard, when Pinocchio got swallowed by that whale, or when Dumbo was rocked gently to sleep by his shackled mother?

Such scenes pale when compared to the first 10 minutes or so of WALL-E, as we realize that this little robot is the last sentient being on a garbage-strewn Earth ... not counting his mute, apparently indestructible cockroach companion. (I always knew they'd survive anything.)

And WALL-E is lonely.

Oh, my goodness.

One of the saddest moments I've ever experienced is the final scene from Steven Spielberg's A.I., as we realize that the sentient robot teddy bear — having faithfully followed Haley Joel Osment's young android protagonist through a series of dangerous adventures — is prepared to wait forever for a friend who'll never wake up again.

The dawning awareness that WALL-E has endured 700 years of such isolation is a similar kick to the chest.

(If you're scoffing over the notion of getting sentimental about lifelike teddy bears or boxy little robots, the heck witcha. You ain't got no soul.)

The back-story doesn't emerge for awhile, but we gradually learn that Buy 'n' Large, an increasingly huge corporate behemoth — think Wal-Mart, left unchecked in all respects — eventually built up so much of the world that our eco-system couldn't keep up. Unable to exist on an increasingly weather-hostile planet, Buy 'n' Large sent the remnants of humanity on a "luxury space cruise," leaving behind a series of worker-bots to clean up the mess.

WALL-E is one of many Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class robots.

Unfortunately, centuries have passed, the task having proved insurmountable. Two things happened: All the other worker-bots eventually succumbed to the dangerous environment, leaving WALL-E to continue the cleanup, patiently, all by himself. And, worse yet, curiosity and centuries of scavenging bits of bric-a-brac have given our boxy little hero an unexpected level of emotional awareness.

He collects and carefully stores cigarette lighters, doll parts and Christmas lights with the devotion of a QVC addict. He loves to watch an ancient videotape of the Hollywood musical Hello, Dolly!, and is particularly enchanted by the song, "It Only Takes a Moment," with its two young lovers displaying their affection by holding hands. Each time he watches, WALL-E's little pincher hands clank together in what only can be described as abject misery.

All of this, I hasten to add, is conveyed without dialogue: entirely through visuals, sound effects and Thomas Newman's amazingly sensitive score. This film is half over — 45 minutes along — before the character roster expands, and we hear some actual human speech.

This, too, is an impressively brave move on Pixar's part. At a time when snatching celebrities to supply the voices for animated characters remains a growth industry — think how much Mike Myers brought to Shrek, or how Jack Black enhanced Kung Fu Panda — Stanton successfully sells his story with a character just barely able to hum its own name.

Sound and character voice designer Ben Burtt also deserves massive credit for the degree to which this film works; he gets an astonishing level of emotional intensity — and humor — out of his bloops, bleeps and blapps.

Anyway, after establishing the grinding routine of WALL-E's daily existence, the dynamic is altered when a massive rocket arrives and deposits a sleek, egg-shaped robot every bit as futuristic as our clanky little hero is retro. At first afraid to approach this newcomer, which has a hair-trigger response mechanism and a wicked laser, WALL-E eventually works up the courage to introduce himself.

This newcomer is searching for something. WALL-E tries to help; he shares his treasure-trove and tries to impress his new companion — which calls itself EVE — with his worn videotape.

Eventually, EVE — which stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator — spots what she's seeking, and suddenly the story kicks into an entirely new gear. Now transformed into a protective cocoon, EVE waits for the rocket to return, while WALL-E tries to figure out why his new friend has seemingly ceased to function.

One exhilarating space ride later, we discover what has become of humanity.

And if you think the story has been brutal up to this point, Stanton & Co. haven't even started.

The screenplay that initially borrows heavily from Silent Running and A.I. now steals a disquieting march from veteran sci-fi author Jack Williamson's numerous Humanoid stories and novels, with a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey — and its malignant, mono-eyed computer, HAL — thrown in for good measure.

If all this sounds absurdly unlikely, think again: The disgusting fattening of America has gotten us off to a rather unsettling start in the wrong direction. The whole point of contemplative science-fiction is to raise our awareness of shortcomings in contemporary society, and WALL-E does a spectacular job.

All while, yes, maintaining levels of humor and poignance that make the message more palatable.

The quick little sight-gags are a stitch: WALL-E trying to figure out how to "file" a spork, or his horrified reaction after accidentally rolling over his pet cockroach; or EVE's long-suffering embarrassment over her new friend's clumsy behavior (her emotions conveyed solely — and quite brilliantly — through the different configurations of the glowing blue shapes that serve as her eyes).

Lasseter has been firm in his belief that multifaceted personalities help us better identify with cowboy dolls, clownfish and culinary rats; we thus embrace their hopes and celebrate their triumphs. The same is true of WALL-E; the degree to which we empathize with this clanking little whatzis is palpable enough to hurt.

And, having invested our emotions in this little robot, we're more likely to absorb the stinging indictment made blindingly clear in this bleak environment.

WALL-E is work of sneaky genius, but make no mistake: It's also a grim and often oppressively sad story. Some will find it too sad, and I'm not sure this is a casual kids' film; a few younger viewers during Tuesday evening's preview screening burst into tears at particularly tragic moments.

Heck, I almost joined them.

I was the perfect impressionable age when Silent Running arrived in 1971, and I was fired up by the same pro-environmental message that made mainstream critics — and all viewers over the age of 30 — scoff with contempt. ("Pave the world over? Get real.") Clearly, Lasseter, Stanton and everybody else involved with WALL-E were in my camp, and nurtured the same message until they felt the time was ripe for fresh exposure.

Funny thing: Silent Running has gained renewed respect in the intervening decades, its premise becoming harder to ignore.

I fully expect WALL-E to endure for even longer.

Let's just hope it's a wake-up call, and not a prediction.

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