The first 45 minutes or so of Pixar’s WALL-E are as good a first 45 minutes as you’re likely to see in any movie, ever. It’s purely cinematic storytelling: you can’t do it better in any other form of media and it would be folly to even try. It’s beautiful, in my mind the most beautiful film Pixar had made, or has made since. And it’s virtually dialogue-free, which might not seem so difficult while you’re watching it but must have been a nightmare to write. So if the remaining 50 minutes are just “good,” without crossing into the realm of “masterpiece,” accept that as a fair price to pay for this film’s wondrous beginning.
WALL-E is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter, class E: a robot tasked with cleaning up trash on Earth. The problem is, this is in the far future, when the Earth became so trashed that humanity had to leave it behind. WALL-E may well be the last sentient being on the planet, and having been isolated like that for decades (maybe centuries) has made him a little … odd. He doesn’t dispose of all the trash that he encounters, for one thing; he keeps some trinkets for reasons that only make sense inside his robot brain. For another thing, he’s developed an attachment to the only piece of media he has left: the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly!
When a second robot named EVE arrives on Earth, WALL-E is immediately smitten. Reading that, you might wonder exactly how a robot can be smitten, but it is testament to the elegance of the first part of this movie that there is no question while you’re watching it. In a way, WALL-E learns about love in the same way that so many of us do: he watches it in a movie. He knows that you search out something that takes away your loneliness, and hold its hand. That compulsion, that programming, is what sends him into space after EVE.
Once the action moves to space, the film loses just a bit of its luster. It’s still an immensely entertaining film, but it becomes much more of your standard children’s fare, using comedy and action to build to a big climax. WALL-E obtains a gang of sidekicks to help him, a villain is established, and scientific concepts like gravity go out the window for the sake of a good scene. I’m not even sure that, in the category of “big action climaxes for Pixar films,” WALL-E would be number one; I’d award that title to The Incredibles or one of the Toy Story films.
One bracing thing about the second half of the film is its take on humanity. Like most science fiction films, WALL-E is just reflecting our current present back onto us, and it’s not a pretty sight. This future seems to have been created by humankind’s worst attributes – sloth, self-involvement, and incuriosity, as personified by the peerless comic actor Fred Willard – and it’s hard to imagine why WALL-E would want to work for their betterment after the film’s villain challenges him. It would be tough to explain to a young child why this world came about and what is so dystopic about it.
However, director Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo) has a responsible hand on this material, and the nits that I am picking at never spiral out of control and become full-blown problems. Think about the level of challenge that Stanton posed to himself with this film: the first half-hour is dialogue-free, and the hero and love interest have about four or five unique words of dialogue between them. We’re so conditioned to think that a good movie cannot be made under those constraints, that any movie which succeeds under them is going to seem a little strange. In the end WALL-E is a magnificent result, equally good as a child’s first movie or an adult’s 1,001st.
Reviewed by Mark Young