July 06, 2008

WALL·E

WALL·E on mound of trashAs the incredible end credits unfurled for Disney/Pixar's latest effort, WALL·E, I thought to myself this must be what it felt like to be in the audience for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the first time. There are moments in the film, like a sequence involving a fire extinguisher amongst the stars, that are pure poetry. There are moments, like the aforementioned end credits, that redefine the possibilities of cinema. I'd have to go back a long time to find a better film than this one; I certainly don't expect any other film to be topping my top ten list at the end of the year.

The title character is the sole remaining and most idiosycratic of the Waste Allocation Load Lifters, Earth-Class. Mobile trash compactors on bulldozer treads, they were left behind by the Walmart-esque Buy 'N Large corporation to clean up the mess humanity abandoned. The landscape is a G-rated take on the universe of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, several generations further devolved. WALL·E travels the urban wilderness virtually alone, a persistent little cockroach his own companion. The compacted cubes he's made form towering mounds of garbage that fill the spaces between the skyscrapers. Michael Crawford's rendition of "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the Hello Dolly! cast album is the only voice we hear for a long opening stretch.

In fact, despite a heavy audio presence, the film's rythym and pacing owe more to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton than anything that's been released since. While WALL·E's physical appearance owes a lot to Short Circuit, his personality is Chaplin's enduring tramp. He's outdated, outmoded, obsolete but tender and devoted. The object of his desire is a robot named EVE; she is sleek, shiny, powerful — and totally blind to that which is outside her mission. The dynamic that plays out between the two is somewhat similar to City Lights, right down to the lack of dialogue, with the roles of the two leads reversed for that timeless ending showcasing the power of intimate physical contact.

That longing to connect reverberates throughout the film. When WALL·E makes it to the sleek, resort-esque holding the fat, toddler-esque successors to humanity, he's still the only one truly alive. His dogged pursuit of EVE cuts a chaotic part through the diverted masses. His interruption causes one couple to turn away from the screens that float mere inches from their faces for the first time in perhaps their whole lives: "Hey, I didn't know we had a pool!" At the height of a spectacle engineered by WALL·E and EVE, the two make physical contact for perhaps the first time ever. Who'd have thought it would take a computer-engineered product to warn us about the dangers of a computer-generated life?

The most optimistic note comes from the ship's captain, voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin. He starts out nearly as docile and unmotivated as the rest of his species, but the shake-up of his daily routine ignites his curiosity for the first time. He seeks out information of his own choosing, instead of letting the system spoon feed him what it thinks is best. That act of intellectual independence, mirrored by WALL·E's emotional pursuit, lays the groundwork for the ending to come.

I won't give away the ending, which simultaneously fufilled and subverted my expectations. But I will say that it is unequivocally earns what sentiment it chooses to indulge in. In a vision of the future that is arguably as dystopian as you can get, G-rated and everything, it's hard to begrudge the film a little optimism. A biting satire, a tender love story, a stimulating scifi parable and a gorgeous celebration of our cinematic heritage in a package that will easily transition across foreign languages and cultures. All of these things make WALL·E an instant classic that will be appreciated even more in the years to come.(****)


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