Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

Besotted with Stars: The Problem with WALL·E

October 09, 2009 By: Colin Low Category: Full Essays

This piece was written as an entry for Pixar Week over at The House Next Door. For other critical analyses of Pixar’s work, please head over there and have a look!


For all that Pixar loves to celebrate its underdogs, WALL·E marks the first (and so far, only) time the studio has named an entire movie after its protagonist, neither effacing him into part of a wider community (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Cars) or a central mission (Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up). That WALL·E’s name is shared by his peers and short for his mission—”Waste Allocation Load Lifter · Earth-class”—barely counts against this claim, since the acronym is pronounced like a regular human name; the movie is built on the premise that he is the last of his kind; and the essential pleasures of WALL·E do not spring from his assigned mission but in the tangents he chases beyond it. Though the break in titling scheme alone implies it, we can tell from the raves accompanying the movie’s prologue—in which WALL·E is only character we encounter, save for a curly-feelered roach—that Pixar invests much of WALL·E‘s success on the cult of personality that forms around its title character.

And what a personality! Binocular eyes that pivot as though they were brows; a stocky frame into which he can retract like a tortoise; a symphony of blips, squeaks and squalls: all these feats of character design conspire to make WALL·E as expressive as a droid could realistically be. Left to clean up a trash-strewn Earth, WALL·E splits his time between compacting trash and unearthing lost reminders of humanity’s technological gifts from the rubble. He has a child’s fascination with simple interactive objects: it is endearing to watch him handle sporks, hubcaps, whisks, fire extinguishers and even brassiere in unexpected ways (or bubble wrap in an expected, universally beloved way), collecting and playing with them as though they were the peaks of our civilisation. Maybe they are. The pleasure of WALL·E‘s early moments derives from the tiny wonders of these things that humans have made, dismissed and discarded for their “worthier” counterparts. At times the movie sums this up with as cheaply-earned a gesture as WALL·E opening a ring box, contemplating the ring within, before flinging it away to keep the hinged box. Such a simple jab at materialism draws quick laughs, until we recall that WALL·E has all the world’s resources at his disposal, and hasn’t much use for items whose mere value lies in their short supply.

But the movie also knows how to complicate its critiques. We find WALL·E obsessed with a tape of Hello, Dolly!, a movie musical that few would rank among the classics, and yet the two isolated numbers from it (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes A Moment”) that are repeated throughout WALL·E, in both audio and video, resonate with the joys of life and love. I have it on good faith that those old enough to have watched Hello, Dolly! would deem it derivative and overproduced, as if its makers hoped that throwing enough money into costumes and sets would compensate for a lack of creative bite. It may be more jarring for these older viewers to find that WALL·E nearly redeems Hello, Dolly!‘s dearth of authentic feeling, using the older movie’s ode to wanderlust (“Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers…”) to usher us into this newer movie and its incipient wonders, opening with the star-cobbled expanses of outer space. If a third-tier movie like Hello, Dolly! can tide WALL·E through his working days with a tune so breezily hummable, and if it can connect him to us by teaching him our ageless language for making contact with one another, then are we wrong to dismiss its worth, and what painful things does it say about the worthier works of art that WALL·E‘s apocalyptic world has lost forever?

Despite these grand efforts, though, WALL·E retains all the fidelity of a Looney Tunes character. Early on, we trail WALL·E into a junkyard strewn with the rust-eaten remains of his fallen peers: a breathtakingly grim visual, but one implying a vulnerability to WALL·E that the rest of the movie only strives to upend. Nothing troubles him as badly as it might a more flesh-and-blood hero, not the immense heat of a rocket’s flare or being compacted by a titanic version of himself, and since these action scenes rely on our fear for WALL·E’s safety, each time around our suspense is further dulled. I groaned when he got flung into the ceiling of his trailer, leaving a WALL·E-shaped emboss in it; but I was even more horrified when this throwaway punchline went on to prove just how indestructible WALL·E was, as he replaced his broken parts with ease.

It is troubling, too, that the earlier junkyard sequence showed us just where WALL·E was getting these spare parts, because the mise en scène leading us into that sequence evokes distant echoes of another in Pixar’s oeuvre. In Toy Story, a crew of grotesquely mismatched toys—the deranged experiments of a sadistic kid—converge upon the body parts of a fallen toy. “They’re cannibals,” gasps an onlooker. Even if you don’t buy that Suddenly, Last Summer-esque twist showing up in a family film, the whole thing still plays as a horror sequence because the shadows and hushed music gather to that interpretation. But if we’re invited to a similar reaction to those mangled WALL·E silhouettes, the rest of the sequence spurns it by reverting to a blasé comic tone. Should we not judge a sentient robot, who squeals when he runs over a roach by accident, for having nary a cringe when he enters what must be to him a graveyard? Does a humanist plea not count against his utter disaffection as he scavenges body parts off a dead member of his kind? Or, if it feels too crass to blame the adorable WALL·E, can we not take the filmmakers to task for their callous use of a wondrously evocative image, without ever following up on the ambition it implies?

Not that this is the only image in WALL·E‘s prologue that reaches for more than the movie finally delivers. As we follow WALL·E through his daily routine—rolling through the deserted wasteland, compacting trash into cubes, stacking them, and then going back for more—the movie pans wide from close-ups of this routine into a vista of sun-bleached skyscrapers, all crafted by WALL·E’s hands. “What if we did the last robot on Earth—everybody’s left and this machine just doesn’t know it can stop?” mused director Andrew Stanton in an interview. “It was just the loneliest scenario I’d ever heard and I just loved it.” The sight of WALL·E dwarfed by his centuries-long labours thrums with the loneliness that Stanton describes, but he ultimately shortchanges WALL·E by harvesting this loneliness mostly along a romantic axis. That is, if “romance” can be defined as stalking an off-handedly destructive, idealised iPod-sleek feminine character who just. isn’t. interested. and trying to non-consensually clasp her mechanical claws. Other critics have situated WALL·E‘s romantic thread as part of a larger Hollywood trend of the slob getting the out-of-his-league lady, and I can’t say I disagree: EVE barely takes notice of WALL·E, even gets pissed at him, when her di·rec·tive is at stake. But my greater beef is that this fits into a more annoying Hollywood trend, that of screenwriters adding romance as a bonus trophy to an already-heroic enterprise. This dilutes the purity of WALL·E’s motive: does he aid EVE with her directive because he has a stake in Earth’s future, or just so he can impress her?

By muddying WALL·E’s motives, the movie suffers an uneven split once the spaceship of humans arrives into the picture. Usually, Pixar wraps its keen observations of human foibles around the plight of their victims: neglected toys in Toy Story, unappreciated superheroes in The Incredibles, maltreated marine life in Finding Nemo, and so forth. But WALL·E’s own abandonment never grows into an issue against the humans here, who are far more interested in the tiny sapling he carries with him as a sign of their environmental blameworthiness. Not to mention that they do this against a backdrop of the AXIOM spaceship, a fully-automated luxury cruiser where all the humans, fat as bugs, sip liquid meals from their hover-chairs as they whizz through a cornucopia of billboards: a lazy, incoherent satire on consumerism, especially since no one seems to lift a finger to produce anything around here. WALL·E thus becomes a wallflower in his own narrative, as the movie busily conflates all of humankind’s ills before its last half-hour erupts into a fracas over the sapling.

Apparently the ship’s autopilot Auto, a dead ringer for HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, has been programmed to stop any plant from again seeing the light of day, and commands an army of robots to see to that. WALL·E, for his part, leads a crew of “malfunctioning” robots against them, whatever his motives. However, the 2001 allusion turns out unflattering, since we get no semblance of inner life from Auto, reducing the struggle for the plant to a strictly mechanical one between the sentient and non-sentient beings, rather than a more nuanced one between the rebels and the hegemon. This is also why the majestic strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra, set to the AXIOM captain’s triumph over Auto, rings false. If the movie had to make a musical homage to 2001, I’d much have preferred a “Daisy, Daisy…” swansong for Auto, which would have made for a more emotionally complex response worthy of Pixar than the whoops and cheers of the AXIOM passengers. What do these losers know? Earlier, these infantile proto-humans encountered a rust bucket trundling through their pristine world, and their only reactions were surprise and unfettered adoration. The most generous reading I can offer for this sheeplike behaviour? It’s another outer-space movie homage, this time to the mindlessly adoring toy aliens of Pixar’s own Toy Story films.

Look, if Pixar had chosen to animate the plant as sentient as well, with WALL·E as its platonic guardian, I might have been more invested in WALL·E as a modern take on the Little Prince fable. If it had committed to the irreversible damage that WALL·E seems to be dealt in the last reel, raising some bold Eternal Sunshine-style questions about his identity as an amnesiac, I might have capitulated all my reservations. But it doesn’t. For all of WALL·E’s obsession with Hello, Dolly!, then, his movie is perhaps better compared to an earlier Barbra Streisand vehicle, Funny Girl. Sure, both movies share a canny director with a knack for eye-popping compositions and making grand gestures at high art. But they also share a charismatic star with whom the filmmakers and audiences alike are so besotted that the plot doesn’t dare—or, goddammit, even try—to hurt his fortunes.

WALL·E | 2008 | USA | Director: Andrew Stanton | Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon| Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard

4 Comments to “Besotted with Stars: The Problem with WALL·E

  1. What an astonishing, eloquent, and thought-provoking review. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this, especially because it’s so clear how much you’ve thought about the movie from so many directions. I think I *feel* about the movie almost exactly as you do, but I hadn’t actually *pondered* almost any of its specifics in the way you did, much less have I ever tried to articulate them in these ways. I’m persuaded by everything you say here. Three cheers!

  2. That’s a great use for old hubcaps. I bet you could find a lot of other uses as well.

    • Colin Low says:

      Dear Spammer,

      I usually send all spammy comments into my virtual trash compactor as soon as I see them, but your comment is so hilarious in the context of my review that I couldn’t resist keeping it. Cheers!



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