Wall-E is near the top of the list of films I call “friendship killers.”
Find yourself on the wrong side of a critical debate or a fanboy crusade about most films and you are probably used to (if you are a professional critic) some snarky e-mails and snappy put-downs. That’s the nature of the Internet where half the comments are from bots and the other half are from paid advocates who are working off a talking points script.
But there are other films that engender such passionate devotion that failing to love them is too often treated as a personal betrayal. Inside Out and Up are other Pixar films that can provoke strained interpersonal relationships. Twilight and Harry Potter discussions quickly descend into either condescension or vituperation. Disagree about anything Wes Anderson has ever made and you better be ready with your mute button on Twitter. The essence of a postmodern world, as Rob points out in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, is that what you like is more important than what you are like.
I’ve never liked Wall-E nor understood the love it receives. But ten years is a long time. Long enough, perhaps, for even the most stubborn naysayer to come around? I revisited the film a decade after its initial release to find out.
Was Wall-E Really That Good?
One contributing factor to Wall-E‘s being overpraised, in my opinion, is that the Oscar-nominated films of 2008 weren’t that great. They certainly weren’t beloved. Slumdog Millionaire is a better film than Crash, but one wonders if it, too, benefited from being more palatable fare in the year of a better but gayer movie. (Milk was not as esteemed as Brokeback Mountain, but it was good enough to get Sean Penn another statue.) Wall-E dominated the animation category, easily defeating Bolt and Kung Fu Panda in a three-way race. The juxtaposition of a rout in the animation category and the lack of a clear favorite in the Best Picture category made it fashionable to argue that the only reason Wall-E wasn’t vying for the bigger prize was that animation was not yet regarded as a suitable genre for serious, artistic fare.
It’s also human nature to overpraise whatever is innovative. Wall-E was two years ahead of The Artist in terms of having a non-speaking protagonist. It basically emulates the style and techniques of a silent film. James Cameron’s Avatar, and the consequent reemergence of 3D as a commercial form, was also a year in the future. Not that Wall-E was 3D, but its computer animation, so different from the hand-drawn animation associated with Disney, was still “gee-whiz” inducing, even if, for my money, it was (and is) less aesthetically rich and visually interesting.
What I Say Now
As it did ten years ago, Wall-E held my interest for the first twenty minutes. Pixar films are great at creating backstories, and the efficiency of its world building is undeniable. If I had a movie ticket for every time I’ve heard someone say that the pre-title sequence of Up or the short film that accompanied a Pixar feature were superior, self-contained masterpieces, I would need never pay to go to the cinema again.
But world-building does not a narrative make, and Wall-E has an awfully difficult time parlaying its art design and background details into an engaging story. As with (the admittedly better) A.I., there feels like there is something duplicitous in having a machine as the protagonist and then anthropomorphizing it in order to induce human emotion. It’s one thing to have human movies and music playing in the background. It’s quite another to have Wall-E watching images rapturously or playing the soundtrack so that he can whistle while he works. (Oh, look, he’s got a pet roach, it’s just like Jiminy Cricket!) The entire second act–once Eve shows up–feels like a single, metafictive joke stretched out too long. Wall-E doesn’t get that Eve is a robot! How cute! How adorable! How can he get an unfeeling machine to love him? The point, of course, is not for him to get Eve to love him but to get the audience to love him by acting the part of a cute toy come to life.
The representation of humans is also a problem. They are fat and lazy, though not so far gone that their spirit of adventure cannot be roused by a plucky robot. We mercifully get more color in the third act, but action descends into Looney Tunes slapstick. Put screengrabs from the first third and last third and it is like looking at two different movies. The animated humans also make the use of actual humans (in archival footage) problematic. If the humans of Wall-E‘s world look like this, why do the movies he found look like us?
When I was in high school, I remember a friend saying that Ghostbusters was so funny, its protagonists so cool, that it was almost enough to make him wish something like its climax could and would happen in real life. I don’t think he was serious, but I’ve thought about that remark many times as I sat through spies averting the missile launch and superheroes averting the end of the world. If a few billion people die in the process, why should that keep us from admitting that Wall-E‘s post-environmental disaster earth is a warmer, wittier, happier place than most of us will ever know? If only robots could feel, maybe humans could learn to be human too. If only this were real.
Wouldn’t that be great?