Although Wall-E ends with a very apt and moving nod to City Lights, it is in fact Pixar’s answer to Modern Times—both a bravura summation of everything the studio is great at and a “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” statement of purpose. Not to mention that it’s both a techno- and eco-fable, of course.
The early teaser trailer for Wall-E emphasized its roots as a labor of love; in one, co-writer/director Andrew Stanton, the second animator to join Pixar, waxes nostalgic about a 1994 lunch wherein the idea for Wall-E, the industrious garbage-disposal robot trying to tidy up an impossibly waste-clotted world devoid of humans, was dreamed up. Pixar is of course one of the most accomplished anthropomorphizing concerns in all of show business—it has made you feel for insects (A Bug’s Life), fish (Finding Nemo), automobiles (Cars, perhaps the most pro forma Pixar product thus far, and only slightly less enjoyable than its other output for all that), and most recently, a rat, for heaven’s sake, in Ratatouille. Compared to that last, concocting a pair of empathetic robots would seem a cinch—and it’s not as if there is no cinematic precedent for that sort of thing. Cinematic precedent becomes one of the film’s problems in the home stretch. But that’s not on account of the two robots: the shambling, nostalgic pack-rat title character Wall-E, still collecting and boxing garbage almost a millennium after the humans have abandoned a trash-clotted Earth; and Eve (ha, ha), a sleek, white, blue-eyed powerhouse sent to Earth to find evidence of its reinhabitabilty. Yes, Wall-E does look a slight bit like Number Five from the dreaded 1986 cheesefest Short Circuit (a resemblance Stanton insists is inadvertent, which I buy—the Pixar guys have better taste than to reference that film on purpose). But as a character he’s both totally familiar and sui generis, and I am with the several other critics who have implied that they would be willing to watch a Satantango-length depiction of his daily routine: charging his battery in the never less than harsh sun, scooting around on his durable treads, companion cockroach trailing behind, compressing trash into cubes, building skyscrapers out of said cubes, and then, when the sun goes down, retiring to his trailer with whatever collectibles he’s spotted and watching a spot of Hello, Dolly—yes, Hello, Dolly—while yearning for a more meaningful companion than the roach.
When Eve shows up, Wall-E’s (understandable) fascination with her results in his dogged attempt to get her to a) acknowledge his existence and b) not pulverize him into dust once she does. Though blessed with as much personality as, and similar communication skill to, Wall-E, she is driven by her “directive.” Once that directive’s achieved, she shuts down, and Wall-E watches over her for what seems to be forty days and forty nights.
At which point the spaceship that dropped her off comes to reclaim her, and humans are introduced into the picture. Fat, lazy humans, bloated by centuries of complacency and “micro-gravity.” And here’s where Wall-E’s problems begin. The film’s set-pieces—largely chases between the “rogue robots” Wall-E and Eve eventually become, and the scores of other ‘bots who’ve come to run the massive ship—grow ever more elaborate. In terms of design and action they’re among the most ambitious Pixar have ever attempted. But they also verge on the alienatingly frenetic. (The short that precedes Wall-E, the marvelous Presto, is by contrast a fiercely funny clockwork mechanism of slapstick.) But the main problem, besides the increasingly cutesy overt movie references (“Also Sprach Zarathrustra” makes an appearance, sigh) is in the story emphasis. After falling in love with these two kids Wall-E and Eve, the audience is suddenly asked to care about whether a lost humanity will be able to find itself again. A question that is, as it turns out, infinitely less interesting then “Will Eve finally accept Wall-E’s love?” So it’s with a palpable sense of relief that we come to the final scene, where the focus is again on our hero and heroine. Back to what’s important, finally—two hands, not necessarily engineered to fit together, but trying to.