Centuries from now, the world stews in the mounds of garbage and pollution left behind by the human race. Littering the roadways we also find derelict Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robots (WALL-Es), which were supposed to clean up the mess for us.

One survives. He continues the good fight, replacing his own broken parts with those he finds on his broken-down brethren. Over the centuries, he has developed a quirky personality. He's built a home in a garbage bin, and filled it with found items for which he finds practical uses and aesthetic value. He watches old VHS tapes. Hello, Dolly!1 has become his favorite, speaking as it does of love and a life about which he can only dream. He experiences a brief moment of cognitive dissonance when he discovers the spork he's found doesn't really fit with either the spoons or the forks. He also keeps a clever cockroach as a pet— a G-movie convention that doesn't really hurt the film, but adds only little.2

The first quarter of the film moves at a casual pace and features few recognizable words. It's a kind of storytelling sadly lacking in contemporary family films, and it has been done very well here. If visual poetry can be found in a planet-wide dump, Pixar has found it.

Then a ship arrives, bringing with it EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sophisticated robot sent by the human race, who lounge around in space, waiting for their eventual return to earth. After the kind of distrust found in, say, old musicals, the two 'bots fall in love. Their nascent relationship stalls when WALL-E offers EVE his rarest treasure, a living plant. She takes the item and lapses into a kind of coma. The ability of the film to communicate WALL-E's devotion and sadness as he waits for her to awake is an animated achievement. This could have been a short feature on its own, though it would have left a lot of sad viewers and sold few tie-in toys.3

Of course, there's a reason for EVE's state, and both robots soon find themselves aboard the AXIOM, where the remnants of the human race live a life both high-speed and sedentary.

The film's humans provide us with some excellent bits of satire. They're overweight, pampered, generally useless, hedonistic, trend-obsessed, and so plugged into their personal media they remain unaware of the world around them. In short, they resemble more than a little the film's audience.

At this point, WALL-E's pace picks up, the slapstick increases, and story turns conventional. We have a clear objective, setbacks and twists, heroes, villains, and characters who must make choices. The principal villain will be very familiar to fans of Science Fiction. Like a lot of SF WALL-E is political: surprisingly political for a family film, distributed by the sort of corporation it frequently mocks. Its messages about environmentalism, personal responsibility, individuality, and companionship, while not at all subtle, don't feel forced. They grow naturally from the tale WALL-E has to tell.

In the end, we have a very odd G-rated film with a high-tech setting but an old-fashioned approach: tell a story about characters and entertain an audience, and provide fodder for thought along the way.

Accompanying WALL-E is a Pixar short film, "Presto!" This cartoon features the studio's recognizable computer animation, but it hearkens back to the old Warner Brothers 'toons. It's funny, raucous yet innocent, and like the feature, generates maximum laughs from a clever premise. It even features a trickster rabbit.

Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Jim Capobianco

Ben Burt as WALL-E
Elissa Knight as EVE
Jeff Garlin as the Captain
Fred Willard as Shelby Forthright
John Ratzenberger as John
Kathy Najimy as Mary
Sigourney Weaver as the ship’s computer

1. Of all the up-beat musicals with a love story, why Hello, Dolly? I don’t know, but I can proffer several answers. As one of the last old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, it holds some historical significance. It's instantly recognizable as an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, even to people who have never seen it. It takes place in the era before the First World War, during the great age of belief in technology. Its title song can be sung as, "Hello, WALL-E." Most obscurely, it already has a connection to post-apocalyptic settings; sets from the 1969 film were cannibalized and used in the post-apocalyptic scenes for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Finally, the director/co-writer, Andrew Stanton, had appeared in a high school production of the musical years earlier. When he was going through possible songs to use, he recalled one of his favorite numbers from the famous Jerry Herman musical. The rest was future history.

2. The Custodian notes the "presence of the cockroach and its favorite food" could "be a shoutout to the trope 'cockroaches and twinkies will survive us.'"

3. Such a tale would recall (a little) Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline," which has been nominated for won a 2008 Hugo Award. Although they differ in many ways, "Tideline" and WALL-E resemble each other enough that the appearance of the story and film in the same year represents an interesting bit of synchronicity.

WALL-E as a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey

Somewhere near the middle of the Wall-E movie, audience members — those above a certain age — are reminded of the classic 1968 movie by Stanley Kubrick.

Spoilers below. This gives away major plot points. If you don't want to know what happens in WALL-E, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, then it's probably best not to read on.

Although there are references in the early part of Wall-E, the first overt hints appear when we meet the control computer, named Auto. Auto is introduced as a dim red light behind a small, darkened plexiglass hemisphere.

While that might trigger a subliminal memory, the realisation hits us full in the face, when we notice that Auto has sabotaged Eve's efforts to bring back a green plant from the planet earth. In theory, once the plant has been found, it should trigger a return to Earth for the whole Axiom ship and its cargo of humanity.

This sabotage happens because Auto has a higher command, unknown to the human cargo and the human crew. The presence of the plant brings the crew's desires and specific instructions into conflict with the higher mission.

Auto therefore has no option but to over-rule its human master and begin a sequence of events designed to eliminate all trace of the plant and its bearers from the Axiom ship.

This, of course, is the essence of the 2001 movie: computers are all very well, but be careful how you program them.

In Kubrick's classic, the conflict happens because the crew is unaware of Hal's real mission, which is to find the sentinel/monolith/black rectangle, whereas the crew think they are only on a mission to Jupiter. Hal 9000 resolves this first by killing the hibernating crew members and then by falsifying a malfunction and after the active crew goes out to fix it, prevents them from re-entering the main ship.

Kubrick's lesson — and to a lesser extent that of Wall-E — is that it is important to ensure that programming is clear, with no ambiguous or conflicting instructions which might lead to unforeseen outcomes. In both cases, the computer recognises the conflict between instructions and in each case, decides the conflict can only be resolved by eliminating the human problem. In 2001, Dave Bowman 'kills' the computer by removing its memory banks. Nothing so final is required in Wall-E, but the human commander utimately has to wrest control from the computer.

Auto is not quite as sinister, or as murderous as the Hal 9000 series computer, but for a kids' movie, she's quite scary enough. The voice of Auto is provided by Macintosh Macintalk. Sigourney Weaver did the 'PA Announcement' voice for the Axiom, but Auto itself had a purely robotic voice ('Macintalk' is credited on IMDB). Thanks to The Custodian for that. I had Weaver as voicing Auto. Oops!

The nods to 2001 continue with the music (Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube) and finally, with a space-dancing routine. Kubrick has a small ship docking with a space station to the Blue Danube, while the dance between Wall-E and Eve is one of the more touching moments of the more recent movie.

Some have equated the limited dialog in Wall-E to a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie from the silent era. I think the reference there is much more to Kubrick's masterly direction of 2001. Kubrick developed the sinister character of Hal through very limited dialog, and told his story through huge scenes and wonderful sets. Equally, it is one of the triumphs of Wall-E that the story is perfectly clear, even with the limited dialog. The two main characters end up as thoroughly developed, yet neither of them says anything more than his or her name.

From a production point of view, there is almost no dialogue in the early scenes of Wall-E, and dialog is sparse throughout. The same is true of 2001. The first scenes of Space Odyssey — with the apes — are entirely dialog-free. Similarly, Wall-E has no-one to talk to in his lonely vigil on earth, so we hear some dialog in the recordings of the Hello Dolly sequences, but apart from that, no dialog at all. As each movie progresses into space, the dialog is kept to a minimum both in Kubrick's epic and in this more modern movie.

This kind of referencing is no coincidence. In an interview at Pixar in June 2008, director Andrew Stanton said he aimed to create something in the spirit of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and space-western Outland.

Other similarities between the two include one of the main characters taking a ride in a pod, which is intended to be fatal. Another is the fact that human characters are not well developed, while machine characters get better treatment. I also think the colour palettes and tones of the two movies are similar, the spaceships are both high-key white. There are other similarities, but I'll leave you, gentle reader, to discover them for yourself.

Interestingly, Eve was apparently designed by the iPod designer, Jonathan Ive.

Sources, further information

WALL-E is one of the most interesting movies I've ever seen. That's not to say one of the best, although I do think it's quite good. Maybe it's in my Top 100. I'd have to actually make a Top 100 list to be sure. Perhaps I'll do that in 2009.

I'll ditto everything said about it in the previous review, the Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin nods, but one of my main concerns with WALL-E before I, and my four-year-old son, saw it was a concern brought up by a local film critic who has a movie review show here on the radio on Saturday afternoons. Max, the reviewer, also liked the film very much but he puzzled on who the intended audience was. Like the Pixar film before it, Cars (which by the way I am quite certain is in my Top 10), a portion of it was intended to appeal to the adult audience and only the adult audience. The middle of Cars, from the perspective of a child with a short attention span, is arguably quite slow-moving. There's quite a lot of dialogue and no action. I, and many other adults, loved the Route 66 homage and everything that contains. Now we come to WALL-E and it seems, at first glance, that the entire film is made for the adults, especially those who fondly remember 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to a lesser extent fans of Christopher Guest projects (who will enjoy Fred Willard's small live action role). Ironically, a reversal of Cars, it has very little dialogue, but at first glance it has the same problem: how is it appealing to kids?

Argue all you want about how that might not matter, that this little movie about a trash compactor should not be reviewed as a children's movie, but with it being made by Pixar and Disney, and animated, the need for it to appeal to children is inescapable. Many of us here on E2 are to some extent a geek of some sort and get off on any film that is remotely science fiction and/or futuristic and we are connoisseurs of animation, provided that these movies or television shows are - at least arguably - good. However, I will go out on a limb and say that we are in a minority and that, even though CGI is becoming quite photorealistic (and WALL-E is certainly no exception to that!), to most people over the age of 13, animated = cartoon, and a cartoon is a cartoon, and cartoons, while some can and do appeal to adults, should be for kids.

So, again, who is the intended audience here, I puzzled along with Max, before I rented the film? Buy and Large, kids don't know 2001. Or silent movies. Ever since I showed my 4-year-old son The Three Stooges he thinks every black and white movie now should have the Stooges. How could a film with little dialogue, not much action, about a love story between two robots, with deep underlying critiques of society and capitalism, possibly keep a child interested?

Well, much to my surprise, my son loved it. He wanted to watch it again and again. The geniuses at Pixar have done something magical with this movie and unfortunately I am at a loss to pinpoint what exactly it is. Somehow, this beautiful, slow, somber - and sometimes even depressing - CGI epic caught the rapt attention of a child with one of the worst attention spans that I know. Is WALL-E that cute? Is a little robot that compacts trash that interesting? Is it because some of it takes place in space?

If you've figured it out, please tell me, because I don't know for sure.

Release Date: June 27, 2008
Directed By: Andrew Stanton
Written By: Andrew Stanton, Peter Docter
Produced By: Lindsay Collins, John Lasseter, Gillian Libbert, Jim Morris, Thomas Porter, PIXAR
Running Time: 98 minutes
Distributed By: Walt Disney Pictures
Starring: Ben Burtt (voice of WALL-E), Elissa Knight (voice of EVE), Jeff Garlin (voice of the Captain), Fred Willard (Shelby Forthright - BnL CEO and President of the United States), MacInTalk (voice of Auto), John Ratzenberger (voice of John), Kathy Najimy (voice of Mary), and Sigourney Weaver (computer voice).
Rating: G.

It's because it's different and unconventional. That's why everybody likes it.

The huge lack of dialogue in the first half of the film allows it to focus on actions and character building without resorting to cheesy one-liners. The second half of the film has a plot captivating enough to keep children interested, and even though adults pretty much realise by now that it'll have a happy ending, we still want to know how it becomes happy (come on, we've all been there).

But the most gripping part of the film, for me at least, was that it is (at least reasonably) plausible. Disney and Pixar have done their homework - in a sense - and figured out that we're in an obesity crisis, an age where technology is slowly taking over (in fact, this film has almost taken technology to levels that I, Robot managed), and over polluting and overpopulating the Earth. Is it, therefore, a warning? ...well, yes, it is. Don't get obese otherwise robots will take over. That sounds pretty plausible to me (!)

But that aside, it's a bit of fun. Children go to see it as it is aimed at children. Adults go to see it with their children and have a chuckle. Adults who don't have children go to have a chuckle anyway. This sort of family togetherness is being achieved by more and more films (Over The Hedge and Madagascar, among others). Good on them. WALL-E has popularised such family films more.

A Non-Comprehensive List of Comparisons Between WALL·E and Cave Story

So like about half of America, I saw WALL·E last summer and, to put it mildly, was rather blown away. To put in perspective just how blown away I was: I can count on one hand the number of movies I've watched more than once in the theater. Most of these were things I got dragged to with a group of friends, family, etc., after having already seen it; rarely, there would be a movie I enjoyed so much I watched it twice.

I saw WALL·E four times.

After about the third time, I started getting this niggling feeling in the back of my head that WALL·E was reminding me of something. I was a bit perplexed--as you know if you've seen WALL·E, it's a fairly unorthodox plot. Finally, though, it came to me:

Cave Story!

Check the node for more details, but the summary for you time-rushed E2 users out there is that Cave Story is an action game created by one man for the PC over the course of about three years. Pretty entertaining, rich story, good fun. And, it turns out, a game that shares a rather surprising number of similarities with WALL·E:

(WARNING: Major spoilers follow. If you haven't yet seen WALL·E or played Cave Story, though, your time would be much better spent doing one or both than reading this node anyway. If you insist on reading on, though: Quote is the 'male' protagonist of Cave Story, Curly is the 'female' protagonist. You probably know who WALL·E and EVE are.)

WALL·E: EVE saves WALL·E and MO from being compacted to death by launching up and out of a vast, cavernous space
Cave Story: Balrog saves Quote and Curly from being compacted to death by launching up and out of a vast, cavernous space

WALL·E: It is gradually revealed over the course of the story that WALL·E's objective is to save the inhabitants of a floating spaceship from their dependance on a substance given to them by a crazed computer
Cave Story: It is gradually revealed over the course of the story that Quote's objective is to save the inhabitants of a floating island from their dependance on a substance given to them by a crazed Doctor

WALL·E: WALL·E is a robot from 700 years ago with an intended function that is no longer applicable
Cave Story: Quote is a robot from far-past times with an intended function that is no longer applicable

WALL·E: WALL·E ties EVE to himself and takes her through a series of romantic situations
Cave Story: Quote ties Curly to himself and takes her through a series of perilous situations

WALL·E: WALL·E becomes seriously damaged near the end of the plot and must be repaired
Cave Story: Curly becomes seriously damaged near the end of the plot and must be repaired

Okay, that was getting a bit tenuous towards the end there, but it must be admitted that there's more here than one would expect between any two random stories featuring robots. Anyone know much about the gaming habits at Pixar?

Besotted with Stars: The Problem with WALL·E

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. Ultimately, though, I feel he shortchanges WALL·E by harvesting his 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 so he can impress her, or because he has a stake in Earth's future?

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 their sheeplike behaviour is that 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.

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