In, WALL-E, this summer's big budget kids' movie, Pixar unsurprisingly proves yet again that it's really the only division of the modern Disney empire still worth a damn. (Sorry, Hannah.)
Fair warning: have you seen the teaser trailer? The one where the adorable mechanical rascal is busy motoring around a giant dump, and then all of a sudden an enormous rocket lands and spirits him away? That is absolutely everything you should go into the movie knowing, and props to Pixar for having the chutzpah to keep so much of the plot under wraps in the ad campaign, and sell the movie on pretty much the strength of their brand alone. Of course, the downside to that strategy is the practical impossibility of reviewing the movie without * MAJOR SPOILERS *. So if you haven't already been out to see WALL-E, do yourself the favor of viewing it first, and then come right back here to talk about it. I'll wait.
WALL-E's many virtues include those we've come to expect from a Pixar film: all of the characterizations are spot on, and effectively painted through humor and clever props. What's unique this time around is that the same feat is accomplished with the movie's two main characters speaking maybe eight different words between the two of them throughout the movie's entire 90 minute span. The number of different inflections Elissa Knight's synthesized EVE voice is able to wrap around WALL-E's name are truly impressive---she manages to sometimes compress not just lines, but whole conversations into those two short syllables. Watching EVE's sporadic and explosive gun-arm flip outs is also fun, as is laughing at the gummy bear-esque people floating around in their Eternal Recliners. The audio work as a whole is great, every ping and squeak is imbued with oodles of emotion, from WALL-E's power meter to whirling of the cleaning robot's gears. Also, the soundtrack lifts quite a few recognizable measures of music from classic sci-fi films. Any aficionado can't fail to notice the homages to classic Star Wars, and the self-effacing usage of 2001's iconic Also Sprach Zarathustra is side-splitting.
Though the range of visuals showcased is both technically and artistically impressive (Post-trash-pocalypse Earth especially. It's reminiscence of Mad Max or Fallout, just without the guns and radioactive zombies.), I have a feeling that when all is said and told, you'll not find people as blown away with the animation here as they were with previous Pixar efforts. I think there are a couple of reasons why. First, the sci-fi environments on display, unlike the kitchens of Ratatouille, Everycity of The Incredibles or dirt roads of Cars, are not something for which many people (any people?) have a good point of reference; this makes it difficult to consistently achieve those "wow, that looks just like a real X" moments. Secondly, the main source of encounters with similarly themed characters and environments for many people will be video games, which everybody knows are all shallow, cheap and uninspired. (And they're singlehandedly corrupting the youth!)
But visuals alone won't save a movie with a lackluster, contrived plot. Fortunately, WALL-E is definitely enough of a departure from the standard Disney/Pixar formula of Noble but Doubting Hero teams up with Band of Misfits to Save the Day to keep things interesting. (Actually, when was the last Pixar movie that fell completely into that mold?) During the first half of the show it cleverly manages to develop the characters and draw the audiences' attention while leaving delightfully mysterious the overall direction of the plot---something a lot of movies not meant for kids ought to imitate. Threaded throughout is the same well-oiled lighthearted comedy which Pixar does so effortlessly; WALL-E's every movement is a joy of anthropomorphizing; WALL-E's cockroach dog (fed a supply of the only surviving food on the Earth, Twinkies) is genius.
Now is it a great kids' movie? I don't know. The few children in the theater when I saw it seemed contented enough, but the film's overall lack of dialog, long action-less interludes typical of the classic science fiction genre, and undisguised need to blunt some of the obviousness of it's own satire makes me wonder if some of those in the hyper little maniac demographic will be able to appreciate it as much as the more refined elementary school crowd can. While still undeniably a kids' movie---think too long about the whole situation humanity has gotten itself into and you'll just laugh it off as plainly impossible---Pixar is aiming at a somewhat older audience this time.
What I found most incredible is the fine line the film walks between housing a genuinely political message on one hand and collapsing into a trite collection of platitudes on the other. While possibly some aspects of it's anti-consumerism will sail over the youngest childrens' heads---unlike 2006's similarly moral-centric Happy Feet which hammered home a SIMILAR message of environmental concern and the need to dethrone the profit motive---I imagine most will pick up on the themes, while at the same time most parents won't feel threatened. WALL-E, in other words, shouldn't spawn the same right-wing backlash Happy Feet did, despite subtle digs like the president pointedly urging humanity to "Stay the Course".
The irony that's probably lost on most people is that the movie's BNL (Buy 'N Large) corporate juggernaut is generic enough satire to surely include Disney Store franchises as well as it's obvious target, the cancerous Walmart and the rest of the Big Box crew. The interior of the distopian luxury super-starliner Axiom suggests nothing more than the fusion of the Earth's best fast food joint with exactly the type of Floridian megaresort Disney is famous for. And finally, it's Unplug message of the toxicity of the entertainment-industrial complex's constant efforts destroying our quality of life is still cynically delivered in the middle of what's sure to be a hugely profitable venture of the flagship corporation of the very same industry. Bizarre that this even got made, really: makes you wonder what it looked like before the vetting and editing process got to it.
Final verdict: A bright, endearing fable set against a slick sci-fi backdrop, it should offer enough to amuse all ages, though perhaps not enough to become the same classic amongst the younger crowd that previous Pixar films have become.