Pixar’s latest animated romp Wall-E beat out Angelina Jolie as superhero assassin-recruiter-whatever flick Wanted to collect over 63 million bucks into its cute little trash-compactor belly this weekend, and after feeling a bit guilty for posting a skeptical review before even seeing it, I escaped the gay pride crowds by heading for a Saturday night showing. While I’m not really qualified to agree or disagree with the Chicago Tribune‘s claim that this is the “best American studio film this year,” I will say it was really quite good, probably the best Pixar film yet, but not without its flaws.
The inconsistent anthropomorphism that annoyed and troubled me in Finding Nemo is far more tolerable here: while it’s silly to think a trash-compactor robot would be granted such an elaborate emotion chip and that a cockroach could take orders, they’re both smart enough to be the last of their kind, and in 700 years, who knows what could happen? Plus there are lots of winking details: the portaits of the ship’s captains throughout the years devolve not only from robust to flabby, but also from photo-realistic to cartoonish, in a cute nod to Scott McCloud’s theories of how comics use simplification to create a language of symbols. Unfortunately, my previous criticism of the excessive detail of computer-animated films applies here as well: there’s often just too much going on, extra bits that distract you from the task at hand. It’s understandable, since such elaborate productions require extreme specialization, and if you have a team of animators spending three years working on a 7-second scene of a goofy malfunctioning umbrella robot, that robot will probably be really cool and funny and its scene will whip by far too quickly, leaving you vaguely unsatisfied, wishing the movie could slow down a little and let you look at all the stuff.
Some reviews were too critical: Salon.com was in awe of the opening and frustrated with the ending, claiming that the film shifted tone too abruptly between acts, but I didn’t see that at all. While the underlying concept of a trash-covered dead Earth is pretty grim, for sure, even the first 40 wordless minutes are mostly played for laughs, or at least for “awwws,” with our robot lead scooting around adorably. Director Andrew Stanton has downplayed the film’s political side, but really, it’s right there front and center: the perennially awesome Fred Willard, as some sort of corporate-CEO-slash-president-of-Earth, uses the obvious Bushism “stay the course” when it’s clear things are falling apart, although me and my date were the only ones who laughed at that in our audience. Despite the direct criticisms of our current political muddle and consumerist excesses, Wall-E is always a comedy, and I’d honestly expected it to be a little darker. Remember the old Mel Brooks remake of To Be or Not to Be, where madcap silliness is set against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Warsaw? This is like that, only even lighter, and for kids, of course. In both films, the unimaginable loss is offscreen, and we get to enjoy an unlikely happy ending, although things here seem to get wrapped up a little too easily. This is tempered by the brilliant coda that runs alongside the credits: an epilogue utilizing styles from the history of human visual expression and a retelling of the movie’s plot using classic video game-style graphics.
Sure, the question of whether a Disney product can authentically criticize consumerist culture, lazy viewers, and wasted resources may trouble some viewers, but I dunno; works of art distributed by major conglomerates have criticized those same conglomerates for a long time. At the very least, it brings up interesting issues for discussion; something that Beverly Hills Chihuahua, whose stultifying, this-cannot-be-real preview seemed to exemplify the trash culture Wall-E was criticizing, can’t even approach. Where the line is between “Chihuahuas Gone Wild” and apparently worthy artifacts of humanity’s existence like Hello, Dolly, I’m not sure, but it’s reassuring to know that in 700 years, a robot will have figured it out.