More Human Than Human
By Brendon Bouzard
Dir. Andrew Stanton, U.S., Disney/Pixar
Yes, yes, just as other critics have told you, the robot Wall*E is Chaplinesque: a tramp, rusted, scruffy and lovable, all wide eyes and pratfalls and unchecked sentiment. Every gesture is equally funny and heartbreakingly sad: his earnest mimickry of human behavior, learned from a treasured, studied VHS copy of a long forgotten bit of cultural detritus, Gene Kelly’s film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! Sitting on a bench, he earnestly swings his wheel-tracks and pats the space next to him trying to coax the comely iPod-reminiscent robot Eve (voice of Elissa Knight) to his side. He charmingly dances to “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” using a trash lid as a porkpie hat. When frightened, he collapses into a little box like a turtle. He collects the most curious and ornamental remnants of human civilization, like the little mermaid Ariel before him. He is an immaculately executed character, a necessarily endearing emcee to what is at times the grimmest American comedy in years.
Because as much as Wall*E is Chaplinesque, he is also the Chaplin of the 1930s, the one who, awash in cultural and financial capital, decided to expend it on a pair of politically engaged problem films, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. How one feels about those two will likely correlate with how one appreciates Wall*E, which I don’t need to tell you is the latest film from computer-animation standard bearers Pixar, a sci-fi allegory of a future earth abandoned and ravaged by the excesses of late capitalism and a robot whose malfunctioned tendency toward human curiosity is the engine for a sea change in humanity’s regard for their home planet. Like its forebears, it is preachy, sanctimonious, and, coming from parent company Disney, more than a bit hypocritical in its targets: an overly consumptive and blithely complacent culture created by convenience technology and multinational corporations. It is nevertheless a blisteringly intelligent and necessary satire of American attitudes, a moving love story, and Pixar’s most unique film to date. As much as I would love to equivocate about the film’s reification of gender (yes, the robots have genders, even though the closest they desire to sexual contact is hand-holding) or its satirical barbs at the overstimulated, grotesquely obese humans who lazily populate the spaceship Axiom, a Guy Debord hell of flashing screens and corporate fascism, I find it hard to do so. Its successes are simply too overwhelming.
Absorb the dynamic and visually engrossing range of visual styles present here: auteurist readings of Pixar’s films to date have been limited to Brad Bird’s self-consciously retro stylizations and stories of talented but frustrated outsiders. Andrew Stanton is no less unique a filmmaker. Here and in Finding Nemo, he shows a keen regard for ecological concerns, a love for quiet, wordless sequences of travel—those ethereal jellyfish in Nemo and Wall*E’s awesomely beautiful trip through the rings of Saturn. More importantly, he possesses an intelligent understanding of the relationship between style and function. As with Nemo, in which he and Pixar’s technical teams studied the way cameras capture underwater light in order to produce that film’s remarkable verisimilitude, here he employs artificial lens-flares, optical vignetting, and barrel distortion to make Wall*E’s gritty Earth-bound opening act look as though it was shot on film stock, going so far as to hire Roger Deakins as a cinematography consultant. There’s a palpable loneliness to these scenes—lensed in incredible long shots and at first minimizing close-ups of our robot protagonist—and a resignation at the futility of Wall*E’s labors. Shots are compositionally busy, with minute details given remarkable clarity; the astonishing attention to design here gives way in the second act to candy-colored flatness and perfectly reflective surfaces on board the Axiom, dramatizing the gap between the humans’ plasticine land of milk and honey and the home planet they ruined. Convenience and complacency have degraded the humans over the years from live-action figures (played by actors like national treasure Fred Willard) into impossibly doughy cartoons. After learning their lesson not to attempt figurative verisimilitude with the creepy baby in their Oscar-winning Tin Toy short, Pixar has tended toward stylization in their depiction of human figures: the populuxe icons of The Incredibles and the broad caricatures of Ratatouille. In Wall*E, the “uncanny valley” of unpleasant human familiarity seems to be somewhat the point: in a film overtly concerned with the narrowing gulf between the human and the mechanical, the grossly cartoonish stylization of the humans is an apt visual representation of their willingness to lazily “go along.” His Fat, Dumb and Happy humans move like slugs, struggling to crawl from their Professor-X like conveyance chairs, while Wall*E, trained by Michael Crawford and Barbra Streisand, glides with vigor and aplomb. Through naïve immersion in the flotsam and jetsam of human civilization, Wall*E is the most human entity in the universe.
In a lot of ways, Wall*E succeeds as a sort of corrective to Pixar’s worst film, its Doc Hollywood remake Cars—that piece of crap, which celebrated America’s obsession with automobile transport, punctuated with some retarded Bush-era “Morning in America” affectations about the simple beauty of small-town life and racing one’s gas-guzzlers through natural locales, demonstrated no understanding of the effects America’s motoring culture has on the environment, and perhaps not coincidentally it was the Pixar release that produced the most disposable shit as a result (toy sales for that film were so high that the company has rushed a Euro-set sequel into production—the single most cynical decision the company has made in its history). Wall*E by trade is as formally rigorous as the American animation industry will allow; there’s humor and clever plotting in enough quantity that the film’s message never overpowers its narrative, but its dolorous opening act almost dares children to pout in their seats, and its view of mankind is uncompromising and severe.
But the film also demonstrates no shortage of self-awareness: noticeable among the detritus on Earth are toys of Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc. and a character from Toy Story, and the disturbingly whiz-bang interior of the Axiom resembles nothing so much as a futuristic Disneyworld, complete with unused decorative swimming pools and a PeopleMover. The most self-critical touch is the last: an ending title card following Disney’s and Pixar’s for Buy N Large, the film’s all-powerful Walmartesque conglomerate—an acknowledgment that Disney’s anesthetizing corporate project is a contributing factor toward American complacency, and that this film, too, is the byproduct of an unsustainable lifestyle. If this all seems a little disingenuous—how can the Walt Disney Corporation earnestly criticize the banality of American mass culture and the wastefulness of American consumers?—it’s nevertheless encouraging that the oddball Silicon Valley hippie libs at Pixar have decided to use their highly audible megaphone to deliver their grim prognosis on the culture of waste: as one red-white-and-blue holographic sign on the Axiom’s lido deck flashes: “Have all your dreams fulfilled. Pay later.”