I adore this movie; that’s about the only way to describe my reaction to it. It’s my favorite Pixar film, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a masterpiece of animation, of science fiction, just of film in general. It takes place in the 28th century, on an Earth so polluted that it has become inhospitable to life. Robots have been given the task of collecting the mountains of trash that litter (pun!) the planet and condense and stack them, but most of the robots (called “Wall-E” units) have worn out, except for one resourceful little guy who replaces his own worn out parts. He manages to find some pleasure in his dreary work, collecting little pieces that amuse him to decorate a little lair. He also loves “Hello Dolly!” One day, a more advanced, feminine robot shows up to look for plant life, and Wall-E falls in love. When they do discover a sprout, a spaceship picks them up, and they end up running around on a space cruiseship amidst a decadent consumer culture of the surviving humans as they try to trigger a recolonization and renewed clean-up of Earth.
The robots all have limited speech, yet they get most of the screentime, so the film is short on dialog, and yet it moves briskly and manages to entertain and keep forward momentum. I haven’t seen physical storytelling this funny, effective and powerful outside of Charlie Chaplin. And, Wall-E does a great job balancing a bleak vision of future Earth, right out of those ‘70s eco-dystopias, with the beauty in the trash. Nothing hits my aesthetic sweet-spot quite like a sense of wonder, hope or love in the midst of ruin and despair, and few movies hit that sweet-spot as perfectly as this. It’s also a rich sf film full of references to the sf canon: 2001, Star Wars, and, hey, Sigourney Weaver even makes an appearance. There are lots of cool rockets and robots to boot. I can’t say that the film asks probing speculative questions about robot emotions – Wall-E and EVE are in love; deal with it.
The film isn’t particularly nuanced or detailed in the environmental questions it raises either. There’s a satire of consumerism with the brand Buy N’ Large (fronted by the almost-always welcome Fred Willard), but it’s pretty broad. Also, of all the environmental problems we face, burying ourselves in trash really isn’t one of them – landfills may be an eyesore that no one wants in their backyard, but there is ample space for our trash. But, mountains of trash and yellow noxious sky serve as a strong enough metaphor. People may have found the critiques here heavy-handed, but, considering the state of climate change legislation in the US, maybe people do need to be smacked in the head with broad metaphors. Again and again. And then some more. And the film, for all of the dirty, trashy, hopeless world it depicts, still gives us that sprout, and still has its bloated consumerist humans stand up for hope in the end. And I love it for that.