Wall*E and the Animated Ghetto

Thanks to the Academy ghettoizing animated films, one of the best pictures of this (or any other) year probably won’t be recognized with an annoying montage introduced by a teleprompter-dependent celebrity come February. Instead, I expect that Wall*E will get its fifteen seconds of Oscar screen time next to Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa and Bolt, both of which it will resoundingly and unsurprisingly leave in the dust as Andrew Stanton accepts his second award for Best Animated Feature.

By the time that Stanton’s likewise exquisite Finding Nemo trounced the competition in 2003 for that particular award, the travesty that is separate-and-inherently-unequal segregation of animated versus live-action feature films had been in place for two years. While, as a fan of Japanese animation, I am pleased that the Best Animated Feature Oscar afforded Hollywood the opportunity (long overdue) to recognize the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki, this does not forward the cause of animation as a serious film medium.

Animation is a medium, not a genre. Animation is simply one way of telling a story. All the traditional caveats of live-action filming—direction, cinematography, editing, performance—are still present in animation; they require different means to achieve excellence, but the ends are the same. This is something that Pixar, the company responsible for three of the eight Best Animated Features, understands and promotes.

And they are something that Wall*E has perfected. Wall*E arrived in theaters last June as something of an oddity among even quality Pixar films. Commercials didn’t offer punchlines—the film boasted exactly one celebrity voice (Sigourney Weaver)—which is appropriate given the premium placed on sound for the movie’s first half. (Even its partnered short film, “Presto,” hadn’t a single line of dialogue.) Freed from the cacophony, Wall*E‘s first startling image—the universe, in all its HD, Hubble-worthy beauty—popped all the brighter for the jaunty musical introduction, which was, apropos of nothing (as far as the audience knew to that point), a keenly earnest song from Hello, Dolly! The juxtaposition of something old being something new (few in the audience would have seen the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! that the titular character idolizes) eases us into the distinct-but-familiar dystopia Wall*E inhabits.

Minus the grinding of humanity, the planet is surpassingly quiet. Our hero, this fussy, finicky cataloger of human oddities finds something precious in all of our leavings, yet he is wise enough to preference recordings of music and gaiety over the omnipresent advertisements for the conglomerate responsible both for the fact of and need for his existence. (Wall*E is a Buy-N-Large product built to clean up the refuse of Buy-N-Large profligacy.)

This is a clever conceit: the ads serve a narrative function in that they explain where the humans have gone (they, too, are drawn by the siren lure of space), but their existence (as soulless by-products) better demonstrates the absence of humanity than their mere content. By association, Wall*E is all the more remarkable. The film was assailed as being heavy-handed in its ecological message but only by those who missed the hope in Pandora’s opened box: the world of Wall*E is bleak, but Wall*E himself is a miracle, and it is on miracles that film concentrates. The marvels of advanced technology are regarded as boring; the miracles of life, love, and loyalty are paramount. Wall*E tends to his fracturing treads only to spare his cockroach friend a bumpy ride on their way home from work. He saves as his most precious treasure—the invaluably wonderful sapling that drives the film’s plot—not because it will have value to the humans he hasn’t seen in seven hundred years (not even to please his future love interest, not at first), but because he recognizes it for the improbably fantastic, hopeful thing that it is. The plant is another voice in Wall*E’s world. He will never tire of it any more than of Hello, Dolly!

When Wall*E meets the sleek and marvelous EVE, it is his determined devotion to what is important to her (her directive), rather than awe of the world from which she comes, that makes the film’s heart skip a beat. Even when we follow Wall*E to the ship where humans live in luxurious squalor, there is no humanity except in Wall*E and EVE’s gentle courtship—most of which comes across in the varying ways they say one another’s name. (And who hasn’t called out a name of a loved one to different ends? In joy or in irritation?) True to form, the film wrings the most laughs and true feelings of joy out of relationships in which people hardly speak at all but communicate volumes just the same: John and Mary, humans who discover life beyond their video screens; the Captain and the plant; EVE and Wall*E. Hell, Wall*E and everyone he meets—the robot he teaches to wave; MO, the frustrated sanitizing robot chasing him all over the ship; the rogue robots who come to his defense; poor Burn*E, who, in his own animated short (set to take place during the events of Wall*E), labors at a Sisyphean task more resolutely than the Coyote for just about as much reward. (Pixar pays homage to the enduring, often dialogue-lite humor of Looney Tunes both in “Presto” and in Burn*E’s story.)

Comedy is hard, metaphors can be labored, and messages seem heavy-handed in the post-ironic, cynical world. So it is the deft hand that can juggle all three in a film that feels simultaneously profound and deliciously airy and sweet. If the point of Wall*E is that being human is not a prerequisite of possessing humanity, why shouldn’t animated features be extended the courtesy of proving themselves the equal of live-action ones? Why do live-action films widely rumored to be in contention for the Best Feature Film Oscar nomination (Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Australia) get a pass on the fierce competition they would have from Wall*E? Because they would lose?

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