Jun 19 2012 12:00pm

Wall-E: Pixar’s Lasting Tribute to the Power of Art

Wall-E is generally referred to as a children’s film, and I’m not going to argue: it’s an excellent children’s film—a classic, absolutely. I also happen to think that it’s an even better movie for adults, for whom its lessons are more poignant, possibly more resonant, and more necessary. Pixar has a knack for producing films which consistently operate on two different levels: one which speaks to a young audience without condescension or pandering, and one which reflects adult experience, rather than just exploiting nostalgia for idealized conceptions of childhood or simply spiking the cinematic punch with snarky, Grown-Ups Only pop culture references and in-jokes.

Movies like Wall-E and Up deftly evoke complicated emotional responses in adults in a way that most children’s films don’t, speaking to adults on their own level through smart, subtle storytelling that’s often amazingly, heartbreakingly simple. Consider the opening sequence of Up, for example, which has the power to make grown men break down and sob as if they’ve just been kicked in the heart, but doesn’t seem particularly traumatic for small children at the same time; it’s not that kids don’t “get it”—they just don’t necessarily react to the sequence in the same way that adults, carrying a little more emotional baggage into the theater, tend to respond.

Wall-E is Pixar’s most sustained and arguably most successful experiment in employing this radical narrative simplicity. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, there’s basically no spoken dialogue, only recorded human voices echoing around a long-abandoned Earth. During the making of the movie, the Pixar team studied and drew inspiration from silent films, particularly those of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the influence is palpable throughout the movie, but especially in these opening scenes.

The irony, of course, is that the era of the silent film greats was defined by the limits of available technology—these artists were driven to perfect a unique mode of expression because of the challenges they faced in the early days of cinema. Wall-E himself is literally a product of technology, the discarded creation of a society with no such limits, but also no vision, which eventually self-destructed in a downward spiral of mindless consumption and apathy. In Wall-E’s reality, there isn’t any dialogue because there’s no longer anyone to talk to, to talk with. Oddly enough, when we eventually get a glimpse of human existence later in the movie, there’s still no dialogue—plenty of noise, prerecorded messages, automated announcements, and verbal commands, but no conversation, and certainly no meaningful interactions between people.

Wall-E shares a kinship with Keaton and Chaplin that goes beyond his movements and mannerisms—in short, he is an artist. The opening scenes of the movie establish the fact that he possesses a remarkable capacity for aesthetic appreciation. His function, as a robot, is to clean up the planetful of garbage left behind by humanity—a mindless, thankless task, or it would be, if he wasn’t able to spend his days sorting through the rubble, collecting objects which appeal to his natural curiosity and sense of beauty. His prized possession, of course, is a beat up VHS tape of Hello, Dolly!, his (and our) only link to a vibrant, thriving human past. In a sense, Wall-E is the last holdout of romanticism, stranded in an isolated industrial wasteland—and where Keats had a Grecian urn and Wordsworth had all sorts of abbeys and daffodils to inspire him, Wall-E’s experience of the sublime stems from a random 1969 Barbra Streisand musical…and that is genius.

I love that we’re never given any background on Hello, Dolly!, no belabored exposition on what it was and why we should care, no cute backstory about Wall-E finding his precious video cassette—all that matters is the feeling it evokes, within the context of the story. It’s such a fascinating choice for such a central plot device—a bloated, big-budget spectacle that was both one of the last great Hollywood musicals (directed by none other than the legendary Gene Kelley), and also a box office disappointment which helped usher in the end of an era, as cheery showtunes and sequins failed to impress late 60s audiences more interested in edgier fare. The movie version of Hello, Dolly! isn’t iconic enough to be instantly familiar to most audiences, but that fact makes it such a brilliant choice in a movie that urges you to look at the world differently, to appreciate the inherent value of creation and expression wherever you can find it.

Through Wall-E’s eyes, a campy sixties musical suddenly becomes a lightning rod of varying emotions: joy, longing, passion…it brings Wall-E and EVE together, reunites them when they’re separated, and even serves as a call to action in a robot revolt in the second half of the movie. When the captain of the Axiom starliner views the recorded video of Earth stored in EVE’s memory, he’s initially discouraged—until the clip of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” magically appears, steeling his resolve and inspiring him, finally, to return to Earth. The lesson is driven home again and again: singing, dancing, music, and art have the power to connect, to further our understanding of the world; art is how we communicate; it can inspire revolution, redemption, and change for the better.

More than anything else, Wall-E is a movie about the importance of appreciating and creating art—without it, we are cut off from each other, and from ourselves. As far as depictions of dystopian futures are concerned, the movie is rather gentle—nothing about the cushy Axiom is likely to traumatize small children... but at the same time, its indictment of a culture entirely devoted to the mindless consumption of “entertainment” with no artistic merit or intellectual value is chilling the more you think about it. And the movie really, really wants you to think about it.

When you get right down to it, Wall-E can be considered Pixar’s mission statement; it’s basically a gorgeous, animated manifesto. Over and over again, it drives home the point that civilization and self-expression go hand in hand—humanity is defined by its ability to move beyond mere survival into the realm of art: it’s no coincidence that, after meeting Wall-E, the captain’s crash course in the history of the world moves from learning about basics like “soil,” “earth,” and “sea” directly into “hoedown” and “dancing”: this is a natural progression, according to the movie’s logic. Wall-E spends 700 years on his own (Hal, his adorable cockroach friend notwithstanding), but as soon as he encounters EVE, he immediately attempts to reach out to her by building a sculpture in her image–that gesture alone betrays more passion and humanity than any of the any of the actual humans in the movie are capable of mustering, until the very end. And this is why I think adults may have more to learn from Wall-E than kids do….

George Carlin famously said, “Scratch any cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” For me, more than anything else, Wall-E is a movie that speaks directly to the cynics, the apathetic, and to anyone who has lost touch with the fundamental urge toward creativity and expression, with the sheer joy and heights of emotion that art can bring. Just watching the closing credits is inspiring, as they move through the style of cave drawings, Greek and Roman art, Seurat, Van Gogh, all the way up through 8-bit video game-style graphics. It drives home the message that the world is full of inspiration, sometimes where we least expect to find it. It’s clear that the folks at Pixar see themselves as participating in this grand tradition that includes everything from ancient graffiti to Renaissance masterpieces to Modern Times, and 2001, and even Hello, Dolly! Every aspect of this movie is imbued with the power of its creators’ convictions: Wall-E is Pixar’s luminous love letter to the creative process…one which will hopefully continue to inspire adults and children alike for many years to come.

Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She is making it her mission in life to mount an all-robot production of Mame, just as soon as she finishes building her Bea Arthur-bot. You can follow her on Twitter.

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1. SolarSoul25
Pure Pixar perfection. If The Incredibles is the movie Pixar should be most remembered for (which I believe it should, being my personal favorite and a wonderful representation of modern family dynamics) then Wall-E is the movie Pixar should be most proud of. This article sums up my feelings about it perfectly.
2. Neenie
WALL-E!!! My partner and I first saw this when we were dating and it is now our "sappy date night" film. Stunningly gorgeous, with incredible music and a touching love story. Our viewing count is now in the high double digits and it never gets old. We even played "Down to Earth" at our wedding, although it lost out to "Can't Smile Without You" for the first dance.
Jack Flynn
3. JackofMidworld
And now I have to go home and put this in the netflix queue. Yes, I've seen it but now I have to see it again.
Joanne Center
4. thegloop
I saw this movie in the theaters with my husband the day before we were married. In my mind the emotions of that weekend and the pure poetry of this movie will always be inextricably linked. It is such a beautiful film about love and possibility (and it doesn't hurt that I really love Hello Dolly too). Pixar's success isn't just about taking risks, but rather I attribute it to the underlying humanity in them. Toy Story doesn't just have some toys that talk, but rather characters that happen to be toys, who have all the emotional baggage and problems that such a state would entail. WALL-E isn't just some loveable robot, he is a robot who longs to experience love, whose isolation and loneliness has done nothing to deter his overwhelming optimism. I mean he is STILL compacting the trash for goodness sake! Does he do it because he is just a machine and that is all he is programmed to do, or does he do it because he genuinely feels it serves a purpose, that no matter how large the garbage pile, it is a task that he can at least attempt? That I could even ask these questions of an animated children's movie is just a testament to how successful Pixar is in creating believable worlds and characters in a way that few other production studios, directors, writers do today whether in animated films or not.
5. tolladay
Yes, yes, yes. Well said. Thank you.
Noneo Yourbusiness
6. Longtimefan
I appreciate the review. It always of interest to me how other people can like this movie. I almost walked out on it.

I will admit the beginning is brilliant and I would even say that it was doing well at the mid point but I just found the humans to be way too depressing.

I will admit I have only seen it once, in the theater when it came out. I have never been interested in seeing it a second time.

I have always felt that Bug's Life was a better film than Wall-E and after reading the comments on both articles I realize that I just do not get people.

Well, I kind of get them, but not enough to think this is a great movie.
7. a1ay
Over and over again, it drives home the point that civilization and
self-expression go hand in hand—humanity is defined by its ability to
move beyond mere survival into the realm of art

It's been seriously argued that artistic creativity is about the only human property that actually requires us to be conscious: intelligent but non-conscious entities could plan, think rationally, solve problems and so on, but for art you need self-awareness.
Melissa Shumake
8. cherie_2137
@6 : the humans are "way too depressing" because they are a perfectly executed example of what very well COULD BE if, as a collective group, humans don't get their shit together and care about this planet. because right now, we're doing an awfully good job of heading towards that future.
9. martinezt
I agree with Longtimefan. I could not get past the fact that the entire movie was about saving the environment and obesity. I get the fact that people need to change their ways, but I spend money at the theaters to get away from the realities of life, not be lectured on what could happen if people don't change. I was not impressed by the movie and my kids weren't either.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
10. Lisamarie
This is an interesting take on the movie - I don't disagree, but it is not what I took out of it; to me the movie was more about overconsumption and laziness (physical and mental) and over-reliance on technology instead of human interaction, although I see how that can tie into the creative aspect.

The first time I saw this movie I really did not know what to think. Why isn't there any TALKING? I thought - although I really appreciated the gutsiness of that movie. When it was over, I liked it, but it hadn't blown me away. Then a friend of ours wanted to watch it so we watched it and I feel like I saw so much more that I had missed the first time because I was trying to figure out exactly what was going on.

Also, I love love love love Ben Burtt. I think it's so great he got to provide the voice :)
11. Stefan Jones
Almost by accident (if you believe the Making Of material on the DVD) Wall-E is one of the darkest pieces of satirical SF out there. I could imagine Cyril Kornbluth, should he have lived into the 70s, coming up with the Axiom scenario.

Wall-E may be kid-friendly, but it is one of Pixar's least commercial films, in the sense of being the basis of video games, toys, and spin-off productions (like the Buzz Lightyear cartoon). I wonder if Disney knew what to do with it. Yeah, there was a Wall-E toy robot or two, but not much more than that.

In fact:

Did anyone check out the www.buynlarge.com website when it was active? There is no way, NO . . . FRIGGING . . . WAY, that Disney could have approved it, much less created the material. Under the guise of being Buy n' Large corporate website, was a biting, sophisticated, comprehensive satriical critique of consumerism and the corporate domination of government and culture. There was a news section with pieces that could have come out of the 22nd century version of The Onion. An end-user agreement that entitled Buy n' Large to the viewer's soul.

After a few weeks, most of the website came down. The link was diverted to a Disney-approved Wall-E themed site that invited visitors to tour the Axiom. Until a year or two ago the direct link to the EULA still worked, but is too is now gone.
* * *
As for the film:

The last shot shows the passengers of the Axiom stumbling, toddler-like, out of the space dock; the "camera" pulls back to show a hill covered with green shoots. Life has returned to Earth, and from the History of Art sequence that follows we learn that humanity and robots cooperate in the planet's regreening. The cities we see are lovely places, like those of rennaissance Italy. Humanity has founded a new Eden, all watched over by machines of loving grace.

The first time through, this-all left me feeling utterly overwhelmed. Short of breath, and close to tears:

First, a feeling of relief. Humanity had been saved, by sheer accident, from enforced imprisonment as infantalized lotus-eaters, and eventual extinction.

Second, a feeling of utter shame and dismay. Having fouled our nest through thoughtless corporate greed and even more thoughtless insistence on convenience and gratification . . . did we deserve that second chance? Was it even remotely possible?

I confess to breaking down weeping when I watched that sequence at home on the DVD.
S Cooper
12. SPC
This was the second movie, after Cars, that my son could watch and not get terrified by (he seems unusually sensitive to dramatic scenes in movies). As a parent I really appreciate the lack of "scary" scenes, and enjoy that it gives me an excuse to re-watch Wall-E frequently. Thanks, Pixar, for giving us so many movies that can hold up to re-watching, and re-watching, and re-watching.
13. StrongDreams
I could not get past the fact that the entire movie was about saving the environment and obesity.

Except it's not. It's a love story about two "people" who learn to transcend the limitations imposed on them by others, and in so doing, teach the rest of society to transcend their self-imposed limitations.
14. politeruin
I'm a bit baffled by some of the criticisms in here, like some saying they wish to escape reality whereas i applaud them for making a family film that tackles such subjects. I do believe they approach this subtly but your mileage may vary. There are many layers you can peel away and look at so it's not really about one particular thing but a whole raft of things and perhaps some subjects that people are uncomfortable thinking about, i would have said they could have been even more daring and set the entire thing on earth. Or just watch it as a film about companionship.

The closing credits are great though because it shows the returned humans embracing technology and this is very important, it doesn't have to be a detriment to society if we use it right because returning to a form of luddism benefits absolutely nobody. Someone in a previous article on wall-e likened it to that poem "all watched over by machines of loving grace".

But if anything, making a film that managed to rile the right-wing in the states has got to be a film worth making.
Ashe Armstrong
15. AsheSaoirse
Does losing muscle mass due to space actually count as obescity?

Anywho, I adore this movie more than I can say and I love this review and everything is wonderful.
16. Gardner Dozois
This amounts to heresey, I know, but WALL-E is not my favorite Pixar movie. I'm not even sure it would make my top five. I'd certainly rank it after THE INCREDIBLES and the original TOY STORY, and maybe after RATATOULLE, UP, and TOY STORY 3, and perhaps even FINDING NEMO. The opening silent part is incredible, but once they got into outer space and up to the spaceship, I was much less impressed. That whole section is just GALAXY-syle '50s satire, very dated (MAD Magazine did a bit about Americans who had become too fat to walk anymore way back then), and perhaps comes closer to putting a Pohl/Kornbluth style satire on the screen than anything else ever had--that's not a style of SF I generally like all that much, though.

Also, the SF writer in me kept coughing and protesting that you can't make a functioning ecosystem out of one (1) plant and one (1) cockroach, and feeling that, the optimistic end credits to the contray, most of the inhabitants of the spaceship would be dead within a couple of years of trying to start a colony on the mostly still ecologically devestated Earth.
treebee72 _
17. treebee72
@16 Garder Dozois, except they didn't pull a BSG & toss all their tech, so they didn't need to rely on just what the Earth could provide to survive. They could use the resources from the ship to keep them going.
Adam Shaeffer
18. ashaef
@ 12. SPC

I agree. This is the only Pixar movie my son can watch all the way through (he can't watch all of Cars because the scene where McQueen falls out of Mack on the highway at night is too scary for him). But if there is one Pixar movie out there I could watch with him over and over and over again, it's Wall-E. Hands down my favorite Pixar film.
19. NickM
I searched for the infamous website through the Internet Archive, and it looks like at least some of it was grabbed. The first entry seems to be just a teaser video, a placeholder from before the movie's release. The second entry and those after it seem to have much of the details intact.
20. Mirasol
@16 Garder Dozois
Actually, after they land on Earth, there's a shot of numerous growing saplings.

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