You might conclude that Walt Disney did have his head removed and frozen, and every year a lab tech at Pixar extracts a sample, converts it to room-temp mush, spreads it over the script of the latest project, blows Chesterfield smoke over it and utters a prayer to the Nine Old Men now gone to the beyond. Transmutational alchemy happens, as the bumpersticker would say. The work of mere mortals is infused with something that seems 37% beyond the ken and capability of the rest of the talented thousands bent over CGI stations. The finished product is run through a filter that actually makes it 19% less impressive than it could be, because people might issue smoke from their ears if they saw the real thing. It’s delivered to movie theaters in hovercars that have fake wheels so people don’t point and gather ‘round and ask where they can get one. The popcorn is laced with a tincture of laudanum, just in case the final product ruins people’s desire to see the films shown in the previews. So you might well think.
Wrong, wrong; Walt was the great inspirational visionary; he could tell you why something was wrong or right, but that didn’t mean he could actually fix it with his own hands. He was indispensable – the thumb on the laces that makes the knot possible – but the idea that he had some personal technical skill that would make a commonplace product sing is a product of his reputation and subsequent hagiography. Nothing wrong with that – without his instincts, we would be deprived of all the things he directed and inspired. I say this as someone who’s become horribly vulnerable to the Disney brand, too. We could sit down and have a long talk about the company’s machinations and marketing skill and evolution into the merchandising Leviathon it’s become, but it doesn’t matter when I’m in a big dark room and the Castle appears in twilight on the screen, reflected in the imaginary water, glowing in the imaginary dusk. The semi-circle of twinkly dust forms an arch over the Castle, and your daughter says “that’s Tinkerbell. You can’t see her but that’s her.” The way that makes me feel is a hundred times greater than the way I felt watching The Wonderful World of Color at Grampa's farm, and the fargin’ movie hasn’t even begun yet. I watch about 120 movies a year, and each year one of them makes my eyes fill up again and again, and it’s always Pixar.
Sometimes it’s just open out-and-out bawltastic appeals to the Parent in you, such as Sully saying goodbye to Boo in “Monsters Inc.” Sometimes it’s an appeal to your bygone childhood, such as Jesse’s Song in “Toy Story 2” – I could do without Randy Newman for the most part (meaning, the total all complete part) but that song lays you low. Nemo – well, let’s not start. Actually not one of my top five Pixar movies (and such a time to live in, that we could have a movie like Nemo fall out of the top five) but it still hit me right here in the Dad Gland. I may like “Cars” more than many, because it had the Route 66 / American Iron vibe down cold and underplayed the regret and nostalgia so well you couldn’t help think about it. Ratataouille was everything I loved about Pixar summed up in one film – it was beautiful, funny, meticulously realized, smart, and a tidy meditation about passion, art, memory, and grannies with shotguns. “The Incredibles” was the best auto-playing videogame ever. For God’s sake, “Bug’s Life” is sharper and more engaging than the stuff other studios are pumping out years later; find me a villain like the horrid locust, or a Famous Actor Vocal Performance like Dennis Leary’s Ladybug. They just don’t fail. I’m sure they can, if they put their minds to it, but they don’t. It’s probably a simple recipe – an ungodly concatenation of talent + brilliant instincts + team spirit = Pixar.
One scene, examined
Everyone’s written about the first 40 minutes, so I won’t go into much about that. (Except to say that you could write a 1000 word blog entry on every scene, from the horrible loneliness of the robot tucking himself in for the night to the gawdawful desolation of a row of rusty ships toppling over in the dry harbor, something that gives you a laugh that dies in your throat pretty quickly.) Everyone’s talked about Ben Burtt’s voice of the main character, but we’ve been hearing that strangled WuhAHL-Ee for a year now without thinking how it will eventually be used. Why would we? And then the moment comes, and it’s invested with all sorts of emotions you never expected. So let’s just look at one scene.
Those who don’t respond to the manufactured pant-by-numbers storylines of the meet-cute romcoms – you know, dix nix chix flix – might wonder what’s the matter with themselves: why are films about Hugh Grant and This Year’s Model seem so boring and mushy, but two robots dancing in space hits you in the sternum like a railgun?
It’s, uh, brilliantly animated? Plus, Wall-E’s fire-extinguisher blasts rolling around Eve’s blue trail calls to mind a DNA sequence, which makes it, er, human somehow?
No. Sorry. It would mean nothing if we hadn’t gotten to know the characters. But how did we get to know them? In silent-movie fashion, through their actions and expressions. Most the dialogue between Wall-E and Eve consists of the characters calling each other’s name. (Side note: we’d all seen the previews, and we’d all heard the strange strangled voice of Wall-E saying his name; turns out that’s the moment when he introduces himself to this AWESOME BABE, and even though you’d heard it a dozen times already, it’s suddenly different, guileless and hopeful and gawky.) If there’s a moment when Eve becomes vulnerable – which puts her at Wall-E’s level, or perhaps a bit below it, since Wall-E has been aware of his vulnerability since the start - it’s the scene before the dance.
The scene wouldn’t have meant anything without the story that preceeded it.
Side note: Pixar’s gift for deft, precise, economical character delineation might have hit its apogee with Eve. It’s all in the tilt of the head and the shape of the eyes – the latter defined by ten blue lines. At first they have two or three shapes; by the end they’ve adopted the shape of Wall-E’s own eyes, indicating her own progression towards awareness and empathy. She is a hard plastic cipher at the beginning; by the end, she is Princess Charming. Literally. (That’s another Disney throwback reference I haven’t seen anyone else note.) Anyway: click VIDEOS and scroll down to Space Walk.
Note the following:
At the start of the clip, and elsewhere, Eve’s eyes channel Maximillian from “Black Hole,” which is probably intentional.
How many fricken’ robots-in-love movies would stop the action to make the main character compare his hands to the elegant extremities of his beloved?
Wall-E’s actions when he sits down, knocks his treads together and pats the seat next to him may, I suspect, have been vetted and discussed and considered at great length. (Or not.) It’s the most overtly human action he makes in the entire film – it’s not emulative of humans, it’s instinctive.
Eve’s vocalizations change here, if I recall correctly – there’s nothing in her previous utterances that reveal any emotion that’s not consistent with top-level programming. “No – no” is the moment that makes us see what Wall-E saw in her – and just to underscore the Pixar gift, the moment is understated. Prior to this she’s been an impatient professional.
Bonus nerd-nexus: 2001 escape-pod reference with Ripley from “Alien” doing the countdown for self-destruct. The music gets pretty John-Williams / Star Warsy all of a sudden, with the chesty huffing horns.
Just realized something else: after she’s been sent to diagnostics, Eve isfitted with a red – a blood-red – device that literally connects the heart to the head, and vice versa. Missed that the first time.
That’s just a few minutes of the movie.
As for the ecological message: a few people got undie-bundies over it, but for heaven’s sake it’s a parable. Any civilization capable of interstellar travel isn’t going to be done in by excess trash. They can warp it out or blast it. The products of consumption society are the things that give Wall-E’s life meaning, just as the empty pursuit of consumption is the flaw that saps meaning from the lives of the survivors. It’s a matter of perspective.
The closing credits tell the story of the humans finding purpose again, and they use a lovely metaphor: the increasing sophistication of art. First we have brush on papyrus; then pictographs, then Roman mosaics, and so on (including Wall-E and Eve in Van Gogh style) all the way up to the present. Almost. I thought they might draw a line from the beginnings of art to the CGI World of Today, but however justified that might seem, you could call it hubris. Instead they stop at 8-bit computer graphics and use blocky versions of Wall-E and the other characters bouncing around like figures in a 1982 video game. It’s the final delight in a movie that fascinates from the first frame to the last.