Friday, July 4, 2008

Transcending a Medium: The Surprising Greatness of Wall-E

There's a point where something unexpectedly great takes on a critical mass and one has to partake of it before they are passed by. It becomes sort of a look into the workings behind Malcolm Gladwell's tipping point. My best illustration is when The Sixth Sense came out and everyone was abuzz about the ending; I made sure to see it so as not to have it ruined for me, then immediately called all of my friends to tell them that they had to go for the same reason. So it is that I found myself itching to, and finally tonight going to, see Wall-E.

There had been a little buzz because people thought the trailer was cute, but not so much buzz as for Shrek or Toy Story. These CGI movies are kind of old hat by now. We know it's Disney or Disney-like, so we know that it's going to be cutsie with enough double-entendre to keep the adults from being completely bored. Rotten Tomatoes gave this movie 98%, but there are plenty of movies that score that high that I might not want to see for various reasons (say, they're kid movies, for instance). Then, everyone that I talked to who had seen it raved about the movie and then references to Wall-E started showing up on political blogs, of all places. I was intrigued, I had to see what it was all about, I didn't want a cultural phenomenon to pass me by. So, after saying as recently as two days ago that I was happy to wait for DVD, I went to the theater this evening and tried to keep my mind as open as possible and my expectations reasonable.

Now, after two paragraphs of set-up, here's where I destroy your ability to keep those expectations reasonable. Wall-E is the best movie of this year so far, hands-down, by a million miles. Even more so, Wall-E is the greatest movie Pixar has ever made. Better than Toy Story, better than Finding Nemo. It's brilliant -- touching, prophetic, subversive, emotional. More than anything else, it may be a G-rated animated film, but it sure as heck isn't a kid's movie.

Wall-E tells the story of an Earth destroyed by mass-consumerism to the point where it can no longer sustain life. Humans have left for space, where they wait for robots to clean up the planet so they can return. Only one of these robots is still functioning, a lonely trash compactor who watches an old musical at night and dreams about having a companion. When a spaceship lands and a mysterious and futuristic robot begins to explore the area, Wall-E thinks he may have finally found someone and will do anything and go anywhere to make sure he's never lonely again.

Putting aside the thematic aspects for a second, the technical quality of the movie is tremendous. P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood was renowned last year partly for a minimal opening sequence with no dialogue for 15 minutes or so. Wall-E has basically no dialogue for the first 30 minutes (and very little dialogue throughout), but the film-making sets up the story better than Anderson did, with techniques that make the animation look like actual film. You really feel the desolation and loneliness and the dust in the air adds a grittiness that is uncommon in CGI fare. Different cinematography for different settings sharpens the feel you get at certain times and there is one scene that is as visually beautiful as anything from sci-fi classics such as 2001 or Alien (which are both referenced often in the film).

But what sets this movie apart are the thematic aspects, and here's where I was stunned. Wall-E is more political and, yes, subversive than any Disney movie I can remember. Having been to Disneyland recently, I was struck by how Disney movies are relatively straight morality tales. Snow White takes something from a stranger and she almost dies. Pinocchio gets lazy and gluttonous and he is turned into a donkey. Wall-E has some of these simplistic ideas, speaking to how our own gluttony is destroying the environment and turning us into obese Epicurean morons, but it also has some very complex attacks on how easily fascism can spring from our culture. This is why I can't see it as really a children's movie. Kids might understand the great love story, but they won't grasp the idea that when business and government become indistinguishable, we literally become slaves to our own greed. They may think screwy robots are funny, but they won't see why physical contact takes on such huge import in the constructs of the film. You can even look for a quick, but surprisingly blatant, bit of mockery of our President.

There are those great things that we can see coming and those that take us by surprise. Nobody had to rush to see Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List lest they miss out on a phenomenon, but The Sixth Sense came out of nowhere because it changed our preconceptions of a horror movie. So too does Wall-E, by setting a politically-aware romantic drama in a world of CGI robots, change the preconception of an animated movie. It has set the bar not only for all future animated films, but it is the first movie this year that merits talk of a Best Picture nomination.


Louise Rothschild said...

Yea!!! You went to see it!! I told you guys it was amazing!!!

Uta said...

Well written article.