With every new theatrical release from Pixar Animation Studios, film critics around the world (and DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg) collectively hold their breath: Will this be the one? Will they finally screw the pooch and make a crappy movie?
It's a reasonable presumption. After all, Pixar has enjoyed an unprecedented run of eight superb films released over 12 years. How can they possibly keep it up? Can they really manage to advance the cartoon art form one more time, balancing wide audience appeal with idiosyncratic creative instincts? It can't be humanly possible.
Certainly, not every Pixar movie holds the same degree of universal charm as the studio's debut benchmark, Toy Story. (I confess: I found their number-one blockbuster, Finding Nemo, to be pretty dull stuff.) But you need only look at their competitors in computer animation to understand the mind-boggling scale of Pixar's achievement. Despite the billions of dollars spent by rival film companies to forge digital magic, their lifeless menagerie of Shreks, penguins, pandas, sharks, bees, and antz don't even begin to compare in terms of visual artistry or storytelling to the least of Pixar's offerings. For the most part, those movies are instantly forgettable once you walk out of the theater lobby and into the light of day.
But now we come to Pixar's latest feature, WALL-E, a piece of speculative fiction with almost no dialogue, a robot romance, and fat people. This might cause some concern: Is Pixar so desperate for challenges that they've purposely made things difficult for themselves? But not to worry—WALL-E is Pixar's finest work to date. Directed by Nemo's Andrew Stanton, it not only fulfills our usual expectations (amazingly detailed artwork, visually arresting animation, lovable characters, an original story with resonant themes, etc., etc.), but it also ventures into new territory for Pixar: social commentary. And it works, albeit with a real-world irony.
WALL-E begins with a literal overview of our nightmare future: A barren Earth void of life, its cities crumbling into ruin. Something really bad must have happened here a long time ago, though it's not immediately clear what it may have been. Nuclear war? Armageddon? As the camera swoops into an urban landscape of teetering skyscrapers, we can detect one bit of movement: a scurrying WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), the world's last functioning robot. It appears to be scooping up refuse and ejecting it as compacted cubes. But then we see what it's been doing with those cubes: building towers of trash. Lots of them. Most of the decrepit structures we assumed to be abandoned skyscrapers are actually great pillars of garbage. Our fate suddenly becomes clear: Our world was consumed by our consumption.
As far as cartoons go, that's a chilling way to start a G-rated family movie. Fortunately, WALL-E itself is a character of great humor; watching its daily routine amid the ruins of planet Earth is not unlike seeing a silent-film comedian hitting all his marks. While WALL-E's antics are certainly funny, they're also telling a story that you must puzzle out along the way. We learn that over the centuries, this lone robot has developed its own personality, as well as a curiosity about the humans who left it behind. In particular, WALL-E seems fascinated with the concept of love, replaying scenes from Hello Dolly! on what must be the last operating VCR in the universe.
WALL-E's yearning is put to the test when a new robot appears on Earth: EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). She (let's just go ahead and assume it's "female") is sleek, powerful, technologically more advanced, and quick on the draw. Unnaturally enough, WALL-E is immediately smitten by her and introduces her to his bachelor pad, where she finds him oddly intriguing. But once she picks up a plant sample, EVE is whisked away by a rocket ship to deliver her finding. A distraught WALL-E follows her to the Axiom, an intergalactic cruise ship containing the last remnants of humanity, who have devolved into amorphous blobs stuck in hover-chairs, endlessly slurping meals through straws, watching videos, and chatting on phones. Of course, WALL-E's unexpected presence disturbs this tranquil decline.
More so than any number of alien invaders movies, WALL-E succeeds as "hard" science fiction, showing us a possible future based on the times in which we live. Balancing that earnest vision is a snarky satire of our consumerist lifestyle, with recorded messages from the Buy n Large corporation revealing the true cause of our cataclysm.
Ironically, as you may have discerned from the roughly 3 million WALL-E tie-in products now available, Disney and Pixar are no strangers to overfeeding our consumer urges. But you can't really blame the film's artists for the world we live in, can you?