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All These Years Later, ‘Wall-E’ Still Has a Hold

The tale of a trash compactor from the future who’s desperate for connection isn’t just one of Pixar’s unlikeliest successes, but its most arresting and prescient

Pixar/Ringer illustration

Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!

Late in Wall-E, the captain of the Axiom starliner tentatively puts his best foot forward, rising heroically in sync to the ascendant notes of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”; gathered below, the crew and passengers—clad in onesies, like their leader—cheer wildly. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

The sight gag of a middle-aged baby learning, literally and figuratively, to stand for something is broad enough to enfold Neil Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick, but it’s also sharply and unexpectedly double-edged in the context of Pixar’s crowd-pleasing mandate—the closest that the 21st century’s preeminent dream factory has ventured toward autocritique.

For over 25 years, the studio’s armies of animators have demonstrated a Spielbergian knack for eliciting big, broad, universal feelings—with clockwork precision, their movies awaken the child within. The question is how to square that mission with a film like Wall-E, which not only unfolds in a post-apocalyptic landscape dotted with degraded traces of corporate logos but also blatantly satirizes the idea of a passive, infantilized populace in need of liberation from their own entertainment devices.

For the most part, the messages of Pixar movies can be distilled into a series of universal truisms or easily parsed, essentially comforting mantras: “Anybody can cook”; “Just keep swimming”; “You’ve got a friend in me.” Whether or not Wall-E is Pixar’s best film—and there’s a strong case to be made that it is—it’s almost certainly the studio’s weirdest and most troubling. The running joke of post-millennial grown-ups happily rendered obese, compliant, jacked-in slaves to their own immersive virtual technology rhymes closely with the setup of Neveldine/Taylor’s vicious sci-fi thriller Gamer, released one year later; in both movies, people have been reduced to ghosts in their own machine. If the Toy Story trilogy is about inanimate objects who yearn to be human—or at least to share in human rituals—Wall-E uses civilization as a structuring absence. It’s like an unofficial adaptation of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which imagined how the Earth’s environment might respond—and recover—if its most industrious tenants were to suddenly vanish all at once.

The film’s premise is that several hundred years into the future, the planet has become uninhabitable. (Here, director Andrew Stanton and his cowriter, Jim Reardon, are being generous with their timeline.) As a Band-Aid solution, the ruling authorities—a corporation rather than a governing body—have sent the entire population into space in a fleet of massive, AI-guided spacecraft. Back on the ground, specially programmed drones methodically clean up the mess to set up an eventual homecoming. Crucially, the whole plan has been packaged as a pleasure cruise: The passengers have been made to feel like tourists rather than refugees. (“Too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space!”) Somewhere along the line, however, the plan failed and the ships were left to hover on autopilot in a purgatorial holding pattern. Meanwhile, the earthbound Waste-Allocation-Load Lifters (Earth Class) have long since run out of juice—save for one, who keeps patching his chassis with parts from his inactive peers, and whose utter isolation has had an unexpected effect. In a lovely touch, loneliness hasn’t stripped away the last of Wall-E’s sense of purpose. It’s strengthened it, and also created a vestigial, eccentric sort of personality.

The squat, squarish Wall-E, whose posture deliberately recalls E.T., was not Pixar’s first nonhuman (or nonbiological) protagonist. But in contrast to the self-knowingly ersatz Woody and Buzz, with their awareness of their pop-cultural parentage, or the aquatic menagerie of Stanton’s Finding Nemo, he was by far the least obviously anthropomorphic. He’s also the least able to articulate his desires; even R2D2 had a bigger vocabulary of sounds. For about 20 minutes—a stretch that’s somehow both sobering and slapstick, swift and epic—Wall-E’s indefatigable title character is at the center of an almost entirely wordless and plotless one-robot show. This visually cluttered, thematically spacious prologue is charming, inventive, and imaginative—and also as starkly confrontational as a family movie made on this scale could possibly aspire to be.

Nothing in either of Stanton’s first two directorial efforts—A Bug’s Life or Finding Nemo—anticipated Wall-E’s ambition, although Finding Nemo’s meticulously detailed undersea world remains ravishing and immersive. In 2005, the director pulled from a completely different corner of cinema for his new project—he reached out to the acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was in prep for No Country for Old Men, and asked him to consult on the lighting and virtual cinematography for Wall-E. In his films with the Coens, Deakins had developed a strong, almost sculptural visual signature that torqued the brothers’ cinematic universe away from its initial live-action cartoon stylization—the same shift Stanton envisioned for Wall-E. “[He] wanted this movie to look different from everything that this studio had previously produced,” Deakins told the Huffington Post in 2013. The cinematographer would go on to downplay his contributions to the finished product—“I only consulted on a few shots”—but there’s something powerfully expressive about the opening sequence’s use of light and shadow, and also its play with scale and focus. The sun-baked wasteland on display here isn’t just a backdrop to the action but, in a very direct sense, Wall-E’s true dramatic subject. In the same way that our hero is visually dwarfed by mountains of detritus, his story exists in the shadow of a darkly urgent socioecological commentary.

Of course, Wall-E isn’t totally po-faced about the end of the world as we know it. The throwaway detail that one of obsessive-relic-collector Wall-E’s prized possessions is an ancient, still-edible Twinkie evinces just the right note of ruefully goofy humor, as does a blink-or-miss-it moment of indecision about the proper classification of a spork. Science-fiction movies have long mined the tension—and terror—in recontextualizing common present-day objects as futuristic artifacts; think of the blond children’s doll that’s excavated from a cave in Planet of the Apes, or the weathered copy of The Wizard of Oz that’s become a societal Bible in Zardoz. Wall-E navigates this tradition with aplomb. In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stanton talked about how the film’s odd eclecticism—its evocations of Kubrick and Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, as well as the repeated use of a random, noncanonical song from the ’60s musical Hello, Dolly! called “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”was an intuitive byproduct of its junk-strewn setting. “It’s the same ethos as hip-hop. … They’re grabbing stuff from all over media, from all walks of life, and from all different eras, and making it work now and giving it a whole new definition. … To me, that was exciting. It felt fresh in a weird way, recycling all this stuff in a different combination.”

Wall-E is never stranger or more arresting than during its prologue, with its judiciously parceled out exposition and skyscrapers of garbage looming over a bleached-out horizon. The arrival on the scene of a second robot—the sophisticated and similarly pathologically task-oriented Eve, hardwired to search for and retrieve any signs of organic life—reorients the storytelling rhythms into something a bit more accessible. As her name suggests, the sleek, steely-eyed Eve is a female-coded participant in a reverse-Genesis allegory. Stanton makes sure to complicate and contemporize the feminine archetype by juxtaposing her anodyne, Apple-style design with incongruous heavy artillery and an itchy trigger finger. But, like everything else in the movie, Eve is seen through Wall-E’s forlorn, oblong eyes, becoming the object of affection in an unrequited love story about an underdog afraid to make the first move.

More than anything, Wall-E longs to clasp his rusted digits around Eve’s extremities—a wish that Stanton says was rooted in detailed research about cross-cultural signifiers of affection and desire. “I just felt like there could be nothing more powerful in a movie where the dialogue was foreign to everybody … that that’s how Wall-E was figuring out what love was.” It’s a measure of the film’s relative subtlety that its strongest emotional arc can be traced in tactile increments of touch, and that when the longed-for connection finally and inevitably happens, it’s devastatingly effective. If one knock against Pixar is its in-house tendency toward a form of emotional manipulation—the pushy, almost Pavlovian tear-jerking on display in Up or especially Inside Out, with its climatic self-sacrifice by a little girl’s former imaginary friend—Wall-E is smart about soft-pedaling its sentimentality so that it creeps up on you.

Once the film’s action gets spacebound, Wall-E starts capitulating to certain in-house conventions, finessing its plot around the same sort of antic, full-speed chase sequences that have long been a structural crutch for even Pixar’s most imaginative directors. (These scenes are more organically integrated into the superhero universe of the Incredibles films, which also benefit from Brad Bird’s top-shelf sense of staging.) There’s also cognitive dissonance in the way Stanton and his team handle the human element. In the opening scenes, the corner-cutting future president is embodied in live-action form by the late Fred Willard—a terrific casting choice for an ingratiating political huckster, and a daring integration of “real” footage into a CGI setting. But on the Axiom, the passengers are all typical (if amusingly squishy) Pixar caricatures, which arguably serves Stanton’s theme of collective, gradual de-evolution while also depressurizing things considerably.

There is, of course, some beautiful stuff going on as well. Eve’s unknowingly programmed status as a vessel for protecting life results in some plangently color-coded imagery; the glowing green circle that appears on her body after she’s collected a soil sample shoots like an earth-toned lightning bolt through the movie’s otherwise sterile palette of blues, blacks, and grays. Wall-E and Eve trace incandescent figure eights through a deep-space ballet that nods as surely to 2001 as the film’s red-eyed, HAL-900-style AI villain. There’s also one of the most brilliantly funny supporting characters in the Pixar canon, the cleanliness-obsessed drone M-O (Microbe Obliterator), who patrols and swabs the decks of the Axiom with Sisyphean commitment in search of anything that resembles—say it with me—a “foreign contaminant.” As for the contingent of misfit robots who become Wall-E and Eve’s saviors during one screwball pursuit, they foreground the irony, if not the disingenuousness, of such a well-tooled movie exulting in the idiosyncrasies of malfunctioning hardware.

“I don’t want to survive, I want to live,” exclaims the captain near Wall-E’s climax—the closest thing to a catchphrase in a movie whose eloquence is primarily visual. The gently optimistic ending, which grants his wish by returning humanity to a quasi-agrarian square one—a new Eden, with Eve as the bringer of life—suggests that Stanton’s film is ultimately made in the image of that cleaning bot. It steadily removes any tarnish from its pristine surfaces, and pares away any jagged edges until it’s possible to embrace from every angle. Within its supremely intelligent design, the film ends with a utopian image worthy of the Beatles: Wall-E just wants to hold Eve’s hand. The film’s true grip, however, resides in those startling early sequences that grab us tight and, years later, refuse to let go.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.