Wall-E is a fairy tale.
It may not seem like one, at first. It’s set in the future, when the Earth is a trash-smothered world abandoned by all its inhabitants save for one small robot: a Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class (WALL-E). For the past 700 years this robot has been doing his job: compacting trash into cubes, which he artfully stacks in skyscraper-high towers. In the meantime, he’s been collecting the bits and pieces of junk that strike his fancy: Christmas lights, silverware, a Rubik’s cube, and a VHS tape of the movie “Hello, Dolly!” All the other robots have long since run down so WALL-E’s only friend is a (quite cute) cockroach.
This has been WALL-E’s routine for centuries, but everything changes when he finds something he’s never seen before – a plant, whose vibrant green is a shock in the brown and gray landscape. Soon afterward a spaceship deposits probe robot EVE. WALL-E and EVE begin a tentative friendship that’s on its way to courtship when EVE sees the plant. It turns out her mission is to find evidence of plant life on Earth, and when she returns to the spaceship, WALL-E tags along. The journey takes WALL-E to a space cruiser where humanity waits for Earth to become habitable again (a wait that was supposed to only take 5 years but has taken 7 centuries). The arrival of the plant and WALL-E will mean some changes for the remaining humans and for the robots that have done all the humans’ labor for them.
Pixar’s ninth movie is certainly one of its crowning jewels, and while it may not be my favorite of their films (that honor goes to Ratatouille), it’s quite possibly one of their best. The opening sequence alone is worth admission. Not since Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which WALL-E resembles in many ways) has ugliness been made so beautiful. And yet the beauty doesn’t detract from the grimness of this world with its piles and piles of trash, filthy brown skies, and even the planet’s orbit is crammed full of junk. WALL-E’s cheerfulness can’t disguise the longing he feels for companionship, and when EVE arrives, despite her willingness to shoot at anything that moves, he soon makes overtures of friendship that reach the sleek, all-business EVE.
WALL-E’s personality is infectious as he reaches the Axiom, the space cruiser where humanity has been awaiting rehabilitation of their planet. In contrast to the desolate Earth, everything on the Axiom is in motion. Everything, that is, save for the humans themselves: waited on hand and foot by robots, glued to TVs and computer chat screens, their complacency (and the long-term effects of living in space) have made them Weeble-like creatures incapable of getting up should one tumble from his hovering chair. It’s WALL-E’s presence that jolts an important few of these people out of their daze and gets them to DO things – like actually enter the spaceship’s pool, or to notice the insanely beautiful starscape, or to find out what life on Earth used to be like (“Computer – define ‘dancing’.”).
It’s weighty and at times fairly dark stuff for a children’s movie. But what makes the movie so special is WALL-E himself, for he’s not just a drone. Although all he’s known is the worst of humanity – left on an abandoned planet to help clean up the consequences of human carelessness – he’s become imbued with the best qualities of humankind. He sees the wonder in small things, he hasn’t let his surroundings make him bitter. He touches every life he comes in contact with, for the better.
None of it would work were it not for the heartbreakingly beautiful animation, the voice acting by Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight (who carry the first half of the movie using little more than their names as dialogue), and a story that’s satirical and sentimental by turns, and the clever direction by Andrew Stanton.
It’s a fairy tale. It’s a redemption story. It’s The Lorax for the new millennium. It’s Brazil with a happy ending. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen since … since Ratatouille.