An Inconvenient Contaminant

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I saw Wall-E last week for my birthday (thanks, Rain!), but have been too busy distracted buying stuff and staring blankly at computer screens to be able to write anything about it.

It’s so good I can’t think of a better word to describe it than “wonderful.”

At this point, it’s a given that any Pixar movie is going to have moments that are astonishing visually and artistically. And it’s pretty much inevitable that they’re going to have at least one moment that makes me cry. But I could tell I was in for a hard time with this one, because I started tearing up during the short film, “Presto.” Not because it was sad, but because it’s filled with these little jolts of brilliance, thrown at you in rapid succession. It’s a series of rabbit punches directly to the part of your brain that appreciates good stuff.

And in the first fifteen minutes of Wall-E, there are all these little moments that had me marveling at the animation and the pacing and whoa I squeezed out another tear how did that happen? Wall-E watches a scene from Hello Dolly and starts to practice the dance routine with a garbage can lid as a straw hat, and it’s so perfectly timed and under-played and evocative, you can’t help but be moved by the conspicuous subtlety.

Reading the reviews, you’ll find heaps of praise with the same superlatives repeated: “a jewel,” “a masterpiece,” “stunning,” “breathtaking,” “heartbreaking,” “enthralling,” “beautiful,” and my favorite so far, “dangerously close to the sublime.”

But you’ll also see plenty of complaints about the shift in tone from the first part of the movie to the second, and about the “preachy” message. I don’t think either are valid, but to explain why means spoilers.


When the movie shifted away from Earth and onto the Axiom, I started to get a little worried. It looked like they had completely abandoned any pretense of subtlety, and had instead gone for a blunt and clumsy attempt at satire. “All you fat and lazy people helped Wal-Mart destroy the planet!”

But there’s more going on there, and they did a remarkable job of delivering the message without ruining it by being too accusatory, or diluting it by taking a cowardly “there are many shades of gray involved…” approach. The things the movie says are just true, period. There is no controversy involved, and attempts to make them sound controversial are just desperate, self-serving spin.

Rampant, unchecked consumerism is ruining humanity. That’s true, and feebly pointing out that it’s Disney who released the movie doesn’t make the movie’s message any less true. But most importantly, the movie doesn’t deliver the message with any extremist, accusatory, easily dismissed claims. It doesn’t say that “things are bad,” just that we’ve lost sight of the real value of things.

Wall-E spends most of his time collecting artifacts from the trash of Earth, and he hoards them. He’s fascinated by them all, from lighters to Rubik’s cubes. He doesn’t see the iPod as disposable, landfill-clogging consumer trash, but as his one link to what was left of humanity. Later, on the ship, the humans have everything they need, but it’s not until they’re broken out of their over-indulgence that they realize how cool some of these “things” really are.

(My frequent defenses of Disney aside, I do have to say that Disney’s marketing of this movie is dangerously teetering over the brink of good taste. I saw a promotion where the first 500 or so people to watch the movie and respond on some website would get a free digital watch. One of those cheap plastic kinds that kids wear for about 2 days before throwing them away. Also, do we really need 8 different variations on the Wall-E plastic toy? If ever a movie called for the marketing folks to ease back on the merchandising tie-ins, it’s this one).

People are fat and lazy. Also true, but again, it’s not presented as self-righteous accusation. There aren’t really any bad guys in the movie; whenever people are pulled away from their video screens, they’re good people who want to do the right thing. They just haven’t had to think about the right thing, because everything has been provided for them.

Casting Fred Willard as the head of the “Buy N Large” chain carries this even further: he’s a real human being, not some cartoony villain, and this isn’t a simple, finger-pointing “corporations are evil!!!” message. His character was trying to give people what they want, but they all just got overwhelmed.

Jeff Pepper, on his 2719 Hyperion blog, writes about the shift from photo-realistic character design to the more cartoony world of the spaceship, and the use of live actors. He makes a convincing point, which was made clear in the shot of the captains of the Axiom getting fatter and more cartoony as time progressed, that this was done to show how people are getting farther away from their basic humanity.

And the movie really earned its happy ending. Apart from being moved at how well-done the entire movie was, I wasn’t as emotionally moved by it as much as, for instance, Finding Nemo. (Except for the part where the computer defines “dancing,” as it shows Wall-E and EVE dancing around the spaceship. That really got to me.)

(Okay, and also the part where EVE is replaying her video log of all the stuff Wall-E did for her while she was “dormant.”)

I was ready for the movie to end with Wall-E being “restored” to his main directive; it was a powerful end to the story, and would’ve been satisfying. But there was still a little glimmer of hope that they’d turn it around, and they did without its feeling like a cop-out. If the message is that it’s people, and not things that are important, and that humanity is more than just an accumulation of consumer goods, then Wall-E was more than just an accumulation of spare parts. Whatever it is that defined his personality wasn’t in that circuit board, but in his connection to EVE and all the other characters he met.

And anybody who says that the message “stop concentrating on objects, and instead foster your relationships with people” is a “controversial” one, is just being an ass.

2 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Contaminant”

  1. I saw Wall-E today and enjoyed it very much, but must disagree on “Presto.” To me the short just felt like an attempt at an old Warner cartoon (not that that’s a terrible thing) that didn’t quite make the grade.

  2. I thought that “Presto” was fantastic! I was greatly entertained by the short, the movie, and even the end credits! Now. Where can I get a pair of magician’s hats??

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