In barely over a decade, Pixar had established itself as the premier animation house, but despite its innovations in storytelling and its commitment to getting things absolutely right, you couldn’t help but notice that the studio would employ certain tropes time and again to get the job done.
While A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles broke tradition with ensemble casts, virtually everything else from Toy Story to Ratatouille primarily shoved buddy movie duos to the forefront of their tall tales of good natured adventure.
However, when looking to the future, one couldn’t help but wonder if Pixar was maybe sticking too much to their established formula in order to fully focus on making the film it hangs on be as vibrant and fun as possible – but then WALL•E came along, and nothing says “looking to the future” more than setting a film in the future…
WALL•E, a trash collecting robot created by the monolithic Buy N’ Large corporation, is the last of his kind and he spends his countless days trundling around, crushing the endless garbage that lays strewn across the deserted cities into little cubes in a desolate future where man has long since abandoned the earth. As the sdorable little bugger heads out each and every day to fulfil his impossible task detailed in his programming, he’s managed to create for himself an actual personality over the last 700 years by scavenging items that make him curious and spends his down time obsessing over a copy of the musical, Hello Dolly, he’s found on VHS that he watches over and over.
However, like all things with a soul – even one manufactured by seven centuries of mulling over other people’s trash – WALL•E is desperately lonely and he yearns for someone other than his pet cockroach to hang out with; someone who he could hold hands with just like in his favorite movie…
Then one day, inbetween more trash crushing and wondering how to properly file a spork in his collection, a couple of brand new things happen that’s never happened before; firstly WALL•E finds an honest to god plant actually growing in the crappy earth and secondly a ship lands that disgorges recon droid EVE into his life. With her white, iPod-style lines and big, blue LED eyes, WALL•E is instantly smitten and gingerly attempts to woo the no-nonsense girl. However, after slowly wearing her down, EVE starts to find WALL•E weirdly endearing and even takes the time from her mysterious mission to admire his collection of bric-a-brac – but when she scans the plant, it triggers a chain of events that sees the little rubbish bot inadvertently whisked off world and embroiled in a plot that could ultimately save the last of humanity from a life of corpulant, overindulgence and robots from a life of servitude.
Not back for a little dude that just wants to hold hands with the cool girl…
Breaking from their established formula in ways they never had before, there’s a good chance that WALL•E could be Pixar’s best. Not only is it the first time the studio embarked on something other than a rollicking adventure by going full sci-fi (the Buzz Lightyear opening from Toy Story 2 doesn’t count – sorry), but it’s actually Pixar’s first romantic comedy too and things are changed up even more when you realise that the movie’s two leads mainly communicate with computerised speech.
Now, while it’s hardly staging the coffee shop scene from Heat with R2-D2 and one of those bi-ped things from Silent Running, it’s still an immense achievement considering they usually would rely on the charismatic vocal chords of a famous actor to portray their leads yet, somehow, through the digital alchemy of some superbly subtle animation and the superhuman exploits of legandary sound designer Ben Burrt, these faceless piles of circuit boards and metal are as hopeless endearing as a toy cowboy or a forgetful fish.
Considering the first (and arguably more impressive) half of the movie is a dystopian nightmare starring only a box on treads and his pet bug that features sparse dialogue, director Andrew Stanton manages to keep things light while hinting at the ecological disaster that surrounds us. Snippets of information are spoon fed by a live action Fred Willard as the long-dead president who tries to gloss over matters with his used car salesman charm via VT clips glitching on nearby screens, but the movie counters any terminal gloom and doom by juxtaposing some of the depressing imagery with genuinely touching moments of WALL•E tocking himself to sleep on his little shelf as he powers down for the night.
However, when the sleek EVE turns up (tough, working woman to WALL•E’s nebbish, Woody Allen-esque nerd), matters take a slight shift into more familiar, Pixar territory as we hop aboard the bright, clean, neon coloured surroundings of humanity’s liferaft (now inexplicably proud of being 700 years into their 5 year cruise). However, while some familiar touchstones are used (wacky group of comrades, farcical happenings, actual human voices), the movie definitely sticks to its sci-fi credentials and continues to throw in sobering social commentary in the guise of human beings who have grown so mindlessly dependent on machines to do everything for them (thank god we don’t witness any bowel movements), they’ve essentially become giant doughy, babies.
On top of this, we also see WALL•E inadvertantly spread independence through the ranks of the robots simply by being a sweet little son of a gun. Starting with getting obsessive compulsive cleaning droid M•O to wander away from his designated path to clean whole new things to witnessing the boxy little blighter wave at a machine whose only job is to tap keys with it’s only two digits who then can’t help but excessively wave at everyone it meets.
But what makes WALL•E work so well is the central romance which is conveyed perfectly from little sighs and eye movements to grand, sweeping gestures of devotion – watch the trash-bot care for a powered down EVE like an old man with his infirmed wife or witness wide-eyed as the two courting lovers literally dance through space with the aid of a fire extinguisher and try not to formulate a sizable lump in the throat. You damn well can’t.
With Pixar’s break from tradition to boldly go into genres it hadn’t previously explored and a timely but subtle ecco-message in full flight, WALL•E, like its title character, starts off rummaging in trash and instantly hits the stars.