Director Andrew Stanton undercuts what is mostly a celebration of kindness.
The first 40 minutes of WALL-E, Pixar’s ninth full-length feature, are nothing short of revolutionary. Here’s a blockbuster, which opens in post-apocalyptic hell, a long-abandoned Earth buried in garbage, with a robot protagonist who can’t speak. Our title hero spends his days cleaning up the mess, one compacted trash cube at a time. It’s a thankless, dead-end job. We’ve already seen the full scope of the devastation. The planet is a giant landfill. It’s going to take millennia for our anthropomorphic Roomba to clear away all the litter.
Despite such gloom, WALL-E’s opening act captures the awe and physicality of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, while delivering a big, wet kiss to classic Hollywood musicals. Our robot is a scavenger of pop-culture detritus, and a full-fledged romantic. WALL-E’s courtship of EVE – a trigger-happy bot sent from space to recover a fledgling plant – is funny, poetic, and heartbreaking.
Let’s get one thing straight: WALL-E is a great film. So, in this particular case, “criminally overrated” is an overstatement, if not a misnomer. This isn’t a contrarian takedown. I rewatched WALL-E last night, and it remains deeply poignant and transporting a decade later. Indeed, it flirts with excellence in the same way our mechanical hero tentatively strokes stardust in a famous sequence.
And yet, WALL-E has always bothered me. To this day, the film ranks high on best-of lists, be they of Pixar movies or recent films in general. Critics, then and now, regularly highlight WALL-E’s wide-eyed magic. But they conveniently omit its lazy characterization of Americans, the kind of throwaway satire you’d expect from an indie firebrand such as Lars von Trier.
Once WALL-E’s setting shifts from Earth to a luxury, interplanetary craft called the Axiom, a lightness of touch turns mean. Humans are depicted as rotund and stupid, Pillsbury Doughboy-shaped creatures who can’t get around without hovering beds. Every one of these characters shares a bland, Midwestern accent. This isn’t an indictment of mankind in general. It’s a downward punch – at what we now call – Trump voters.
Worse still, fatness is presented as a moral failure. Fact: The richer people get, the more time and energy they spend dieting and sculpting their bodies. So this vision of humanity, flabby and incompetent, sneers at the poorer ticketholders Pixar and Disney needed to make WALL-E a hit.
I wonder why director Andrew Stanton undercuts what is mostly a celebration of kindness. This is, fundamentally, a balletic adventure story. Sure, its climax borrows a little too heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But its rust-covered, cinematic romance can be awe-inspiring.
That awe curdles whenever WALL-E pivots, unnecessarily, toward broad social commentary. Pixar is normally a studio that masters a singular tone. WALL-E, instead, swings wildly to and fro. Its first act, so simple and silent, is perfect. But when it shoots for the stars, WALL-E falls back into the muck, another example in an ongoing political debate. It’s unfortunate that a film this beautiful, moving, and tender also has an axe to grind.