Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL•E Is About Caring

First, about the short:

Before the film started, someone told be about a Dreamworks flick they'd seen recently. And my mind cast back to that firm's work.[1] So when the ads halted and the short began, I wasn't thinking about Pixar and its output. As the short continued, and I found myself drawn in by little details, I began to think this short is good enough to compare to Pixar shorts. After the thought crossed my mind a few times, and then the curtain fell on the short Presto .... and I realized it was Pixar's work.

This kind of unconscious comparison probably says something both about the quality of Pixar's shorts -- that they form the standard -- and about the quality of Presto. It's a fun view. The all-time best, though, still has to be For The Birds.

Since WALL•E will be getting a bunch of reviews by people excited or revolted by its environmentalist or political content,[2] let me cut through the fog for you and tell you that the film is not a sudden departure from Pixar's longstanding high-quality family-oriented fare. The friendship and loyalty showcased in Toy Story and the exaltation of the family sticking together shown in The Incredibles is matched in WALL•E by a very simple idea: caring. The movie's lesson isn't that humans are bad, or that machines are bad, or that some specific problem has a specific answer -- indeed, it's clear nobody in the whole movie has got all the facts. The characters in WALL•E are so narrowly confined by their roles that they have no perspective on the supposed political or ecological messages the film is supposed to be pushing.

WALL•E is about caring.

The backstory of humans forever abandoning Earth while supposedly departing on a five-year cruise (Gilligan's Island, anyone?) while diligent little robots tidy up the mess everyone made, is not the story or its answer. It merely sets up the humans' victory condition: coming home. Of course, WALL•E is already home ... but he and his cockroach pet are lonely. And thus we know WALL•E's victory condition: companionship. WALL•E's prospect for companionship -- EVE -- turns out to be a career woman, and not easily impressed, and when we see that even accomplishing her directive isn't enough to satisfy her we realize her victory condition is purpose.

WALL•E is about caring: to get home, the humans must re-learn what home is and care enough to overcome the obstacles to getting there; to obtain a purpose, EVE must care about something beyond her pre-programmed directives; and to win companionship, WALL•E must secure everyone else's victory condition. These things aren't easy. It's been centuries since people have been on the starship Axiom, and its inhabitants all take for granted that they should live on a starship being waited on hand and foot by robots that keep them out of trouble; nobody has an objective for which to strive, and nobody cares about anything beyond the next free food offer. (Get it? On the Starship Axiom, apathetic humans take everything for granted?) And EVE has a very important classified directive to pursue, and lethal powers to achieve it; how can WALL•E hope to impress her? WALL•E's quest for companionship seems only more doomed on the crowded starship: he's immediately classified as a foreign contaminant and beset first by cleaners then by more sinister foes hoping to eject him from the vessel and into the heartless depths of space.

WALL•E is a winner not because it's about people thoughtfully saving the Earth through ecology (they think they are going to grow pizza plants for goodness' sake), but because it offers a Pixar-quality presentation of a story about one underdog against the whole of humanity (and their robot masters) to make someone care. It's a lesson so generic everyone can enjoy it. And it's so universal everyone can feel its truth.

Check out WALL•E. It's a love story about living, not surviving -- it's about having something to care about and doing something about it. It's a true story about things that never happened. It's the best kind of story there is.

[1] Where Monsters Inc. was about love and ethics and duty and betrayal and redemption, Dreamworks' ogre-movie was about fart jokes (from the opening scene, no less), short jokes, and gags that were only funny because you liked the movie from which they were cribbed. I'm not saying the flick wasn't a big hit for Dreamworks, or that the long line of sequels we should expect highlighting these characters in the future won't be a financial bonanza, but as I was told an observer once said of Baryshnikov’s thirteen-pirouette trick, "Yes, Misha -- but is it art?" (Baryshnikov was definitely capable of art. As presented, however, the thirteen-pirouette trick when I saw it wasn't so much art as an unquestionably astounding feat of technical accomplishment. Bench-pressing a car might be impressive, but that's not art, either.) I'll not begrudge Dreamworks its profit -- it does entertain -- but it's not the sort of thing I expect will, like Fantasia (and probably Fantasia 2000), still be viewed with awe by a future generation.

[2] The political digs are present ("Stay the course!") but are such a sideshow as to fade into background. Yes, the dufus CEO of the company that's sent everyone on Axiom to escape the irritations of the real world for five years while a (failed) cleanup attempt is undertaken has been given some lines and costuming seemingly calculated to remind one of the current Commander-in-Chief, but the gags are sufficiently understated that the next generation won't think they're missing a joke, they won't notice the issue at all when they view the unaltered film. This can't be said about some of the dated gags pulled in other flicks.

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