Review: The yearnings of a lonely robot

2008-07-13 00:00

Wall.E begins with an aerial shot of a city, seen through a smoky haze. But as the camera pans down we realise that some of the towers are not buildings, only vast repositories of rubbish. It is an abandoned city, devoid of life. Well, almost.

Among the towers of trash, one thing is busy — a little trash-compactor robot goes tirelessly about its business. It gathers tins and other junk, compacts it into a neatish block, and stacks the block on a growing pile. Now it sees something — a hubcap is selected and stored away.

Now the little robot travels through the city, past the vast abandoned stores, the mega petrol stations, the giant screens still playing the last commercial on Earth — an advert for a space cruise — “take a five-year cruise while we clean up … ”

Wall.E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth class) is the only one left in the city and he (because we now see that Wall.E might be a machine, but it has a soul) is lonely. In his home (festooned with fairy lights, with shelves of neatly sorted junk, and a TV) he endlessly watches a sequence from the classic musical Hello Dolly, in which people sing and dance and the sun pours down from a cloudless sky.

Wall.E has a pet or a friend, a cockroach, which as we know, would be the last creature to survive on a hostile Earth. He opens a Twinkie cake for it to eat. As Wall.E watches the happy people in his video, he joins his “hands” in a gesture of yearning for companionship.

One day, as he goes about his business, a spaceship arrives, and when the dust clears, a cute little robot has been left behind. Smooth, ovoid and white, with expressive LCD eyes, this arrival enchants Wall.E. He almost wordlessly woos the newcomer, whose name is Eve, and shows her his home, and his film.

But Eve is on a specific mission, and when she sees one of Wall.E’s latest finds, she pounces. Wall.E has found a plant.

Now the spaceship returns, and Wall.E stows away as it returns to the mothership — the giant cruiser on which humans are taking a holiday until the planet is fit for them again.

Here, there are robots to perform all the work, while the humans lie on floating chairs, chatting on virtual screens and gazing at giant billboards.

This is also the point at which the film switches from pure enchantment to something a little more ordinary.

Pixar have always known that their animation style is best suited to manufactured surfaces — plastic, metal, rubber. In their first film, Toy Story, the revelation was two-fold: the look, which celebrated the surfaces of the toys, and the anarchic story, rooted in thirtysomething nostalgia for the vanished world of a Sixties childhood.

Last year’s Ratatouille was the first of their films to star ordinary humans, making them look less important than story, and it was a comic delight. Wall.E begins with a perfect melding of the studio’s strengths — the look and the emotion of an inanimate creature (it’s amazing how much real feeling can be conveyed with expressive eyes — just think of Gromit in the Wallace and Gromit films), but when humans intrude (on the spaceship), they are more cartoonish, and the whole film becomes less real, less emotionally involving and more simply moralistic.

Because of course, Wall.E is trying to tell us an inconvenient truth. We can’t go on with no regard for the consequences of our wasteful modern lifestyle. We must look after the Earth if we want a home on it.

It turns out that the tiny plant is crucial to the future of humanity. It is evidence that the world can be regenerated, and humans must (literally) get off their asses, go home and try to regrow the Earth.

It’s not the most subtle message, and the idea that it would take humans to make the Earth bloom again is nonsense. This is life lessons for children, though.

But it is animation less purely for children than Kung Fu Panda, for instance. Wall.E has seriousness at its heart, and it succeeds best when it focuses on the yearning of a lonely individual. There is also much to amuse in the ironies of Wall.E’s life and the uses to which he puts the abandoned detritus of humans’ wastefulness. On the spaceship there is comedy of a broader kind, it’s just that the film feels a bit like two films.

The kids next to me were entertained, but the first part of the film really touched me. It is telling, perhaps, that the trailer focuses on the early part of the film.

In Pixar style, the film has two other delights — the funny short before it, and the end credits, which use a history of illustration styles to complete the story. Don’t leave before this clever closing.

For the first half alone, Wall.E deserves top marks, even if the film doesn’t quite sustain this glory.

*****

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