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Isn't it odd: WALL-E, a movie that had the audience of children giggling and applauding staggered me more than any film that I've seen this year. I emerged from the Orpheum absolutely unable to put any distance between the dystopian fantasy that I'd just watched and the throngs of almost ostentatiously thoughtless-looking people at Yorkville's principal intersection. For an instant, I shared the filmmakers' well-worn assumption that cities are dirty, careless places. By the time I was halfway home (a block away), I'd snapped out of the immediate funk, but I remained deeply anxious. I'm uneasy even as I write this.
I knew, going in, that WALL-E takes place, in the beginning, on an Earth that is no longer home to human beings. I also knew that this did not imply the extinction of the human race. Or at least that's what I read. When the movie was over, I wasn't quite sure about this point. It is still a puzzle to me that a satirical representation of humanity's future that is so amusingly plausible to children is so frightening to an adult. At the space station two which the affluent have been transported, barely differentiated men and woman — their torsos bloated, their stumpy limbs vestigial, and their attention divided between virtual TV screens that hang in front of them and sippy cups of soda — float by on airborne recliners like carcasses in a cheery abattoir. It is just about the ghastliest vision that I can imagine. That children should be invited to laugh at such a spectacle seemed monstrous, but only when WALL-E was over.
While the movie played, I was as gripped as any six year-old by the adventures of WALL-E, a mobile garbage compactor, and EVE, a probe imported from the world of manga. WALL-E is a triumph of anthropomorphic legerdemain who very soon distinguishes himself from the scruffily adorable pet that he might at first seem to be. WALL-E is nothing other than a homeless person with a marginal job. His homelessness is okay, because, as a machine, he doesn't need to bathe, or rest his head on a pillow at night. But he has amassed a collection of discarded items that brought shopping carts full of utility bags to mind. For companionship, WALL-E has a cockroach friend who likes to slither inside and tickle him. The sole cockroach was another sign, along with the abandoned city many of whose "skyscrapers" turn out to be towers of compacted garbage, that director Andrew Stanton and co-writer Joe Capobianco do not share an urban sensibility. They don't seem to know anything about cities other that what might be learned from a drive through the scrap-metal and auto-repair outskirts of middling city. They do seem to think that, because WALL-E has a place to store his collection that's safe from the windstorms that blow through from time to time, he's not homeless.
When WALL-E presents EVE, the probe from the AXIOM (as the space station is drolly named), with a seedling that he has found in the course of a day's work, she goes all quiet on him and retracts into ovoid mode, leaving the smitten WALL-E with no choice but to hold on for dear life when the ship comes to take her back where she came from. As a homeless person, he has no problem with outer space.
It's only when the story reaches the Axiom that WALL-E gets tough to watch, and the tough parts are interrupted by many funny bits involving "rogue robots" — cross the classic Disney Sorcerer's Apprentice with Warners' Marvin the Martian — not to mention the deeply kinky deployment of Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's computer. There's a rather dreadful Poseidon Adventure moment when, during an attempted mutiny, the space station lists grievously. It never crossed my mind that what I was watching was "just a cartoon." The Disney/Pixar team knows as well as any in Tinseltown how to animate its creations in every sense of the word. On top of that, WALL-E devotes no more than three or four of its one hundred three minutes to footage that adults might find cloying.
When I got home, I spoke to a friend who told me that she had been unable to watch Idiocracy. She found it far too probable to be satirical, and she had to turn it off. I won't be surprised if she has the same reaction to WALL-E. Which would be the weirdest form of high praise. (June 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press