Thursday, July 10, 2008

WALL-E

Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Sigourney Weaver

Running Time: 97 min.

Rating: G


**** (out of ****)

Disney/Pixar have topped themselves… again. Except this time they’ve REALLY topped themselves. Last year I thought Ratatouille was great but Wall-E destroys it, and easily trumps every other Pixar film ever released. Not only is it a staggering visual accomplishment, a moving love story, and an intelligent social commentary, but it’s also a breathtaking work of science fiction.

It checks every box, covers every genre and calling it 2008’s best film so far would be a massive understatement. All those rumors you’ve heard about how great it is are true, but to classify it as animated in any way, shape or form, would do it a great disservice.

With Ratatouille, Pixar took a huge step toward creating more sophisticated animation and having the writing material to match. That huge step has evolved into a giant leap with a movie that's practically a Spielbergian achievement. And I mean the ‘80’s Spielberg. He tried to tackle a similar dystopian fantasy earlier in the decade with A.I. but fell short. Now comes that film he was trying to make.

It may seem strange that after seeing a Pixar release I’d feel the urge to compare it to such classics as Star Wars, Blade Runner, E.T. and 2001: A Space Odyssey but that’s just the kind of feeling this evokes. That’s no coincidence though since throughout its running time it directly references those works, but make no mistake, Andrew Stanton’s film is very much a masterpiece on its own terms. I’d love to say that Pixar isn’t capable of better, but now I’ve learned to just not say anything and expect the unexpected from them. But it is safe to say this is one of the most magical films in a very, very long time and if it doesn’t move you then I don’t know what will.
It’s the 2100’s and WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth- Class) is the last robot of its kind inhabiting what we used to call our home planet, now so overrun with waste and pollution that it can’t support human life. A major corporation, Buy n’ Large, (headed by Fred Willard in a cameo role) has managed to preserve the human race by shipping everyone off in executive spaceships where they’ve remained for centuries. They’ve also gotten really overweight and lazy, being waited on by robots all day and night without doing or learning a thing for themselves. WALL-E arranges the trash on Earth into neat towers and through 700 years of isolation has developed certain rituals, as well as a very distinct and endearing personality.

While not acting as the planet’s trash compactor he keeps himself entertained by playing with his Rubik’s Cube and watching a scratchy old videotape of Hello, Dolly! to which he knows all the songs. When the largest of those executive spaceships, the Axiom, lands he encounters the pod-like EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) sent to Earth to look for signs of plant life. Its pretty much love at first sight, at least for WALL-E and what unfolds is surprisingly one of the most effective and touching romances to be captured on film in years.

You’ve probably heard a lot already about the first 40 minutes and how it’s a silent movie. Stanton relies on bleeps, blurps, eye movements and robotic gestures to convey the robot’s feelings and tell the story. There’s never any doubt as to what he’s feeling or what’s going on and you could probably count about 50 different emotions this robot shows in his eyes alone. Not a word is spoken, but action and visuals tell the entire story.
I hate using hyperbole, but it’s called for here. This is truly the most fully realized animation in Disney’s storied history and the first half hour of this film is as awe-inspiring an experience as you’re likely to witness all year on a movie screen. It helps that WALL-E, part Charlie Chaplin, part R2D2, is the most adorable onscreen creation since E.T. All the details of his personality and how they’re conveyed onscreen are amazing, like when he shakes uncontrollably and collapses himself into a box to hide when he’s frightened. We recognize his quirks, relate and empathize with him as if he were real, and the story becomes that much more involving because of it.

A certain sadness and isolation engulfs the opening of this movie the likes of which you haven’t seen in a Pixar or Disney film. 2001 is an obvious influence and the first half of the picture feels very much like a Kubrick film crossed with a Buster Keaton-era sensibility. Gone are the bright, vibrant colors we’ve been used to in Disney films and replacing it are dark brown hues and rust, visual details that recall Star Wars: Episode IV. Supposedly, Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought on as a visual consultant to make sure the images could look exactly how they would in real life. Do they ever.

Without spoiling anything I’ll say that in the second hour the film goes in a completely different, but equally brilliant direction, turning into a mind-blowing space adventure. It also turns into an emotionally relevant satire that features some superb voice work from Jeff Garlin as the seemingly dim-witted but good-hearted Captain of the Axiom. He'll prove he’s nothing at all like any of his predecessors.

Some talking heads in the media have complained about this second section of the film, which only proves that people can complain and be offended by just about anything these days. The issues (involving the abuse of our environment and our dumbed down mass consumerist culture) cut very deep, but they’re NOT political, as they’d want you to believe. But they are brilliantly ingrained into the fabric of the story with such subtle perfection that if you wanted to shut your brain off and just enjoy it as a family film, you could easily.

The kids won’t pick up on those deeper issues, which is fine, because they’ll be so mesmerized with Wall-E, EVE and their adventures that they won’t care or notice. When they’re older the film can then take on twice as much meaning as they see the importance that was buried underneath the fun and visual treats.

I hesitate categorizing this film as either adult or children’s fare because that would imply that one of those two groups would somehow feel shut out watching it. It has to be viewed as playing in the same ballpark as something like The Wizard of Oz or E.T., family films that transcend all ages and genres. If I had to pick though, I’d say adults would take more out of it because they would fully appreciate the two different levels it’s working on.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the Best Animated Feature category in 2001 I thought in the back of my mind that it wasn’t a good idea. I considered the possibility that an animated film could come along that breaks all barriers and the Academy could justify not nominating it for Best Picture because of this new category. Now I really worry those fears will come to pass and WALL-E will have to settle for what may as well be considered the light heavyweight championship of the Oscars.
That, combined with the fact it was released in the dreaded first half of the year, creates a nightmare scenario for its Best Picture chances. I’ve whined and complained for a while that the Oscar season is too short and should include films released throughout the ENTIRE YEAR and this is the best evidence why.

I can practically guarantee there won’t be five movies better than WALL-E this year and if there is, well then, that’s frightening. This deserves to compete with the big boys for Best Picture and Disney owes it to themselves as a company and to moviegoers worldwide who love this film to pour every resource they have into its Oscar campaign. They owe it to the late, great Walt Disney whose entire vision of what movies should be is encapsulated in every single one of the 97 minutes of WALL-E. All I can do now is cross my fingers and hope that this can hold on and we don't have a repeat of last year when Academy voters engulfed themselves in art house depression.

I’ve heard and read many calling this one of the greatest motion pictures they’ve ever seen and while I don’t have the guts to make such a statement yet, as a hardcore science fiction fan, this film means  a lot. It wears many influences and homages, yet never feels like a rip-off because the story is so completely original. At the end of the screening I attended there was a lot of applause and even some tears.

One particular scene induced emotions in me I didn’t think I was capable of having watching an animated feature. When it ended I knew I saw a four-star film but it didn’t really hit me until maybe about 6 hours later that I saw a four-star film of the highest caliber. Or more accurately, a work of art. WALL-E is a special experience and a groundbreaking film that will be appreciated and loved for decades to come.

2 comments:

JD said...

Excellent review.
I could not agree more with you.

Jon Medina: Illegitimate Son of Lester Bangs said...

Instant. Classic. And the film was pretty good, too!