Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): WALL-E

Monday, November 2, 2009

WALL-E

A movie like WALL-E serves as a reminder that "they don't make 'em like they used to" can be either wrong or misguided. Wrong because WALL-E is a triumph of straight-up storytelling - visual storytelling no less - with an emphasis on characters, the clever creation of an imaginative world, and a very human heart (despite its ostensibly inhuman characters, two robots engaged in a tentative romance alongside an attempt to save the hapless human race from its lethargy). And the statement may be misguided because WALL-E achieves these things, despite its multitude of references to Hollywood classics of about 30 years ago, by tying itself very firmly to contemporary social and aesthetic ideas: the iGleam of Eve, the perfectly-timed "green" message (which might have come off as preachy 10 years ago but now seems merely sensible), the amusing but resonant gender role reversal (it's Eve who's knowing, aggressive, and unsentimental, while WALL-E is a soft-hearted, shy sweetheart).

So then, WALL-E is proof that modern-day classics can be made without twisting narrative into a pretzel or abandoning the pleasing conventions of entertainment for glib pyrotechnics - yet it's also perfectly relevant for today's world, topical in a way that does not seem to impact its timelessness. Either they do make 'em like they used to, or they don't need to, right? Problem solved? Not quite. The problem is twofold: that the WALL-Es of the movie world are so rare (and most of them are released by Pixar), and that so few movies correctly strike the balance between modern relevance and a mooring in the well-founded traditions of storytelling and artistic expression. There are moments in this film which approach sublimity, an iconic status rarely achieved since the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg, much-maligned auteurs who nonetheless tapped into a universality of Hollywood expressionism that has rarely been accessed since. The shots of WALL-E's binocular googly eyes as he longingly regards Eve belong in the pantheon with the great, humanizing close-ups stretching from Griffith to Garbo to the creature who seems most directly related to WALL-E in both physical shape and vocal intonation - E.T.

Alongside that extraterrestrial's influence, the impact of 2001 (musically quoted at a key moment) and Star Wars is indelible. And no wonder, as legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (who created R2D2's beeps and the flourishs of a thousand lightsabers) lent his talents to Pixar for this adventure. Yet all the comparisons and influences are misleading: WALL-E stands on its own two treads by soaking up the legends of the past and then subsuming them to its own directive. In so many ways, WALL-E shines like a beacon in our own trashy, small-minded, often nihilistic cinematic landscape. There's the sweet (and ironic) humanism - even the sludgy, dumpy people are presented as kind hearted. Also the reliance on visual storytelling as opposed to comedic talkiness, hip indie gimmickry, or blockbuster one-off set pieces (the film's computer animation feels organic and its narrative unfolds fluidly). Finally, there's an overarching, contagious love of creativity, imagination for its own sake. A freshness suffuses the proceedings, particularly manifested in the end credits, which chronicle the rebirth of human/robotic civilization with a progression through various artistic styles, from cave drawings through Egyptian hieroglyphs all the way to impressionism and finally a breathtaking Van Gogh landscape. The optimism and heady aestheticism of this passage are intoxicating - an ear-to-ear grin being the only possible outcome. I wouldn't say WALL-E is the best film of the decade, but it's certainly the best popular entertainment, and at this uncertain moment in movie history that may be most important.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

2 comments:

Troy Olson said...

That's a beautiful take on my favorite (and in my opinion, also the best) film of last year. It is great how a film as technically advanced as Wall-E is the one that is able to use classical film techniques so wonderfully. It's also fantastic that what could have been ostensibly a kids movie, made me smile more than any movie I can remember.

I'm sure you were aware, but I'd credit a lot of the on-screen inventiveness to the willingness of the animators to work with Roger Deakins in order to learn about cinematography and apply some of his teaching to the final output. They also watched a good amount of Chaplin and Keaton and perfectly applied that sense of wonder and joy you get from those films to the character of Wall-E.

MovieMan0283 said...

I actually didn't know about the Deakins collaboration, but it makes perfect sense now that I think about it. One thing that struck me about the movie was how, at times, its use of lighting and even "lens choice" (not literally, but in terms of the image) resembled live-action more than a cartoon. That would explain it! (God, what impressive film of the past few years HASN'T Deakins worked on?)

Though I'm going out on a limb, as I've still seen very few films from 2008, Wall-E is almost certainly the best of its year, and one of the very best of its decade. I also want to give kudos to it for its freshness - it does not rely on a pre-existing franchise for any major part of its success (as did, say Dark Knight and Lord of the Rings, two other movies that rounded up critical appreciation and major popular acclaim). Not to knock the likes of Gone With the Wind or The Godfather, of course, just to recognize and respect a movie that creates its own mythology and resonance, an increasingly rare feat these days.