Since the release of Toy Story in 1996, Pixar has enjoyed a quite remarkable run of success, hardly putting a foot wrong with seven consecutive films of rare quality, character and invention. Very briefly, Toy Story itself remains a superb film, although The Incredibles may be better still; Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and Ratatouille perhaps fall slightly below these standards, but are all very, very good films; whilst A Bug’s Life and Cars, despite their relative flaws, are also largely enjoyable.
Just as remarkable - if not more so, is that every one of these films is generally credited with entertaining and involving the whole family. Put into some perspective, it is very easy to understate just how difficult it is to make a film that truly appeals to different ages and genders, let alone the myriad likes and understandings contained within those distinctions. The term ‘Family film’ may well be attached to just about every animated feature at the cinema, but it is typically little more than a facile misnomer: an indication of certificate and suitability, not of quality. As such, the fact that Pixar has managed to release eight successive films of near-universal appeal is a staggering (unprecedented?) achievement and a reflection of the studio’s collective ambition, integrity and ability.
So it follows that WALL-E, the studio’s latest release, is one of the most keenly anticipated films of the summer, with only The Dark Knight really generating more interest and hype. The fact that the two central characters in the film essentially communicate through gestures rather than words also means that the film is one of the bravest and most ambitious, again of this summer, but moreover in recent memory.
Directed by Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo, the film tells the story of Wall-E, an affable and diligent robot directed to clean up Earth following years of neglect, consumerism and littering. With the planet having been abandoned by mankind, Wall-E is all but alone (save a friendly cockroach) until the appearance of the angelic Eve - another robot - who arrives on Earth with her own directive.
What follows is probably the most charming film of the year, a moving story of love and loneliness that is full of wit, surprise and emotion. Whether it is a film of universal appeal is a different question though; made up of two distinct parts (demarcated by two distinctive settings), WALL-E is a film that may well leave younger viewers a little indifferent and bemused, at least to start with anyway.
Set on Earth, the first part of the film is truly captivating, with Stanton concentrating on Wall-E, Eve and their fledgling relationship. It is difficult to convey just how beguiling this part of WALL-E is without referencing/spoiling too many moments, but it is fair to say that most people will likely find echoes of their very favourite love stories as Wall-E, clunky but charismatic, tries to spend more time with the mysterious and sophisticated Eve. As suggested, however, it is likely that younger children will fail to notice (or appreciate) a lot of the subtleties in this part of the film, with the theme, tone and jokes all at their most adult here.
It’s not a question of the film moving too slowly – pacing and development is actually very well-judged, simply that WALL-E has a different set of reference points to Pixar’s other films. If Toy Story achieved a near-perfect balance, with children and adults finding humour, sadness and happiness in the same moments, it is true to say that Pixar’s other films haven’t quite realised this balance. WALL-E follows on from The Incredibles and Ratatouille in this, containing a variance and disparity of ideas and allusions that could see them less popular with younger children - Mr Potato Head has been replaced by Hello Dolly. Although there are moments of real humour here, most obviously in Wall-E’s discovery and recycling of numerous day to day objects, the film could prove to be a little esoteric for some. Indeed, for all of his childlike curiosity and playfulness, Wall-E’s existence is actually that of a working man, and much of the comedy in this part of the film comes from observations that will register more readily with adults: the exasperation with which Wall-E takes off his tracks at the end of another day is a good example of this.
Whether the first 35 minutes of WALL-E are the best of the film is open to debate then, and could hinge on age as well as personal preference. Less open to debate is that they are the most daring, not just of this film, but of any Pixar film since Toy Story. In juxtaposing one robot (then two) with the epic scale and freedom of an entire planet, Pixar has opened up numerous possibilities, but even more pitfalls. That WALL-E works at all is arguably an achievement in itself.
Central to the film’s success is the complexity and appeal of Wall-E himself. Perfectly designed, perfectly drawn and perfectly realised, Wall-E immediately belongs with Woody, Buzz and Pixar’s others iconic characters. Likewise Eve, who is ever glossy and stylish, yet suggests a delightful sense of fun and mischief when her eyes and giggles belie the sleek exterior. It is an astonishing feat then, that Wall-E and Eve convey so much by gesture and only three or four repeated phrases. Although a great deal of the credit for this goes to the character design and to the artists responsible for every delicate nuance, it would be churlish to criminal not to highlight the impact and efficacy of the superb score and voice work here. By adding countless variations of stress, pitch and tone to both characters’ limited vocabularies, Pixar, Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight have created a highly inflectional shared language. In the same way that Burtt brought (discerned and inferred) meaning to R2-D2, so he does here, and Wall-E is an incredibly expressive character (more so, ironically, than some of those that he meets later in the film). In combination with the perfectly observed visual cues and expressions, Pixar has achieved something truly special in this film.
The second part of the film sees Wall-E follow Eve into space as she returns to her spaceship looking to complete her directive. This part of the film is different to the first (the general feel is of a love story and an adventure, rather than just a love story), and some will find that the change of focus and the extra characters crowd and dilute the film. Then again, the feel of this part of the film could well be more appealing to younger children, with the sense of adventure and an (eventual) enemy to vanquish making the film more accessible and less idiosyncratic, elements of Toy Story 2 and Star Wars replacing hints of Woody Allen and Buster Keaton. The brilliant character design and touching moments between Wall-E and Eve are still here though – indeed the second part of the film perhaps features the most beautiful and lyrical sequence of the feature, it’s just that there is more going on – and in more conventional ways - and this could disappoint some.
It is also worth noting that there are frequent, garish nudges about commercialism, social interaction, social responsibility and apathy in this part of the film. Granted the same messages are implicit in Wall-E’s very situation on Earth, but they are much (much) more explicit in the second part of the film.
Lastly, it almost goes without saying that WALL-E looks incredibly good. The trailers suggested as much, but the scenery and animation – at times anyway - is quite in advance of anything that Pixar has drawn before, especially in terms of scale and detail.
Special mention should also go to Presto, the short that precedes WALL-E. Harking back to stellar days of Bugs Bunny, Presto is great entertainment and very funny. It was also a shrewd decision to introduce the importance of gestures and sound effects in place of words here rather than have WALL-E start cold, so to speak. The only criticism of Presto is that it may well be too funny – there is a disparity between the charm and qualities of the main film and the cartoon humour here!
In short, WALL-E is a superb and charming film (that word again, but charming just seems to fit Pixar’s films generally, and especially this one). As with Ratatouille, it may be that there is more here for older viewers, but children should find something to enjoy, even if it’s just Presto and the latter (weaker?) part of the main film. There are certainly imbalances here that leave WALL-E behind Toy Story and unlikely to oust the more straightforward Cars from some children’s affections, but that doesn’t stop WALL-E from being a brilliant, inspiring film. More than all of this, WALL-E will almost certainly be a lot of people’s favourite film of the year.
Aside: There is a brief mock-advertisement following the end credits of the film.