Monday, July 7, 2008

Why Wall-E Made Me Happy

Back in March when I learned that the seventh Harry Potter book would be split into two movies, I immediately told my roommate Nate the good news. He quipped that I was excited only because it would “give me reason to live for that much longer” (rather than one movie bowing in December 2010, the new schedule called for the first movie to be released late in 2010, with the conclusion following in summer of 2011). Nate was being funny, but he wasn’t entirely wrong – I’ve often wondered if I’ll be subject to Post-Potter depression following the franchise’s cinematic finale (I certainly did my share of wailing after finishing the final book).

Last week, however, I determined that I need not worry. Not that I’m implying that the filmic culmination of the landmark fantasy series of my generation is insignificant; on the contrary, I’m confident I’ll be downright inconsolable watching Harry’s final duel with Voldemort at the Boston Common three years from now. But there will be other movies, other books, other franchises, other incarnations of populist entertainment with their own brand of magic. And last weekend I savored a delectable dose of such magic, a testament to the enduring power of the movies. I saw Wall-E.

If I seem to be going over the top, I mean to, because I want to emphasize that Wall-E provided me with such undiluted joy as I have not experienced in some time. As with Pixar’s Finding Nemo (the last film that Wall-E’s creator, Andrew Stanton, directed, and the only Pixar feature that might possibly stand as its equal), it functions as a feature of total immersion. Watching it, we involuntarily leave our reality behind and obligingly enter Wall-E’s universe, a world of breathtaking beauty and astonishing imagination.

Not that the scenery on display in Wall-E is necessarily delightful, at least not in the childlike sense of the word; nor is the film’s story bereft of darkness. (That story, quite simply: Overwhelmed by pollution, humanity has taken temporary refuge in outer space while Wall-E – the last of a line of robots whose acronym stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class – cleans up our mess.) True, Wall-E’s nighttime hideout – a vehicular cavern where he stashes various artifacts of humanity (a Rubik’s cube, a lightbulb, most memorably a spork) – is cutely reminiscent of Ariel’s treasure trove in The Little Mermaid. But by day Wall-E operates in a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape less at home in a Disney movie than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Dust storms are rampant, the sky is clouded and grey with the sun feebly drifting through, and the only skyscrapers are made of trash cartons that Wall-E has stacked to the dreary heavens.

Things change, as they must, with the arrival of Eve, a sleek, high-powered, egg-shaped robot whose lone human-like feature is a pair of seemingly unblinking bright-blue LED eyes. (Eve’s hi-tech awesomeness stands in stark contrast to the boxy Wall-E, a tread-enabled automaton who appears to have been assembled out of a bargain bin from the ‘50s, with solar panels replacing double-A’s.) And it is here where the true source of Wall-E’s power emerges, for the movie – for all its technological wonderment, futuristic vision, and semi-political theology – is first and foremost a love story. And its protagonists are, well, robots. Oh, and they don’t really talk.

Granted, as far as outlandish premises go, this one is pretty damn outlandish. But it is also, ingeniously, the key to the movie’s success. You see, ever since Toy Story, all Pixar movies have looked incredible. The preeminent studio in the increasingly crowded computer-animation genre, Pixar has consistently raised its own bar with each successive feature. From Buzz Lightyear’s faux-flight in Toy Story to Marlin’s frantic dash through a vibrant ocean in Finding Nemo to Remy the Rat’s culinary shenanigans in a Parisian kitchen in Ratatouille, the studio’s animators have consistently dazzled audiences with their bright colors and startling surrealistic imagery. Again: The visuals have always been awesome.

Now, in most cases, the stories and characters have been exceptional as well. The breathtaking splendor of Finding Nemo’s coral reef wouldn’t be nearly as memorable if it weren’t for the non-stop hilarity of the film’s dialogue, and the bold action sequences of The Incredibles would have little dramatic weight did they not feature a family of superheroes attempting to cope with their own alienation. This is because visual excellence is only part of the equation – you need great stories and three-dimensional characters in order to elevate a movie from impressive to extraordinary.

Ah, but in Wall-E, the visuals are the story, and the animation defines the characters. Wall-E and Eve don’t talk. Theirs is a courtship of beeps, shrieks, and sonic throbs (not to mention the occasional discharge of high-powered ammunition). But their true method of communication is through nonverbal expression and body language, and it is in this arena where Stanton and his faction of Pixar nerds make their money, and also what makes Wall-E so revelatory as cinematic achievement. Since it is essentially a silent picture (with Stanton playing the role of Chaplin), Wall-E’s success depends on its characters’ – O.K., it’s robots’ – ability to emote without speaking. That, my friends, is a challenge. And damn if Stanton and his cronies aren’t up to it.

Because the romantic interplay between Wall-E and Eve is some of the funniest and most affecting interaction between two characters at the movies I’ve ever seen. Describing it is almost fruitless; all I know is that every emotion these robots feel is made so abundantly clear to the audience that dialogue would be extraneous. I suppose it’s mostly with the eyes. Those bright-blue diodes of Eve’s blink and flash and wink and flip upside-down and around into half-moons and somehow seem to smile and frown – it’s as if she’s capable of an entire array of facial expressions simply through the contortion of those two blue LEDs. For his part, Wall-E’s own binocular-style eyes possess such depth that they seem to reflect his very soul. He also employs a variety of twitters and squeaks that brilliantly anthropomorphize his character’s zaniness and somehow supply indications of the robot’s enthusiasm, delight, fear, and love – all emotions, as it happens, I felt while watching the movie.

(Wall-E is “voiced”, as it were, by Ben Burtt, a sound-design guru who worked in the sound department on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and whose efforts here are incalculable.)

You know how with most funny movies, it’s always fun afterwards to quote the particularly amusing lines of dialogues with friends (or in my case, when I’m by myself)? Wall-E offers something similar, but in this case it implores viewers to recall sidelong glances and subtle animated gestures. Remember Wall-E’s amazement after Eve hands him back the Rubik’s cube? Remember Eve’s sheepish embarrassment after she’s a bit too vigorous operating the eggbeater? Remember the warmth that develops in Eve’s eyes when she’s watching past footage from her security camera? Remember Wall-E’s anxiety after Eve nearly ruins his favorite cassette? Remember, remember, remember?

The point isn’t that Wall-E provides impeccable animation as well as memorable characters – it’s that it provides both simultaneously. The visuals are the characters. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff in Wall-E to gush about besides the nonverbal banter between its two robotic leads. Its tale of humanity being unknowingly nuzzled at the breast of technology is both coyly penetrating and wryly humorous, as are its homages to various science-fiction hallmarks of cinema past (most notably Alien and 2001). And its visuals possess extraordinary clarity and imagination, as well as a tender regard for space as the final frontier – Wall-E’s journey from earth to the space station (buoyed by Thomas Newman’s rich score) is a particularly thrilling and beautiful sequence.

But for all of Wall-E’s grandeur and inspiration, it’s the beeps of the two robots that I remember. That’s what transported me into its world, and that’s what makes it the first film since Atonement that has led me to breathlessly gush, “You absolutely have to see this movie,” to friends and family.

And that’s why I’m now confident I can survive Life After Harry Potter, because now I remember that there’s always the possibility that another movie like Wall-E is out there, waiting to be seen. Though I can’t help but think that I’ll never see another like it again – a movie about two robots finding love, and one viewer finding happiness.

2 comments:

Justin said...

Beck...you might actually have a future in writing these movie reviews.
Jackie and I went downtown a few weeks ago hoping to see Wall-E, but was dissapointed to see that it was sold out; we opted to see Kung Fu Panda, which was funny. But now I feel like we should waited an hour to see Wall-E.
Good review, Beck.

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