Looking back through the archives I discovered this review of Pixar's WALL-E that I'd published in The Valve back on June 29, 2008. Given that I've just reviewed Pixar's latest, Inside Out, I thought I'd republish it here. For one thing, it has some remarks about how my opinion of a film is influenced by the opinions of others. I've also included some "extras".
I went to see WALL-E on Friday. It’s Pixar’s latest film and, as someone with a particular interest in animation, I had to see it. I’d seen trailers last year and read chit-chat on the web. Late last week I read some of the early reviews, in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, Ebert, and one or two others (Metacritic links them all). So I was primed.
This has been my standard practice for years. I also read reviews afterward, more so than ahead of time. And I talk with people about a film.
The point is that my movie-watching takes place in the context of other peoples’ observations and reactions, and that those opinions and reactions affect me.
Did I like WALL-E? Yes. No surprise there. But I’m still mulling things over, still trying to understand my experience of the film. Sure, it’s my experience, but that doesn’t mean that I understand that experience. Things aren’t so simple.
The big hype going in was that there’s no dialog during the first third to a half of the film. No dialog?! Just two robots scurrying around on an earth bereft of humans but piled high with the scrap they left behind. WALL-E’s been doing some of that piling. The other robot, EVE, is visiting earth on a mission. WALL-E sees her and falls in love. Boy meets girl. A classic.
But no dialog. I didn’t get all the pre-release chatter on this point. Sure, it’s not the standard thing, but I didn’t see why it couldn’t work, and work as commercial fare. It worked – the reviews and post-release chatter confirms it.
The dialog starts when WALL-E and EVE get back to one of the giant space craft where all the humans are, now bloated and floating around on hover chairs. The action picks up – conflict and chase scenes. My interest flagged a bit, and something about those humans bothered me.
Reading comments at Cartoon Brew helped me think about those things. The Brew is devoted to animation. The people who post and comment there are knowledgeable and passionate. Many of them work in the animation industry. As I said, their comments helped me think about my own reactions. But let me quote one of them, Chris Berdoz:
So I finally saw it on opening day, and afterwards I thought “that was okay”. I felt it didn’t live up to my expectations, perhaps only about 80% or so. I still felt like the Incredibles was my favorite CG movie of all time. But as I got home I couldn’t get the film off my mind. I started thinking about the message behind the movie. I started thinking about parts of the movie. The more I thought about it the more it settled in that the movie really did live up to my expectations. It was kind of a delayed reaction, I guess. Then I really wanted to watch it again. I decided I’d buy the DVD when it came out, which is pretty major because I never buy DVDs unless I seriously love a movie. And then I started reading people’s interpretations of the film and that got even more excited.
He too had to think about the film, and he too was affected by comments he’d read after seeing the film.
I don’t think that is unusual. That’s just how it is. Our own personal experience is not so exclusively personal, so exclusively ours, as we sometimes think. Nor is it transparent to us. Immediate experience has a holistic quality that resists analysis. It is not so easy to figure out just what in the movie (or the poem, the novel, the musical performance, etc.) caused this or that aspect of our experience, much less why.
What are the limits of this process? In particular, how much can it change our evaluation of the work, in this case, an animated film? The reviews of WALL-E have been positive to extravagantly positive. Many have expressed reservations. How long will it take for this process to settle-in? Will anyone watch WALL-E DVDs or Blue-ray disks in five years?
I haven’t decided whether or not I will see WALL-E again in the theater, but I will probably buy a DVD and study it. I have no idea how that process will change my experience of the film, but it will change it.
When I saw a theatrical release of Fantasia back in 1969, for example, I thought it was OK, but not all that. When I bought the DVD a few years ago, I was stunned. I’m pretty sure that the version I saw on the DVD is not the same as what I saw back in 1969. I doubt that that’s what made the difference. The difference was in me, I had changed. And yet I still learned by watching the DVD over and over, sometimes stepping through sections frame-by-frame. I found some of the segments immediately appealing, “The Nutcracker Suite” and “The Rite of Spring,” for example. Others were less appealing; both “The Pastoral” and “Dance of the Hours” seemed a bit embarrassing. Through study I’ve come to appreciate and to like “Dance of the Hours,” but, while “The Pastoral” sequence does have its virtues, I’m afraid it’s fatally flawed.
How is it that we can learn to see a film? Just what is it that we learn? And why do we decide to learn how to see, to change ourselves in some way, rather than just dismissing the film as being, in some way, bad?
P.S. The opening short, Presto, was a laugh riot, perhaps the best since the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the 40s and 50s.
* * * * *
UPDATE: I saw the film again. Yep, it runs 40 minutes before we get real talking, the captain of the Axiom talking to the ship. About an hour in I found myself yawning, not a sign of deep engagement with the film. I forget what I was thinking at that time, but I certainly was, at one time or another, thinking: “Yeah, I know, it’s an ecological fable. But that’s an intellectual knowing, not a gut feeling.” By the last 10 or 15 minutes, though, I was back in it. Shed a little tear, just a little one, when EVE manages to revive WALL-E, not the last time, but before that, on the ship, perhaps in the garbage bin.
Excerpts from letters to Mike Barrier
And then there's the ecological message. I understand that there's a problem and it's real real serious; but that understanding is outside the film. I just imported it into the film because the film called for it. Well, that's what I think the film-makers did as well. This is a boy-girl story about a dorky by lovable boy-robot who scores way above his league in the looks department. That's fine by me. I don't know what that message was supposed to be doing in there, but it didn't articulate with the main action in a way that made in compelling or even all that noticeable in any but an intellectual way. Imagine a Road Runner cartoon in which Wiley Coyote sues Acme Corp. for selling defective merchandise. He looses because the judge is a road runner and thus biased. Road Runner wins again. An effective filmic treatment of corruption in the judicial system? I don't think so.
It's not clear to me exactly what went wrong here. But the complicating action in the WALL-E & EVE story didn't follow from the ecological premise in an interesting way. It was just your standard computer-gone-nuts story. So we've got boy-&-girl vs. the crazy computer for a plot. That ecology stuff is just there clanking around the margins. I mean, the man vs. nature theme of Bambi is far more convincing.
* * * * *
I re-read the Mayerson essay and he's right about the disconnect between the robot plot and the ecological plot. Though perhaps it's even worse than he said it was.
After all, WALL-E seems to have benefited from the disaster. As the movie opens the whole world's his sandbox and he gets to spend all his time playing in it. What fun! He's the self-sufficient Robot Caruso and he's doing fine. Yes, he does watch and re-watch the Hello Dolly! tape (and it is a tape, not a DVD), and that, I suppose, indicates that he has a sense of something missing in his life. But it doesn't really grab you; you see that something's missing, but you don't feel it. And you see the lack because you're importing your knowledge of human life into this movie where there are no human beings (so far).
Then EVE arrives. How and why is a mystery. But, as Mayerson notes, it's hard to take his attraction to her seriously. He has no sense of why that plant is important, just that it is. For that matter, neither does EVE. It may be her "prime directive," but she doesn't seem to understand what it's about. It's merely her programming.
Neither WALL-E nor EVE have any awareness of what's at stake here. She's just following her directive and he's following her, mechanically. Without awareness their lives can't intersect with the lives of the humans in a meaningful way. More and more the film looks like an example of what Herbert Marcuse used to call "repressive desublimation." You're allowed look at the nasty truth just enough to feel that you're doing your duty by the truth, but not so much as to want to actually do something on behalf of that truth, thereby threatening the existing order.
"Don't worry, be happy, the cute little robot will save us. Or at any rate, we can feel warm and fuzzy watching him try."
As a cute critter film, this is fine until EVE arrives. That much of the film has no plot, just WALL-E doing his daily rounds. But that's interesting and well done. Once EVE arrives, from that point we have this mechanical plot that just goes through the motions. It's a device from which to hang a bunch vignettes that just wave in the breeze like wet laundry.