You sometimes have to wonder if Disney knows what it’s doing. From a business perspective, the pick-up of Pixar was a no-brainer, the kind of slam dunk corporate decision that instantly made the House of Mouse the premiere CG cartooning co-op in show business without ever having to prove their own 3D mantle (isn’t that right, Chicken Little/Meet the Robinsons?). And thanks to the stellar output from the maverick animated moviemakers, Uncle Walt gained a crystal clear cash cow, and now has a series of family classics that match up alongside the pen and ink wonders from decades past.
So imagine one’s shock when a superlative sci-fi fable, the wonderful WALL*E, walked into theaters this week reeking of cutesy kid vid cloy. From the trailers and TV spots, one expected a kind of Charlie Chaplin meets Armageddon ideal, with just a little automaton love tossed in for good marketing measure. Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Disney decided the best way to sell this occasionally bleak, cleverly cautionary tale was by centering on the film’s action figure-able hero and avoiding any of the film’s second half space-satire. In fact, if you watched any of the media material, you’d never know that this film was really a sophisticated screed about humanity, nature, and the environmentally charged clash between the two.
Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release); 2008)
Now, before we go any further, a SPOILER warning is in order. If you have not seen WALL*E, and want all the plot twists and story surprises left intact, ignore the next few paragraphs. You see, in order to decipher Disney’s decision on how best to present this movie to the masses, the narrative has to be broken down and discussed. Sure, one could hint around and try to avoid outing the second and third act specifics, but in attempting to understand how a studio surveys its potential demographic, and reacts to same, learning all there is to know about this film’s fascinating premise is crucial to seeing where those so-called sophisticated suits may have dropped the ball.
When we first meet WALL*E, it’s against a backdrop of corporate America gone undead. Within a landscape strewn with Big -N- Lard hard-sell advertising and mega-mall come-ons, the last remaining Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class left on the desolate, decimated planet goes about its pre-programmed tasks. In service for nearly 700 years, our valiant little robot spends its days cubing up trash (and building unbelievable garbage skyscrapers), his nights picking through the various treasures he discovers as part of his duties. From extra parts for a little self-repair to more enigmatic objects like cigarette lighters and rubber ducks, the diminutive machine has slowly ‘evolved’ into something akin to salient.
Naturally this leads to WALL*E’s biggest dilemma - how incredibly lonely ‘he’ is. Throughout the opening of the film, we see unfathomably empty vistas, locales where nothing has lived for a very long time. During these scenes, our hero expresses his angst through two clever conceits. One is ‘his’ obsession with the musical Hello Dolly, and in particular, two key songs: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment”. One tune suggests the return of people to the planet, a celebration of happiness inside a realm ravaged by our own hubris. The other is a simple lament, a song of longing for a being that has learned to feel as part of its centuries-long purpose.
The other facet is his connection to his collection of scavenged relics. Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or Edward G. Robison’s Saul in Soylent Green, their existence is a connection to a reality no longer available. It’s archeological in nature, this kind of assemblage. But it’s also an act of desperation, a way for someone - or in this case, something - to find a means of making sense of the everyday grind. What WALL*E worships clearly argues for his passion for the human race, or at the very least, his longing for those who created the fascinating objects he spends his time toiling over.
Together with his far too cute cockroach friend (apparently, the last of his kind on a terrain that should be swarming with same), there’s a Boy and His Dog feel to everything. This runs in sharp contrast to the film’s second half. We learn that, eons ago, inhabitants of the dying planet took off in large spaceships, a five year mission of waiting while the Earth was being cleaned up. That such a short time ended up lasting 700 years is indicative of the mess we made, and WALL*E‘s pro-ecology message. This is further accented when EVE arrives, and finds a tiny sprout of a plant, the only green thing we see in most of the movie. The small vegetation becomes the catalyst for a space mutiny, a homage to HAL of 2001, and a true denunciation of what we, as materialistic consumer blobs, have literally become.
To fashion social commentary into a piece of speculative fiction is nothing new. Outside the Star Wars-ing of the genre, it’s the main reason sci-fi exists. But to add it into something that’s being sold as a G to PG rated family film, especially one from a company not known to expand the boundaries of the genre, is a marvel to behold. Some critics have complained about this material, marking it as too obvious within the spectrum of what’s being offered. And, granted, one is taken aback by the Idiocracy like lummox-ness of the space humans. It’s clear that Hollywood believes the suburban sprawl is a physical as well as a real estate predicament, and the instant-Internet-cellphone-socialization of the overweight lard-asses that use to be people is laughable.
But there is another element here, something that speaks to a growing disconnect from the viewership. By presenting the ship bound future citizenry as nothing short of out of shape sponges, absorbing any media mush that’s doled out to them, Pixar seems to be taking the same stance as Mike Judge did last year. Mocking your potential audience is never a good idea, and yet WALL*E stands to avoid many angry reactions because of its penchant for pretty colors and feel good philosophizing. In fact, one woman at a screening this critic attended sat blissfully back in her seat, ample belly overflowing with nachos and popcorn, and giggled uncontrollably at the sequences aboard the Axiom. That she could have been a live action extra in the film speaks volumes for the movie’s more subliminal suggestions.
And, of course, the film goes slightly conventional once in space. We have the same hero vs. villain ideal (since none of the humans know that they’ve been in space so long, the computers onboard have been following a Presidential mandate to remain away from the planet), and there are lots of clever - and merchandisable - robo-extras to keep everyone interested. Yet there’s a reserved darkness that overpowers the supposedly sunny ending. Even as the humans return, and see how worn their ancestral wasteland has become, they celebrate in optimistic glee. The parting shot of a valley overflowing with little sprouts means that - as usual - nature has found a way to circumvent man’s evil hand.
So again, the question becomes, did Disney serve the best interests of this film by selling it as something that it clearly is not? Well, let’s go to another screening reaction for some guidance. When the main character first appeared, a row of hyperactive kids who were sugared and soured by lots of concession stand treats, calmed down considerably, and started to mummer the robot’s name under their breath. All throughout the opening prologue, as WALL*E roved across the deserted cities and streets, the children reacted with wide-eyed (and occasionally open mouthed) awe. But after a while, after the first sandstorm and the threat that came from the peculiar, pessimistic tone, the wee ones began to balk. You could literally feel the crowd becoming antsy, wondering where their slapstick comedy caper went. It’s clear that anyone under 10 was feeling inadvertently ripped off - even if they didn’t understand why they felt so gypped.
WALL*E would eventually regroup and win them over, the Axiom material with its funny looking people and comic relief machines more than enough to wash away the taste of a post-title traumas. Yet in some ways, Disney couldn’t sell the film in any other fashion. Had they told the truth, fanatics and critics would have complained that the company had spilled the beans in an act of frantic disbelief. It would indicate a lack of faith in a subdivision that was purchased because of its undeniable winning streak. And then there is the focus itself. Would teens really come out to see a movie that seemed made for their grade school siblings? Would the die-hard futurist find the Disney/Pixar name a distraction instead of an advantage? Does WALL*E deliver the kind of dystopian spectacle that makes serious science fiction saleable?
The answer seems to be caught up in what movies have become since the advent of home video. On the one hand, something as flawlessly executed as WALL*E deserves the title “art”, and definitely defines the term “artform” in reference to animation. On the other, parents have relied on Pixar to be the preeminent digital babysitter for their easily entertained offspring. Their DVDs don’t sell in the billions because everyone’s a collector. Instead, movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo are the new best friends of a tech-spec species that’s forgotten how to moderate media input. Viewed as safe and harmlessly wholesome, a Pix-flick takes the place of education, morals, and parents. In their place is an endlessly rewindable window into bona fide brain stimulus.
But just like Ratatouille last year, WALL*E deserves better. Cars was probably the first Pixar film that flaunted the notion that kids were not the only reason to make computer generated gems. Its Route 66 nostalgia was founded in a Baby Boomer chic. But Brad Bird’s Oscar winning wonder plainly avoided many of the genre’s junk tenets in order to capitalize on character, narrative, and actual emotion. There is no rule that anthropomorphic entities need to be wise-crack pop culture riffing retards. They don’t have to have stunt voices, or be recognizable Central Casting types. No, ideas can be just as important as instant recognizability, and not every Pixar film has to be product as well. Sadly, this appears to be the exact opposite approach to what Disney is doing. Sometimes, you just have to wonder.