Wall-e: Popcorn Taxi

What you have to understand is that the idea of seeing a Pixar movie and then having a director Q&A afterwards – along with legendary sound designer Ben Burtt – is one of my ideas of Heaven. If I thought about it, Heaven would probably be an interconnecting series of cinema screens.
Wall-e, screening on August 25th, with special guests Andrew Stanton and Ben Burtt, reduced the pain of the three month release delay by a large margin. I just feel sorry for the poor saps who have to wait for the September 18 wide release.

Wall-e is a special movie: almost no dialogue, a pervading sense of duty in the face of loneliness, and characters who actually surprise us. It’s like I Am Legend if that movie had remained consistently good and was predominantly a love story. It’s also nice to know that the theme of “last robot on Earth” was a Science-Fiction conceit, rather than a damning indictment of humanity’s commitment to anti-environmentalism. This is not a movie about nature, but about human nature – and also the ways that it manifests in the limited AI of cute, beat up looking robots.

Not really spoilers within, but definite discussion of the “flavours of Wall-e“.

Circa 2700AD, Wall-e is a robot who, along with many others of his kind, was charged with cleaning up the Earth while humans waited for it to be inhabitable. He’s the only one left, some six hundred years having passed since humanity deserted the planet. Wall-e remains dutiful, compacting trash and building it into towers while accompanied by his faithful cockroach companion, retiring each night to his grotto of wonders to watch Hello, Dolly!
This changes when Wall-e meets Eve, a probe sent from one of the many houses of humanity: Eve is vaguely feminine, and Wall-e is quite taken with her. When she finds a plant specimen and is sent back to the Axiom, Wall-e desperately tags along, and gazes upon the fate of humanity: infantile blobs who have robot caretakers and little regard for themselves or one another.

This is a love story, above all: while we have the fairly easily understood background story of a humanity that appears to have absorbed its bootstraps into its growing bulk, it’s mainly about Wall-e’s devotion to Eve. Wall-e, having spent somewhere in the realm of hundreds of years with only a cockroach to keep him company, has developed a curious nature and a personality: the film is subtle enough that Eve does not come with hers built in: she has to adapt to the enthusiasm that Wall-e brings to her while performing the “directive”. All of this is told with their actions and the little sounds that they make – which apparently were created before the animation was done, so if they seem like a tailor made perfect fit, it’s most likely because that’s exactly what they are.

The film is beautiful. I have a thing for post-apocalyptic wastelands, ruined worlds and future dystopias, and all three of these things are prevalent in Wall-e. If you weren’t interested in the plight of the little fellow, it would be more than satisfactory simply to gawp at the ruined Earth that he trundles across. The Axiom is an entirely different story: distressing in a totally separate fashion – it’s amusing but it’s totally clinical and the direction that this humanity has taken itself in is one that suggests that being coddled by technology to the point that we lose the use of all motor function: to be totally passive is something that will ultimately bring us down. The Axiom becomes a living ruin, occupied but not understood by its inhabitants. There are no aliens in Wall-e, excepting that humanity has become alien to itself.

Essentially there’s nothing at all wrong with Wall-e, except one wonders where babies come from in a society where people don’t interact with each other on anything like a face-to-face level. It has flights of fancy where I had to calm myself down, and it’s certainly enough to make anyone think. Andrew Stanton admitted that his motivation was not environmental but actually along the lines of “wouldn’t it be cool if the Earth was covered in garbage?”. Ruined planets are interesting, and they don’t necessarily need sinister reasoning behind them. The more important message is about technology separating people even as it tries to bring them together, but apparently that’s not a huge general issue anymore. I’m certainly hoping that Wall-e will stand up to the rest of cinema in a few years time when we’re all living under pristine skies and singing with bluebirds.

This Popcorn Taxi was pretty technical, for some reason: it sold out in thirteen hours and attracted a lot of the sort of people who don’t normally go to this sort of thing. I resented them for some reason. Andrew Stanton almost made me want to see Finding Nemo again, so impressed was I with this movie (I’ve only seen Finding Nemo once, at the cinema, and at the time I shed some tears but felt angry with myself and the movie. “You didn’t earn these tears,” I found myself thinking). The first trailers for Wall-e, a long time ago, were very strange beasts to me: Stanton spoke with passion of the genesis of the film. It’s an interesting story, but it was a totally bizarre way to sell a movie. The seed of the story was planted in the dying days of Toy Story, and germinated across many other films until, during the re-write stage of Finding Nemo, Stanton found himself feverishly writing Wall-e instead. He made a story reel of twenty minutes with some other animators and didn’t try to sell the movie to John Lassiter and Steve Jobs until he had something that concrete to show them.
Even if you accuse it of being Stanton’s vanity project, it’s a damn sight better than Cars.

Having very little interaction with children, I wondered how they would take the movie. I barely remember what I liked as a child (Mario and Ninja Turtles, pretty much), but I imagine that dialogue may have played a role (but then, I remember watching Fantasia and only being bored when Walt Disney was speaking). Are modern children bored by this sort of thing, or are they as enchanted as most people should be? In this equation I should consider that little boys apparently loved Cars, apparently because it was full of cars and despite it having a misplaced sense of nostalgia and a totally confusing message. I imagine that, regardless, a lot of toys have been sold in aid of the little robot that could. To this end, Stanton said that there were absolutely no audience test screenings for Wall-e. It’s the sort of movie that would not have worked by committee, and only flourished under a dedicated staff. It has a very personal feel about it despite being literally galactic in scale.

After the Q&A session finished, Rad and I could not find our other three comrades, so we ventured back into the cinema. Burtt and Stanton were still down there, and people were milled about them. Rad saw this opportunity to strike, and to ask a question of his own. Eve, you may have noticed, looks a little like an Apple product. Rad wanted to know if this was organic, or if it was done to consciously reference Apple, and what did Steve Jobs think?
The answer was simple, and satisfactory: besides Apple products being gorgeous (despite everything else, they are very aesthetically and minimalistically pleasing), Wall-e is a square. What would a square robot be attracted to? The answer: a circle, and thus Eve was “born”. Jobs, of course, was cool with it.

Despite the main event being over, Stanton was very gracious indeed and a class act all the way. I would like to imagine that Burtt was the same way – he was standing a little ways away answering questions and signing “Art of Wall-e” books. From all appearances, Burtt is “exactly the same as [Stanton and everyone else at Pixar], only older”. People having this sort of passion is exactly how and why movies should be made, and really any cynical arguments that could be aimed at Pixar pretty much melt away under their warm and intense devotion (and even I will admit that Cars was a labour of love, even if that love was misguided).

I was in love with the whole damned thing, but I think that the point when I was sold beyond sold was at the point that Louis Armstrong started singing “La Vie en Rose”. I’ll say it again: this movie is something special, and you really owe it to yourself to see it.

Post-script: While, if I were writing up The Incredibles or Ratatouille, I wouldn’t really deign to mention Boundin’ or Lifted, it would not be fair to mention Wall-e without taking into account its similarly non-verbal short Presto. The story of a magician and his rabbit, it’s the sort of animated short that reminds you of how good an animated short can be, without any of the outdated political incorrectness of the kind you used to get.

One Response

  1. Bryan John Hale August 27, 2008

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