Monday, June 30, 2008


Just to get it out of the way first thing (and because everybody loves a good list), my new, post-WALL·E Pixar rankings go as such:

1. Ratatouille


3. The Incredibles

4. Toy Story

5. Finding Nemo

6. Toy Story 2

7. Monsters Inc.

8. Cars

9. A Bug's Life

But that said, WALL·E is the foremost piece of art that Pixar Animation Studios has yet produced, a film sublime, beautiful, and elegant in its simplicity. Most of that has to do with WALL·E himself - this is a rare film where the characters power the story rather than vice versa, and the use of film as an audio-visual medium in cultivating the protagonist is inspirational. 

As many of you who haven't seen the film yet may have heard, the character of WALL·E doesn't really have any traditional dialogue in the entire movie. He makes a few robotic sounds shaped vaguely into words, with sound work charmingly rendered by Ben Burtt - the same man who came up with all the sounds for Star Wars 31 years ago and has admitted the obvious influence of R2-D2 on WALL·E (and who also does his voice) - but there's no back-and-forth dialogue between him and anyone else, and the filmmakers use WALL·E's actions, his beeps, clicks, and whirrs, the motion of his eyes and arms, the settings, and his childlike sense of curiosity to create a character that stands proud with Tony Stark, Daniel Plainview, and Anton Chigurh as one of the most fully-conceived characters I've seen on screen in the last 365 days of cinema.

And the narrative is unique in structure - this film doesn't rush it, taking roughly the first half of the running time to establish and develop WALL·E's character and his relationship with his leading lady / robot, EVE. In this day and age, it seems most high-concept films are content to establish characters with 20 seconds of dialogue a few minutes in, but WALL·E really takes a narrative risk by spending close to 50% of the movie on it before the main conflict even revs up.

In terms of genre, the character study is in service of a unique combination between a Charlie Chaplin-esque romantic slapstick comedy not all that dissimilar from the 76-year-old City Lights and a fairly interesting piece of hard sci-fi. Possibly the best new hard sci-fi movie I've seen since Minority Report six years ago, although admittedly it's a rare genre that doesn't have that much to compete with (last year's fairly good Sunshine comes to mind, and... Paycheck :-( ). The first half of the movie brings the romantic slapstick comedy to the forefront with the sci-fi as a backdrop, with that polarity reversed in the second half, but all elements are strong all the way through.

Something that's always been true of Pixar from Toy Story on is that they are great with simple slapstick comedy, and WALL·E's pratfalls and mishaps play to that element with robust wit, calling Chaplin and Keaton directly to mind, and had me and the rest of the audience roaring with frequent laughter. But even stronger is the romantic element. By stripping the dialogue out and playing the relationship between WALL·E and Eve with visuals and broad strokes, it's less a novel and more a poem, easy to project any number of experiences onto and all the more easy to relate to. While my penis is far too large to cry at the movies, there were definitely some scenes of deep emotion and ethereal beauty between WALL·E and Eve that got it a little sniffly in the theater.

The science fiction element, while difficult to explain in depth beyond the root idea that the last robot has been stuck on an evacuated, trash-choked earth for the last 700 years trying to clean up the mess without giving away anything, is less poetic in its execution and more straightforward storytelling, but nonetheless an interesting concept that I think should provoke a little thought and nods of appreciation in execution from the even the most cynical Asimov fan. While some people on message boards complained that the tonal shift halfway through from character to story is too abrupt, I thought it was fine - we spend 40 or 45 minutes or so learning about our character, then go on a whirlwind hour-long movie exploring some speculative fiction about what the consequences of rampant consumerism and the ignoring of environmentalism could be. It was neat and well-executed, and managed to comfortably embrace the framework of robots in love somewhere in the middle without either element detracting from the other.

And last but not least, to ignore the soul and spirit for a moment and focus on the sexy-ass body, the animation in this movie is the best CGI animation ever. This can pretty much be said for every new Pixar movie that comes out, but now I really the hell mean it - the sweeping shots of the quasi-post-apocalyptic earth are staggering and breathtaking in their sheer scope, and the nervous, eager, childlike kinetic motion of WALL·E has so much life and zest and personality it makes the vast majority of CGI characters in any other flick look truly leaden. The design of the robots and the sci-fi technology is really clever, and the basic art direction of everything from soaring shots past galaxies and suns to the dusty, quirky aesthetic of the inside of WALL·E's trailer is the best of the best of the best. This is a truly gorgeous movie.

If I were to offer a few small critiques, I would say that there are a few gags in the second half of the movie that are slightly more kiddie, including one particular recurring line of dialogue about pizza that felt like it was definitely aimed at the single-digit age bracket. But it is a kids movie, and these jokes are way too few and far between to really gripe about - the laugh ratio here is enormous. And some have complained that the few action scenes at the end weren't required (which was actually pretty much my only complaint about Ratatouille - an unnecessary action scene near the end), but I kind of feel like sci-fi and a bit of action go comfortably hand-in-hand, so I disagree.

It's a remarkably solid and well-conceived film on nearly every level, even by Pixar's standards. I would easily say it's one of my top five movies of 2008 thus far and I enthusiastically recommend everyone go see it.

5 Stars out of 5

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