Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Magnificence of Wall-E: Pixar Simply Gets It

My childhood introduction to anthropomorphized robots occurred when I first witnessed R2-D2 sass an up-tight C-3PO and subsequently ignore the chorus of passive and ineffectual complaints from “The Professor” in Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction has never been my particular brand of nerdom, but the first three Star Wars movies greatly appealed to me as a youngster as they still do today. Unlike many of my generation, the principle appeal of Star Wars for me has never been its intricately layered galaxy, so well known for its technology, social makeup, Gnostic religion, and epic conflicts—the stuff of which has inspired legions of B-grade novels.

I had never reflected on this until George Lucas bludgeoned the world with his prequels and I witnessed the potential for an entertaining story and likeable, empathetic characters wash away in a flood of highly manipulated pixels. The Star Wars galaxy in the prequels was still complex and deeply detailed, but essentially soulless, a stunning story world with nothing in it. Even a lovable moppet like Jake Lloyd failed to evince the slightest amount of empathy in a movie where the cast droned their lines with less life than the droids they fought. Say what you will about Mark Hamill’s heroic struggle to act, but the first trilogy won over a generation, not because of the ingenuity of the Star Wars universe, but because it was an incredible story that forged bonds between the audience and the characters. It’s the human element that counts, not the spectacle; it’s no wonder that the prequels failed to revive the Star Wars frenzy or win over the younger generation. Eye candy, once consumed, is digested and never thought of again.

George Lucas embodies an odd paradox: As technology expanded his capacity for filmmaking, the more his ability to tell a story visually receded. When you spend enormous amounts of time and money building a precise model of Jar-Jar Binks’ eyebrow, it becomes a self-sufficient work of art in itself, and there is no needs to actually have that eyebrow express something of significance.

And finally, this brings me to the subject of Wall-E, Pixar’s latest masterpiece. Pixar has made movie after movie that has challenged and expanded the limits of animation. After seeing a preview of Wall-E, it became obvious that this movie was going to take animation to even greater heights than the stunning Ratatouille. Would this be the movie in which Pixar would finally succumb to the Lucas paradox? Would they toss aside what made them great? I witnessed quite the opposite. As technology has expanded Pixar’s range and ability, they have returned to the subtle visual power of the silent age, and created a story about anthropomorphized robots that captivate us and shed light on our humanity.

For director Andrew Stanton and his colleagues at Pixar, the story is central. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Stanton adamantly denied that he had created a powerful environmental message movie, which warned of the dehumanizing consequences of excessive consumerism. It simply didn’t factor into the equation at all. According to Stanton, the primary thing at Pixar will always be the story. Thank God for that.

The upshot for Christians is that Wall-E gets its message across powerfully to all ideological shades without trying. I am certainly not a global warming enthusiast. In fact, I have grown tremendously sensitive to the fervent religiosity and misanthropies of excessive environmentalism, and thus was not well disposed to accept a priggish lecture from an animated movie. Wall-E, however, did not prick any of those sensitivities. It made me reflect on how reactionary I had become on the real dangers of consumerism, spending more mental energy reacting against the pervasive Marxist agenda-driven environmentalism than reflecting on what Christian environmental stewardship might mean. Wall-E is an effective message movie because it doesn’t subsume story by becoming pedantic or lapse into extremism. In the end of Wall-E, it’s clear that our Earthly environment serves the human spirit, not the reverse.

The more the message looms over the movie like a threatening cloud, the less disposed we are to accept it. Pixar gets it: the story is and should always be the cornerstone of a film.


Anonymous said...

Having fun reading of your blog.

berto xxx

Anonymous said...

Awesome review, 2e. I shouldn't have read it with a full bladder, though, as I nearly pee'd myself laughing at the part about Jar-Jar's eyebrow.


patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

Anonymous said...


Tried to find your e-mail address to send you an article, but I found your blog instead.

Anyway, here's the link.

Good review of Wall-e. I thought it was a fantastic movie and a great cautionary tale. I kept thinking about something Ratzinger said in God and the World, "If you want to rid the world of pain, then you must first eliminate love." I thought that this was pretty much what happened in the movie. BnL worked so that people needn't suffer from small things, and look what happened to everybody.

Mr. Pickles

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