WALL-E goes beyond inviting comparisons to E.T., Number 5, R2D2, even Chaplin’s Little Tramp—the Waste Allocation Load Lifter relies on them, for writer-director Andrew Stanton understands this robot janitor as a study in memory and inheritance. The last surviving bot of a failed program meant to clean up after our bad habits, WALL-E learns about desire from a movie musical we left behind and bides his time creating buildings from our compacted trash—totems that give expression to his hunger for purpose in the same way the pyramids attest to the ancient Egyptian race’s human possibility. The robot’s loneliness is palpable not only in those soulful eyes, one of which he has to replace after it incurs great injury, but in his dogged, workaday need to clean and assemble, no doubt hoping that one day someone might notice that WALL-E Was Here.
And it is with that same level of urgency that WALL-E scrawls on some relic of human existence that he loves EVE, a trigger-happy Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator that has yet to grasp the scope of her robot capabilities. She comes to Earth looking for “a specimen of ongoing photosynthesis” (a sign that the effects of whatever it was we did to the planet are beginning to wear off), and through WALL-E’s devotion to her, and a cockroach’s own fidelity to him, she learns to evolve beyond her single-minded adherence to the corporate-mandated “directive” programmed into her system. Their love affair is understandably formulaic—WALL-E’s style comes from the movies, after all—but poetic nonetheless.
Stanton has expressed surprise at environmental readings of WALL-E—an evasiveness that’s reflected in Disney’s marketing of the film, whose ads have stressed WALL-E’s cuteness but not his humanitarian vision. Downplaying the film’s pro-green message makes sense from a business angle—Disney doesn’t want to lose that James Dobson demographic—but pretending it doesn’t exist is troubling. As if Stanton never sketched that lone sapling WALL-E finds among a vast sea of human garbage. As if his camera never lingered on that Buy n Large gas station that evokes the gluttony of a primitive, oil-guzzling civilization. As if the BnL CEO played by Fred Willard in a series of live-action snippets wasn’t meant as a swipe against Bush (not only are his strings being pulled from off screen, he even drops the phrase “stay the course”).
This latest Pixar production finds cute ways of tipping its hat to Christian creation and human record, most cannily in the way Captain (Jeff Garlin) ponders his people’s return to a planet he’s never known, bumping a toy version of the Axiom ship into the continent of Africa on his globe. But WALL-E becomes less interesting whenever the focus shifts from WALL-E and EVE to—spoilers herein—the humans who live in subservience to technology and corporate branding aboard the Axiom spacecraft, ostensibly waiting for Earth to become hospitable again to human life. Fat and slovenly, these people are essentially recognized as mass-produced goods—do-nothings who’ve relinquished their human will to machines that feed them, entertain them, pick them up when they’ve fallen off their floating couches.
Stanton’s vision of life inside Axiom feels cribbed from Monsters, Inc. and Star Wars, and his critique of consumer culture and how it thrives on our need for instant gratification comes through loud and clear—perhaps too clear. Cutting but broad and tsk-tsking all the same, this element of the film isn’t so much dodo-headed as it is easily digestible, at least in contrast to the more nuanced ways in which Stanton takes jabs at our follies and priorities while never losing sight of our remarkable flair for invention and possibility, as in WALL-E and EVE going gaga for bubble wrap or WALL-E expressing confusion over those funny fork-spoon hybrids we bring to picnics and discarding a diamond ring but keeping the blue case that housed it. But maybe it’s necessary for WALL-E to speak broadly at times or it would lose its most important demographic: the children to whom it wants to bequeath its level of feeling.
And what feeling this is. As in WALL-E using a garbage can to groove to scenes from Hello Dolly!, the film understands dance, like movies themselves, as communal experience, something this humane robot feels to the core of his metallic gut. Presenting itself as a rite, which is to say something to pass down and instruct (like the cave drawings featured throughout the end credits), WALL-E uses our nostalgia for our youth to reconnect us with our essential goodwill—an appeal that’s impossible to resist whenever you stare into WALL-E’s peepers. Messenger and messiah, he asks us to look into eyes that see much wear but can only be replaced so many times, reflecting back a future that is ours to either make or destroy. He’ll clean up whatever we leave behind; just don’t ask him to take any of the blame.