“Wall-E” as a Return to the Promise of Animation

I wonder if most people leave “Wall-E” wondering about the genders of robots like I did. Why do we assign them masculine and feminine attributes as if they matter or maybe it’s all a narrative concoction so that the majority of viewers will comfortably relate to the love story of two robots? Perplexing sexual politics aside, the obvious messages of “Wall-E”—by which I mean the well-thought out ideas—are the need for environmental consciousness to stave off global disaster and the developing relationship between humanity and technology. The strange thing is that writer/director Andrew Stanton denied either was a motivating factor for the film when right-wing pundits began attacking the film’s supposed “left-wing” agenda. “Wall-E”’s genius is not in these simplistic slogans, which have been explored in countless other films, including “The Day After Tomorrow” to “Bladerunner.” The film makes the case, perhaps unwittingly but nonetheless convincingly, that we are watching the future and it will be animated.

“Wall-E” is, by Stanton’s admission, a film about relationships, whether robotic, human or cinematic. Yet, unlike other contemporary films that can endlessly mimic or parody great moments from cinematic history, “Wall-E”‘s success lies in its assimilation of disparate elements into a wondrous whole. The film is a tribute to the agility of great animation and its future.

You would imagine that grappling with the history of film would be a Herculean task, so infused is film’s role in our culture that we strain to remember pre-filmic days without the help of cinematic reconstructions—wasn’t Moses as European looking as Charlton Heston? Yet Hollywood’s cutting-edge animation studio Pixar has accomplished such a unique and creative tale on the art form’s sweeping history that I think it marks a new departure for animation. If the tune of their latest film—a futuristic dystopia—is familiar, the medium and pitch certainly aren’t. An animated feature aimed at children and their guardians isn’t the obvious choice for cinematic critiques, yet Pixar hasn’t shied away from complex ideas for their child-friendly masterpieces in the past—lest we forget “Ratatouille” (2007) ruminated on the role of the artist and critic in a manner that few films can achieve without being dull and didactic. While watching “Wall-E” can be a soothing and mindless experience as you sink into its magical world without an inkling of the theoretical underpinnings of the parable, there is a the bigger story on the screen. Only at the very end—during the closing credits—do we sense what this may mean to the future of film…but perhaps first we should start at the beginning.

Future Imperfect

The year is circa 2805 and an environmental apocalypse has razed life on Earth. Seven hundred years earlier Earth endorsed the corporate model so wholeheartedly that the planet was being run by the “Buy n Large” (BnL) Corporation. Headed by a CEO who doubles as the planet’s president, BnL is motivated by the need to maximize profit. The problem with this new corporate culture is that the bottom line depends on constant growth and consumption, which doesn’t fend well for the planet. Subsequently BnL customers, i.e. all of humanity, fall victim to avarice and gluttony. As part of a last ditch effort, BnL organizes a mass migration into outer space on the appropriately named Axiom. Everyone plans to return following an environmental clean up which never quite materializes–ah, the folly of corporate culture.

The main character is a sweet and awkward robot named Wall-E, an acronym that stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth class. He is a quirky Woody Allen-like character (is Woody ALL-En a coincidence?) who, like the cinematic New Yorker, seems to relish quirky things and falls for women that, conventional wisdom suggests, should normally be out of his league. Programmed to clean the earth, Wall-E is the last of an army of garbage compactors that were marched out to save the dying planet. A dilemma arises when amid the endless ruble that covers the planet Wall-E finds a copy of the 1969 production of “Hello Dolly,” starring Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford and Tommy Tune. The ham-filled flick about a matchmaker fills the head of our robotic protagonist with the notion that two is better than one. The endearing Wall-E becomes lovelorn but there is no one around to reciprocate his love, except his cockroach sidekick—and we assume the scale and mechanics of a robot/roach pairing eliminate that possibility. In the meantime, Wall-E occupies his time by constructing skyscrapers of garbage in what appears to be New York. The buildings of trash that Wall-E constructs look a lot like the sacred pillar-like mountains in China. There is a sculptural and sublime beauty to the futuristic ziggurats and we surmise that Wall-E is a monumental folk artist of sorts.

Soon Eve (aka Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) arrives from outer space like some deus ex machina. She is a sleek robot with more power and speed than her soon-to-be suitor, Wall-E. Her directive is to seek out plant life and, like every probe before her, she doesn’t have any luck. That is until Wall-E offers her a plant he found as a gift. Mission accomplished, Eve signals for the mothership and returns home with a stowaway (Wall-E). They arrive on the plush spaceship named the Axiom, which is designed to fulfill every human’s consumer needsm which in turn is made possible by the toil of a robotic working class supervised by a Spartan robot soldier caste. A struggle arises when the captain discovers that the ship’s computer has been secretly instructed by BnL’s CEO never to return to Earth because the clean-up process was a failure. In the process Wall-E, our heroic Prometheus, is punished for returning plant life back to humanity by being electrocuted and crushed until he is a lifeless husk. Fortunately for Wall-E and Eve, who finally realizes she can’t functionally happily—is that what robots do?—without him, humans overthrow their robotic keepers and return to Earth where Eve refurbishes and reboots Wall-E and they live happily ever after.

After the robotic couple helps humanity return to earth the final credits, interspersed with images of the new revitalized civilization, begin. This future is illustrated using roughly seven art historical periods: prehistoric cave paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient Greek pottery painting, Roman/Byzantine mosaics, Renaissance drawing, Impressionist/Post-Impressionist painting and 1980s computer animation. This odd leapfrog through history not only remains firmly within the Western tradition but erases whole swathes of time including the bulk of the modernist project.

The first six examples used in the credits may be obvious since they reference great flowerings of artistic and cultural energy easily recognizable in the West but the last may feel unfamiliar. Why 1980s computer animation is included in this list points to Pixar’s own confidence in its abilities (it was born in the era), but also because it highlights the  emergence of computers as a dominant force in the arts, particularly in cinema. To understand the implications of this new digitalized medium we must look to the origins of cinema.

While the late 19th C. was a period of experimentation for cinema, characterized by the quasi-documentary shorts of the Lumière Brothers, it wasn’t until the early last century that the medium matured to a point that narrative, symbolism and all the elements of cinema we recognize today emerged. Yet before the popularization of photographic cinema (as distinct from animation) there was another vision for the art form that was quickly forgotten.

In Giannalberto Bendazzi’s history of animation, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, he points out that the great pioneer of animation Emile Reynaud introduced the art form to Parisian audiences in 1892, three years before Auguste and Louis Lumière. In his book’s introduction he laments that what happened next sowed the seeds of confusion about the real relationship between animation and photographic cinema:

“Animation film falls victim to an error in classification–or rather, to two errors. One consists in mistaking animation for animated drawings (as one might mistake an airplane for a kite); another, in considering it simply as a sort of ‘cinema’, while it could just as well be painting, drawing, engraving or even, sculpture in movement (do we ever consider an oil portrait as a sort of photo?).

The confusion between animation and ‘cinema’ dates from the first film projection by the Lumière Brothers…Reynaud had already been showing his Thèâtre Optique at the Grévin museum since 1892. All images by Reynaud had been drawn by hand. It is certain that the invention of ‘cinema’ had been patented by Reynaud who did not have enough money to sue the Lumière brothers and win.”

Bendazzi suggests that photographic cinema’s rightful classification is a “particular kind of animation, a sort of cheap, industrial substitute; which was destined to replace the creative work of an artist, such as Emile Reynaud, with photography of human models ‘in movement’.”

According to Bendazzi, because of photographic cinema’s advantages, principally cost, and marketability, in a photo-crazed culture, animation became a subset of this bastardized “cinema.”

By World War I, the Futurists, who early on recognized the importance of film, and derided the silent version that was popular at the time as “theatre without words,” wanted a new dynamic future for cinema. They envisioned “the polyexpresiveness sought by all modern artistic efforts…the futurist film will be made up of the most varied expressive elements: from the slice of life to the splash of color, from single lines to free-ranging words, from chromatic and plastic music to the music of object.” So marginalized was animation by the First World War that the Futurists didn’t recognize that what they fantasized about was already available to them in the form of animation.

Outside of the studios of die-hard practitioners of the craft or artists who liked to experiment, animation survived in Western nations either because of government funding or children’s entertainment companies (such as Disney) recognized its economic potential.

If Bendazzi is right then Pixar and its increasingly innovative films may mark the beginning of an era when animation reclaims its primacy and supplants photographic cinema (which is already being frequently augmented by computer animation) as the driving force in film.

When Stanton was interviewed last June by a website he was asked about the future of animation, to which he replied: “…maybe we’ll be holographic.” It is sounding like Bendazzi’s theory about the origins of cinema may in fact ring true. Why “Wall-E” marks the beginning of that march to reclaim animation’s original supremacy can be attributed to the sophistication of its synthesis of varied elements.

Cinema as Anthology

“Wall-E” embraces a postmodern practice of storytelling that is popular in animation, particularly animated television series like “The Simpsons” where the narrative device is pervasive. The latest Pixar film goes one step further by seamlessly integrating historic references which impact the narrative, music, characters and images. “Wall-E” is never burdened by cinematic intertextuality—a popular postmodern term—but it is surprisingly energized by it.

Narratively, “Wall-E” riffs off a number of dystopian fantasias including Fritz Lang’s epic “Metropolis” (1927), which is set in a corporate city-state, to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil: (1975), where bureaucratic banality and absurdity dominates people’s lives. Emotionally, the film is more akin to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (1979), a romantic comedy, and George Lucas’ “Star Wars” (1977), which tells the story of a boy who unwittingly comes across something of great importance and ventures out to save the universe. These films and many more (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Poseidon Adventure,” “Tron“…) are quoted freely and sometimes scenes are directly recreated, such as the famous Brooklyn Bridge scene from “Manhattan.” The ease of appropriation highlights a major advantage animation has over its photographic stepsister: animation adheres to few boundaries and rules. The movie’s hyper-realism is reserved for machines and inanimate objects while the animation of humans tends to the “cartoony.” At a round-table event at Pixar’s studios in Emeryville, California, which was reported by Wired magazine, Stanton said he viewed them humans in the film as “giant babies, completely devolved.” According to “Wall-E,” humans are the new primitives represented by a style slightly reminiscent of classic cell animation.

Countless reviewers have commented on the extraordinary risk Pixar undertook when it left the first third of the film (roughly 30-minutes) free of English-language dialogue. In its place they offer us a curious robotic language of blips engineered by sound designer Ben Burtt, who was responsible for “Star Wars” and its iconic androids R2-D2 and C-3PO, as well as E.T. in Steven Spielberg’s classic film. There is a pristine simplicity in the image of a lonely robot traveling across a barren world that endears us to the little fellow (another quote from “Stars Wars”). Like some postmodern silent film caveman at the dawn of time, Wall-E emerges in our consciousness the day after some cataclysm that has destroyed our world. Disaster films are a popular genre today but unlike “I Am Legend” and “Mad Max,” to name two examples from the last few decades, humans are secondary to the story line. In animation, ideas and characters win out over human personas, it is a medium suited to extreme fantasy.

If there are allusions here and there to the early history of film—people have drawn comparisons between Wall-E’s slapstick humor with that of Charlie Chaplin—the bulk of the cinematic references are from the 1960s, 70s and 80s for a host of reasons: it marks a great cinematic flowering often described as Hollywood’s silver age, it was a period that witnessed the reemergence of animation into the mainstream around the globe (“Yellow Submarine” in the UK, the emergence of Japanese anime…), and, most importantly, it is the period when most of the film’s cast and crew grew up.

While most cinematic references can often be construed as nostalgic or critical, in “Wall-E” that’s not the sensibility at work. The texture of 1970s sci-fi, think “Logan’s Run” or “Rollerballer” in addition to the aforementioned examples, is evident in the film’s sweeping views of a utopian society or the notion that society has run amok, but here animation seems to synthesize and reinvent everything so completely that the references become merely incidental.

There is no doubt that pop culture is king in “Wall-E.” Everywhere we look on the screen there are objects with little meaning beyond their curiosity value. In one scene Wall-E hurls a diamond ring away while retaining its more eccentric-looking clamshell case. Amidst the rubble on Earth we see cinematic refuse from past Pixar films, a bottle of Leak Less brand oil  “Cars”), a Luxo lamp (a reference to Pixar’s 1986 animation short “Luxo Jr.“), a scooter (like the one used in “Ratatouille”) and orange cones  (via “Toy Story”). Even in the garbage level of the Axiom spaceship (a nod to the trash compactor in “Star Wars”) we spot Apple computer mouses, PC computer parts and other vestiges of our disposable culture.

The unbridled intertextuality of the film, though some may prefer the term parody, points to another growing player in the economic success of films, the Internet. By hiding Easter eggs in “Wall-E” the filmmakers have ensured that countless blogs, websites and television programs will chase after the references and dissect the film by posting clips, photos and quotations to prove their point. The online chatter generates publicity, endows the work with a life outside the theatre/DVD and also sparks interest in other films, particularly Pixar features. The studio’s long association with Apple, it was supported early on by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, has ensured that the Cupertino company pops up now and again in the studio’s films and references to Pixar’s new owner, Disney, are rampant—is it a coincidence that the “Hello Dolly” song “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” which becomes a leitmotif in the film, is featured on the Main Street USA music loop played at Disneyland and Disney World?

Short-circuited

If the narrative of “Wall-E” is masterfully crafted it is not to say that there aren’t a number of odd, if predictable, contradictions. It is a film that rebukes contemporary consumerism yet it is the product of it. It chides anti-environmental corporate culture but will certainly be a major source for action figures and corporate tie-ins that are an essential part of the mountains of trash that are accumulating during our own time. It bestows meaningless genders on robots. Contradictions aside, the self-conscious optimism in the movie ultimately makes it a successful film.

It is quite telling that the film that teaches “Wall-E” about love and humanity is “Hello Dolly.” Long forgotten by contemporary movie audiences, the film was a sensation during its time. Based on a highly-popular Broadway play, “Hello Dolly” is cinematic saccharine; “Wall-E” seems to know it is destined to be the same. Yet at the core of this film is a metaphor about the role of artist in the world. A small forgotten robot searches for meaning in the industrialized wastelands of Earth, he is the contemporary marginalized artist and it is an attribute that makes him human.

In one touching scene Wall-E attempts to woe Eve by staying up all night to create a  portrait of her that is strangely reminiscent of the sculptural work of Spanish surrealist Joan Miro and American sculptor David Smith. Eve awakes to see her effigy, but not yet sentient, she hovers past it staring at it like some oddity. Unmistakeably, the act of creating is tied to the emotion of love. The Ancient Greek tradition associates the birth of art with a Corinthian maiden who longing to preserve her lover’s shadow traces it on the wall before he departed for war. The myth reminds us that art was born out of longing and often means more for the creator than the muse. In the same way Stanton and his Pixar team have told us a deeply personal story about their love of cinema and their vision for animation through the prism of all types of relationships. What emerges in “Wall-E” is a new breed of film that allows the canvas of cinema to stretch further and deeper than ever before.