Readers of this column will probably be aware that I’m not a big Disney fan. For all the cutesy characters, family values, and wish-fulfillment; a salvo of subliminal messages and stereotypes were buried under a shiny wrapping of what most parents around the world render inoffensive entertainment.
It wasn’t always like that though. Disney was initially envisaged as one man’s passionate enterprises, springing to life with masterpieces like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “Fantasia and “Bambi. Before formulas took over, inventiveness was the hallmark of the Mickey Mouse kingdom.
The surrealism of “Fantasia and the grim expressionism of “Bambi were, over time, replaced by trite formulas and distortive adaptations of literature and history. The term “Disneyfication came to symbolize watered-down reality, predictability and lack of ingenuity. In other words, Disney resembled any average disposable, short-lived American product.
The mini-renaissance that put Disney back on the map in 1989, starting with “The Little Mermaid, didn’t last for long. The fact of the matter is Disney hasn’t produced any great animated pictures in 14 years, particularly since “The Lion King.
Pixar though is a different story. Founded by former Disney animator John Lasseter and backed by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, Pixar singlehandedly reinvented American animation with an astonishing streak of CGI blockbusters embraced by the public and lauded by critics.
The studio’s first release, 1995’s “Toy Story, was peerless in its originality, masterful storytelling and jaw-dropping visual flair. It s no wonder Disney’s role was restricted to distributing and marketing Pixar’s films. Up until now, Disney has never interfered in Pixar’s self-financed productions; they simply stood still as the likes of “Toy Story 2, “Monsters, Inc. and “Finding Nemo dwarfed every failed endeavor Disney churned out.
Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion was a natural move after the former shut down its hand-drawn animated division (Pixar would re-open it later on). Despite the acquisition, Pixar remained independent and Lasseter was given full control of the animation studio.
The newfound liability for commercial regard should’ve driven Pixar to Disney’s path of formulism, and, at one point, that did seem to be the norm.
The buddy comedy storylines that began with “Toy Story and continued, with some substantial variation, till “Cars, started to wear off.
Perhaps that’s why even Pixar’s biggest enthusiasts didn’t see last year’s “Ratatouille coming. Sophisticated, biting and elegant, “Ratatouille saw Pixar navigating into new territory no other American animation dared venture into.
And then came this year’s “WALL-E, the most daring production Pixar has released to date. Both an epic love story and a piercing indictment of corporate consumer culture, “WALL-E is a near-silent visual extravaganza that will definitely set the bar high for future Pixar films.
The film is set 700 years in the future. WALL-E is a trash-compacting robot who happens to be the last surviving object on earth (WALL-E is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class).
A combination between Johnny # 5 from “Short Circuit and E.T., the short, rusty, wide-eyed WALL-E has spent the last seven centuries building towers and architecting marvels out of garbage. Accompanied only by an indestructible cockroach, he persistently hunts for ordinary objects such as Rubik’s Cubes, Zippo lighters or electronic keys and carefully ordinates them into his little shack.
WALL-E is the ultimate embodiment of futility. He has spent hundreds of years piling up garbage in an uninhabited planet, working simply for the sake of working. The first part of the film, in fact, is akin to a colorful take on The Myth of Sisyphus.
His most valuable link to humanity is a worn out video tape of the musical “Hello, Dolly! WALL-E is fixated on the song “Put on Your Sunday Clothes. He watches this musical segment in awe, longing for company and romance.
A powerful conglomerate called “Buy N Large, specializing in mass consumer products, has turned the earth into an uninhabitable gigantic dump.
As a result, BnL stacked its most valuable customers on a large spaceship, controlled entirely by computers, before the planet was evacuated. Humans have turned into lethargic fatties who never step foot on the ground.
The humans send an iPod-like robot called EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) in an exploratory expedition to look for “a specimen of ongoing photosynthesis.
WALL-E falls in love with EVE at first sight. EVE is the polar opposite of WALL-E: mysterious, dangerous, feisty and unpredictable. The dim brown colors of the garbage are contrasted against EVE’s white shape, easily rendering her the most distinctive object on the planet. At first, WALL-E watches her from a distance and attempts to approach her while she’s blowing up stuff. He soon manages to make contact and introduces her to his unusual world.
WALL-E, speaking in beeps and short static noises, is an incarnation of Chaplin’s The Tramp. Like The Tramp, WALL-E is a clumsy, down-on-his-luck dreamer, wanting to be loved. His love is unconditional and he goes to extreme lengths to protect it.
His innocence though is purely Pixarian. WALL-E regards the most mundane of creations with a child-like wonder. And it’s through WALL-E’s round eyes that we realize how humans have always been equally capable of creation and destruction.
“WALL-E alludes to several sci-fi classics, from “Aliens to “2001: A Space Odyssey. The film’s most hilarious scene is, in fact, a parody of one of “2001’s most famous scenes, while the main villain resembles, to a great extent, Stanley Kubrick’s cunning computer HAL.
Like Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner, WALL-E and EVE are more compassionate and human than actual humans. And perhaps that’s why the film loses some of its momentum in the second half when WALL-E enters the human’s new artificial world.
Director Andrew Stanton doesn’t come off as preachy or big-headed with his message. Yet, and in order to appeal to kids who remain the primary demographic of the film, the message has been simplified, and thus its impact is completely eclipsed by the better constructed love story.
Perhaps the chief reason why I didn’t connect with Stanton’s laudable message is the fact that a place like Egypt won’t reach such state of total, luxurious computer dependency; neither will the entire continent of Africa. The thorny issues of global warming, corporate tyranny or the current disintegration of nature is too complex, too elusive to point the blame towards a certain group of suspects.
The subtle meditation on fading humanity, man’s devastating apathy and the contradictory nature of humans is what makes “WALL-E an imperfect tour de force. It’s also a grand illustration of how pictures are much more powerful than words.
Nearly every emotion the film presents is conveyed through actions and gestures. Sound becomes obsolete, an unnecessary saddle. With such charm, warmth and spellbinding beauty, who needs words?