In a nearly dialogue-free sequence blanketed together by long-shots that cut only when absolutely necessary, capturing feeling and physical space with stunning, sparing clarity, we learn just about everything we could possibly need to know about the state of Wall-E‘s world with an awe-inducing elegance that casts its gaze on inspired little moments of action and (mostly) inaction. We are also treated to the finest cinematic homage to bright, feeling, humanist silent cinema snark this side of …well, the heyday of silent cinema. While Pixar’s follow-up film, Up, pulled out all the stops for a life (or two) in a minute, Wall-E is wonderfully content to just chill and explore its world a little in the most wonderfully non-narrative fashion, invested less in “arc” than in the little visual moments that define character. The opening scenes of the film are, quite literally, just a slice-of-life drama, except there’s nothing alive to be found. There’s just a robot, and his name is Wall-E.
For all the technical grandeur, it’s humbling in a way no animated film aspires to be. We witness Wall-E go about his daily mechanized tasks, which serve, by this point, mostly to keep him from wallowing about in his loneliness. Nonetheless, to him, they mean the world, for his curiosity has the best of him with the sort of genial naivete we never see in film anymore. Mostly, he crushes piles of trash into cubes, and if it’s meaningful, the film also visually satirizes Wall-E’s endearing go-getter attitude; if he accomplishes something, we also pan out to see the sheer voluminous mass of trash, which makes his work functionally futile. But the way the film zooms right in on his expressive features, slight movements, and weary eyes indicates an undying sympathy all the same, an observational melancholy battling it out with some of the lightest, most effervescent cheer and jubilance to be found in any medium. We see him watch a musical, come to terms with a Rubik’s Cube, and organize his trash with all manner of caring, amusing complication that is undeniably sweet and character-defining. But the space around him produces a sense of his profound smallness, his alone-ness, and how the world around him threatens to swallow him up. In these early scenes of the film, where we watch Wall-E generally just figure out life with the scrappy humanist persistence of Chaplin’s endearing Tramp or even a Frankenstein’s Monster in the campy, eccentric Bride of Frankenstein, the film is too transcendent for words, intermixing all manner of simple, broad, piercing emotions with a pinpoint artistry that runs soul-deep .
Visually, it’s an exceptionally, exquisitely composed work of world and character building mise-en-scene; the film uses the deep focus lens to stunning effect throughout, allowing us to see the intimacy of Wall-E’s facial emotions and the sheer forceful presence of the backgrounds with equal clarity. Too many animated films are all foreground or must sacrifice foreground in scenes which focus on background, but Wall-E gets it all with a clear eye, probing the world like Wall-E himself and capturing the ways characters manically move from foreground to background and back, sometimes in the same shot. This is especially purposeful, and even essential, when the film ends it monumental ode to City Lights and becomes just about the best, and breeziest, Looney Tunes cartoon you could imagine. It is, for all its other strengths, forward-thinking, enrapturing cinema and a shot in the arm to a decade that has most been content to wallow around in its own past-thinking conventionality. The first third of Wall-E is the most radical, revolutionary sequence in any film of its decade, one of the finest sequences ever captured on celluloid, and a master-class in storytelling through image. It is truly cinema at its liveliest.
Wall-E truly could have just been its first third and its status as an unimpeachable masterpiece would be assured in the halls of cinema. Soon enough though, things like narrative and event have to get in the way, and if the second half of the film is more conventional, it is a statement to its skill that it is nonetheless among the best things Pixar has ever done. Soon enough, another robot, EVE, eventually does show up and Wall-E is instantly smitten – he accidentally follows her back to where she came. And since this is animated science fiction and all, it can’t but turn out to be a ship perpetually orbiting in space and filled with thousands of humans, now obese due to living mechanized lives with their day jobs consisting of mostly accepting corporate branding. It turns out the humans have saved themselves by eating themselves into an early grave, and as Wall-E searches for his new special robot friend he winds up involved in saving the human race from early extinction.
If the film has any weak-side (and it doesn’t), I would say that the parts of the movie emphasizing the people are merely very well crafted and effervescently entertaining rather than monumentally transcendent. Still, the space-bound film weaves in and out of artfully poetic moments of impressionism to the zippy, high-spirited chaos of slapstick anarchism, to being caught up in little ironic moments like Mr. Hulot observing the world changing before him and being able to do nothing but sit back and watch. All of these give it edge and beauty that move much beyond being “just another cute narrative animated film” (although it is undoubtedly painfully cute). Watching Wall-E generally make an endearing mess of himself in his simple quest to find love is one of the film’s most aching pleasures.
The reason for the film’s success, if endlessly dissectible, is simple and direct: it loves being a film, and is wide-eyed and grinning for every second of its existence. While we have the wholly wonderful larger human story, what really wins out the day is the elevation of Wall-E’s ultimate one-man play to a romance to rival the classic films of Old Hollywood, or Woody Allen for something a little more modern, for sheer effervescent romanticism. There is a mid-film ballet that, while lacking the raw subversive power of the film’s opening portions, is gorgeous and indescribable. The profound humanity of Wall-E is all the more shocking when one considers that the character, unlike even Pixar’s other works, has no formal human component – he is not voiced by a person. He is quite literally the product of computers, but we find in him the spirit of all of the aforementioned great humanist works of film and animation. We have here a great romance, great physical character-based slapstick comedy, and a great study of isolation all wrapped up in a monumentally gorgeous package …no, I hesitate to use package because the imagery is so fundamentally wrapped into the quality of the film and its storytelling mechanisms.
To this effect, though, the film serves a purpose greater than the borderline photo-realism of the animation: it provides a timeless fable, a time-capsule movie for the future, and one, fittingly, which reminds of the timeless essence of films. It’s tempting to say that it perfects filmic animation. I really want to say that so much it hurts. But there’s one problem: Wall-E is too busy transcending animation to do something so pitiful as to perfect it.