(If you want to see the film unspoiled, I suggest you hold out on reading this until after you’ve been to the cinema.)
Pixar always open their films with a new short. There’s something delicious about the extra layer of anticipation: after the months of expectancy, the hours of wondering how they are going to top the gleam of Cars or the organic textures of Ratatouille, you sit down in your seat ready to to be dazzled by the new world of Wall-e – but first, there’s the funny physics-bending of Presto to get through. Presto is typical of Pixar’s confidence: they can create worlds with any rules they imagine, so they do. And the premise on which Presto builds its cartoon-violence comedy is the brilliantly disarming trick of a physical
universe which doesn’t match the visual one. If you’ve played Silent Hill 2 or Portal, then you’ll know the idea – but even if you recognise what’s going on, your dazzled brain will be delighted.
And then, after they’ve amused and astonished you, Wall-e begins, and is immediately like everything you know and nothing you’ve ever seen.From a stunning starscape, the camera moves down through the atmosphere towards the earth and into a city. The skyscrapers are interspersed with curious rust-red structures: these are the piles of compacted rubbish which Wall-e (the last robot on a deserted Earth) has spent the last 700 years building up. Michael Crawfood croon the incongruous soundtrack from Hello, Dolly! and, two minutes into this world of familiar things made strange and beautiful, I wanted to cry.
It would be easy to say that what makes Pixar good is attention to detail; easy, and not quite right. What they are good at is attention to stuff. We know that Wall-e has developed consciousness in his lonely time on Earth, because he cares about stuff. He has build a collection of the things he likes to much to compact and stack. There is real terror in the piles of detritus, all of which once held a human function – the meaninglessness of objects amplifies the absence of life. Wall-e’s found items are dirty and broken, but they appear beautiful in his trailer because he has found selfhood in them, and they’ve found meaning in him.
Previous Pixar films have held humans in an ambiguous regard. In Finding Nemo, we’re the enemy to be escaped. In Toy Story, the toys love Andy unconditionally – but the constant peril of being abandoned or neglected, and the secret life they have in parallel to their play life, makes humans threatening too. In The Incredibles, normal humans want to repress and murder the Supers. In Monsters, Inc, the Child Protection Service keeps children out of Monstropolis, and we don’t even exist in Cars. Wall-e takes this implied human menace and goes big. Humans have destroyed the Earth with consumption and pollution, then left the Waste Allocation Load Lift – Earth class robots to clean it all up.
But the absence of humans from the early part of the film doesn’t make Wall-e an inhuman film. The pre-movie trailers feature a slew of anthropomorphised animals, with creepily humanoid features. Wall-e and Eve (the robot probe who comes to Earth and forms a relationahip with Wall-e) are designed with the most economical allusions to human form. They have heads, bodies, hands, fingers, and eyes – and with those limited resources, manage wordlessly to suggest a range of intention and emotion that would put fully-featured human actors to shame. Pixar pull off terrifically intricate animations: fur-like fur is drawn hair by hair, dust is rendered mote by mote. But emotion-like emotions are all in the simple gestures of hand and eye – enough for the viewer to imagine with perfect sympathy the inner lives of Wall-e and Eve.
In outer space, the surviving humans are maintained in a pristine consumer society by robots who pre-empt every need and govern every desire. Against this, Wall-e celebrates mess and creation, dirt and artistry (Wall-e tracks mud all over the space ship), the beauty which rises up from labour and waste. It’s a beautifully crafted film in favour of craft, a lovingly created film about love.