The Screening Room
wal e
Wall-E is a romantic fool. He's such a kind little robot that you marvel that someone could be so pure of heart. Is that even possible?

"Wall-E" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. This is a review of the 3-disc DVD set.

It's no secret that Pixar still manages to mine the gold and usually hits the jackpot on their films. The studio's track record is amazing. The box office numbers are impressive, as none of the Pixar features has lost money. Except in rare cases, the critics adore every film the studio has released. I've always preferred the studio's films to those of other studios, as Pixar's films are free of cheap jokes and wall-to-wall pop tunes that have nothing to do with the story. That's not to say that Pixar is perfect, or other studios haven't released very good films. "Cars" didn't register with me, and I thought that DreamWorks did a tremendous job on "Kung Fu Panda."

When I first saw the artwork of the little robot Wall-E, the first thing that came to mind was "Short Circuit" (1986). Both Number 5 and Wall-E looked very similar to each other. Then I once I saw previews of "Wall-E," he reminded me a bit of "E.T." Was Pixar betting on a hybrid character for their next film? Typical of the studio and its creative minds, there was more to it.

The film is unusual for Pixar, as it delves into a bit of melancholy. The opening of the film is bleak. Earth is deserted. The oceans have dried up and metal skyscrapers inhabit the skyline with tall piles of trash. The only ray of light is seeing Wall-E (Ben Burtt) toiling away cleaning garbage left by humans. They've left Earth to live in space.

The fantastic production design by Ralph Eggleston is bleak as it would be in any post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Tremendous detail and nodes to classic science fiction like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Wars" are found throughout Eggelston's design.

Wall-E trudges away, compacting trash into little cubes, until a space probe lands. EVE (Elissa Knight) investigates to see if there's life still left on Earth and indeed finds it in Wall-E. Being the hopeless romantic, the little robot falls for EVE and embarks on a journey with her across the galaxy.

The first act of the film is indeed bleak. I'm not sure how much children will want to pop "Wall-E" into the DVD player like they do with "Finding Nemo" or "Toy Story 2." As cute and charming as the robot is, the footage of Earth's decay isn't the most pleasing image Pixar's known for. This is not to say that it's so grim that children wouldn't enjoy it. This vision, carefully and nicely directed by Andrew Stanton, would be totally at home among other bleak science fiction classics. 

The film is contrasted by the Earthlings inhabiting the pristine and super clean spaceship, Axiom. Humans have become gluttonous and lazy, each being served by robots. Is this a comment on how our society has become so reliant on convenience and brand naming? Yep. Is the statement strong? Not so much, but it is funny. I found the humans to be enjoyable lampoons of our consumer society, I wanted to laugh more at them, and ourselves to a degree, over our obsession with material goods and convenience.  

Does Wall-E win you over, though? I found the character heartwarming, for lack of a better term. But I didn't find that he had an edge. Perhaps that was by design. Most of Pixar's heroic characters have had another set of qualities that made them more rounded. Woody was the king of Andy's toys, but had the flaw of envy once Buzz Lightyear came around. Flick was a simple and kind character, but he gained the guts to fight Hopper. Marlin was a wreck and over protective of Nemo, but finally came to understand it was okay to let go.

Wall-E doesn't really have a dichotomy. Though he does his job well, there's not much else to him other than he's a fool in love. Nothing wrong with that, but I see Wall-E as more of a follower than a leader. EVE is really the strongest character, for she's assertive and smart and carries Wall-E through the movie. Wall-E is almost too sweet, too passive. Wouldn't it be nice if we had more Wall-E's in the world? But is he strong enough to carry the movie?

I saw the film theatrically and walked out with a grin on my face. My daughter "kinda" liked it, and my brother-in-law didn't have an opinion of it other than, "It was okay." I thought I was the odd-man out. This was Pixar at its best. Again. Yet after some introspection, I came to the conclusion that the film was strong in so many ways, but its weaknesses undermined my overall thoughts on it. After watching it again, it became clearer.

The movie is really two movies in one. On one side, it's a spectacular vision of a planet I don't think most humans would want to inhabit. This is a brave attempt by Pixar to break its own mold of cute worlds. This is not to say that Pixar hasn't challenged its own conventions. "Ratatouille" used the sewers of Paris as part of its backdrop. "Wall-E's" Earth environment could house the Droogs from "A Clockwork Orange" or Lord Humongous from "The Road Warrior (aka "Mad Max 2.") This isn't a kid-friendly world.

What throws the film's bleakness off is the cartoonish nature of the humans and some of the robot side characters. It isn't a horrible turn of events, but the story's underlying dark commentary belongs in a science fiction movie that aims to depress you. A film that comes to mind is George Lucas's underrated "THX 1138." Though the cartoonish humans and Wall-E's cuteness work, they seem to be from a different movie.

The human survivors, who ruined Earth in the first place, don't seem to care about their reckless behavior even after an epiphany. The only sympathetic character is Captain (Jeff Garlin). He's the only intelligent human on board the Axiom. But the other characters were a bit too cartoonish. I'm sure these were conscious choices. The human gags are funny and I understand the commentary, but it didn't quite work for me.

The robots like M-O are indeed cute and they brought a smile to my face. Yet they seemed out of place and almost too childlike. I understand their appeal to little kids, but I felt as though I was watching toddlers trying to communicate. Cute at first, but somewhat bothersome as the movie unfolded. I yearned for adult talk and not the conversation of "MO" and "Wall-E." 

The story really focuses on Wall-E's love for EVE. I thought it was nice that Wall-E expresses his love for EVE with the simple holding of hands. I enjoyed EVE's watchful eye on the little trash robot. I felt that she kindly accepted him rather than was out-right in love with him. He seemed to be more of a nuisance than a companion to her. There's no doubt that she finds him sweet and probably cute, but would their romance really work? If this was a live-action film, and it was the story about a peaceful man living alone on Earth when a woman with laser guns a blazing comes flying into town, would the audience still buy it? 

The character of Wall-E is lovingly animated. His design allows for a full range of human expression and movement. He is a little charmer and only aims to please, almost like a puppy. But even a puppy snarls. Not mean spirited by any means, but ready to protect his house when a stranger comes to the front door. Maybe it might've been funny if Wall-E exchanged some laser fire with EVE to defend his turf.     

Wall-E's voice is given life by sound designer Ben Burtt. There is a sweet quality to the robot, and I'd be darned if I could trace Burtt's real voice because I can't. He makes the little 'bot whistle and charm his way into your heart. The DVD bonus material on Disc 1 has a very good documentary on Burtt and his work. He's a wizard in sound design and virtually helped re-invent how sound is used in movies (Walter Murch is another modern day father of film sound.) I liked that this segment includes a nod to Disney's sound department which featured Jimmy MacDonald.

I should note that this DVD set comes with the excellent Leslie Iwerks documentary, "The Pixar Story." I saw this during a special screening in 2007 and was very impressed by it. The film covers those early and tough years when Pixar was making short films like "Tin Toy" and expanding the boundaries of animation. It features numerous interviews with John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, and many who helped build Pixar. For adult viewers of "Wall-E" and for adults who admire Pixar, this is a must see.

This is a mixed review for me because I admire this film on many levels. "Wall-E" is a beautifully rendered and it's a very good. Director Andrew Stanton and his team never cease to amaze me by pushing the digital animation envelope. They're constantly finding new ways to make the animation more realistic. The story is well plotted and the characters are developed very nicely. Yet I missed the guts of "The Incredibles," or the "wish factor" of "Ratatouille."

It seemed as though the film was trying to please two audiences at the same time; adults who are into heavy science fiction stories, and children who like cute robots. I think the story actually might've been even more compelling if it revolved around EVE and her quest to be free. As it is, "Wall-E" is a wonderful film, just not as complete as it could've been.

Bill Kallay

Photos: BVHE/Pixar. All rights reserved.
DVD Quick Glimpse

single disc cover

Sweet charm gets "Wall-E" far

Director: Andrew Stanton  

Cast: Ben Burtt, Alissa Knight, Jeff Garlin  

Animated shor "Burn-E," deleted scenes, the excellent Leslie Iwerks film "The Pixar Story," games and more


Picture: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

Check out the stars in some scenes for CinemaScope "bokeh"

Aspect Ratio (2.39:1)

Dolby Digital 5.1

November 18, 2008
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