Just imagine if Pixar was an arthouse studio. Woody and Buzz doing a Gerry by desert-walking while chatting existentialism. Nemo-mento, stuck in his tank suffering three-second memory wipes. And now WALL•E, a boggle-eyed robot crushed by loneliness. Ninety minutes of soul-searching later he’s found his own off-switch and powered down. Metallic suicide. What a film.
Or maybe we made that ending up. This is Pixar after all, a company so expert in creating family friendly-fare that when they had their iffy Cars moment they rebounded spectacularly with adorable rodent romp Ratatouille. All was in order – and round the bend was oh-so-cute WALL•E. Everybody wanted a replica bin months before they’d seen the film and when 10 minutes were sneak-peeked at Total Film’s Red Carpet Preview Event in March there was barely a dry eye in the house.
Not only brave – early footage concentrated on the litter-clunker alone, sometimes with advanced mechanoid EVE, never near anyone who could actually talk – Pixar’s 2008 effort looked stunning, beautiful, epic... And for the first 40 minutes WALL•E is everything you’d hoped for.
Our Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class hero has spent the best part of a millennium sorting out the rubbish left behind by humans when they abandoned our decrepit planet. Everyday he scoops, compresses and releases neat trash squares before shutting down for the night, rising grumpily to fulfil his 9-5.
The early exchanges star just WALL•E, a cockroach and the first dystopian backdrop the Pixar designers have sunk their digi-pens into.
It’s a vivid setting perfect for the inquisitive cleaner as he discovers bras, Rubik’s cubes and Michael Crawford, his various bleeps evoking non-human emoting unlike anything since ET. Then he meets probe droid EVE. Their love blossoms as WALL•E demonstrates the wonder of a whisk, shows her musicals on VHS and then – once she shuts down, having found her objective – stays by her side, sheltering her from the rain and keeping her company with a one-sided game of Pong. It’s like what people do when their loved ones fall into comas. It’s incredibly affecting.
But with kids no doubt scratching around their popcorn buckets hoping for Action! Light! Dialogue! the spell is broken. It’s not necessary (from an adult POV at least) but Pixar must be thinking of their ADD audience by shifting the action wholesale from sparse earth to the thriving spaceport where EVE is from and WALL•E follows. The focus widens as dozens more robots enter the fray alongside thousands of fat, short-legged humans. The gist is that our descendents reverse-evolved to blobs after their every need was satiated by machines. It’s the death of the human race. Like Skynet, but without the violence.
The message – as with the film’s overriding eco-warning – is well-observed and well-meant, but quite what kids, the ones served by the overwhelming increase of characters and action, will make of it is uncertain. This was a unique animation. But for half an hour at least it’s just the latest brilliantly drawn cartoon. Yet such gripes are mean-spirited for a film saturated with ideas, originality and passion. WALL•E may look like the bastard offspring of Johnny 5 and, er, Johnny 5, but he delights with every move. It’s in the details. From his solar panel making the Mac switch-on ‘Boing!’ sound when charged, to his wounded-pride droopy eyes when EVE calls him “Wally!”, he’s one genius Pixar creation destined to be many a child’s plaything and, yes, many an adult’s wastebin.
So where does WALL•E rank in the studio’s heralded history? Put it this way: for 40 minutes, it’s pretty much the greatest film they’ve made. Woody, Nemo, Mr Incredible, Remy? They’ve got nothing on WALL•E flying through space with a fire extinguisher. But the bloated mid-section, where catering to kids takes precedence over silent film-style beauty, is just good, not great. Would a feature-length WALL•E and EVE holding hands on Earth story work? Lord knows. But it would have been fantastic to find out. Pixar arthouse. It was so almost so.
A brilliant blockbuster. WALLE is the star, EVE his inspiration, their planet an immaculate backdrop. The story may flag when the robots head to space and kids may be underwhelmed, but that doesn't matter. This is still a bold, beautiful achievement.