Fred Willard, Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Najimy, John Ratzenberger, Jeff Garlin
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
From the opening moments when "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the musical "Hello Dolly" wafts its way across the movie screen through the closing moments of Pixar's latest work of animated transcendence, "Wall-E," when Peter Gabriel and the Soweto Gospel Choir serenade us home with the beautiful "Down to Earth," the folks at Pixar again remind us that there simply is no equal to Pixar when it comes to full-length animated feature films.
Co-written and directed by Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo"), "Wall-E" is easily the most transcendent cinematic experience thus far in 2008 and is so far above the vast majority of animated features that we might as well skip this category in the Oscars this year and hand the golden statuette on over to Wall-E and his beloved Eve.
To say that "Wall-E" should have been a failure would be to massively underestimate the the consistently brilliant folks at Pixar. Still, let's be honest. Could any other production company make a feature-length animated film that enfolds an environmental message, an intimate love story and slapstick humor utilizing minimal dialogue and actually have it work?
I'll answer that for you. The answer is "No." In anyone else's hands, "Wall-E" would have bombed.
In Pixar's hands? "Wall-E" is an emotionally resonant and breathtakingly beautiful film accessible to adults and children alike with moments of silliness, simplicity and surprising sophistication.
There are times, undoubtedly, that "Wall-E" feels formulaic. I can't help but wonder, however, if that's not a huge part of Stanton's point. Wall-E, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter- Earth class, is a robotic blend of #5 and E.T. left to fend for himself on an Earth that was decimated by human greed and stupidity and is now abandoned by the Earthlings who've floated for 700 years on a ship called The Axiom. The once superior human race has largely been reduced to immobile masses of obese figurines who toil their lives away in a sedated state of blissful ignorance.
With the exception of a befriended insect of some sort, Wall-E is alone...until, that is, Eve (Earth Vegetation Evaluator) is sent to Earth from The Axiom to see if there are any signs of life on the planet that may indicate the chance to return home.
Wall-E, the character, is one of the most magnificently developed characters in cinema this year. With hardly a word spoken, we are brought into the creative and mesmerizing world of this childlike robot. Wall-E gets all googly-eyed watching "Hello Dolly," has a perfectly organized closet of techno toys and, perhaps most brilliantly realized by Stanton, he's practically created his own genetic code by spending his hundreds of years alone collecting icon upon icon of humanity and pop culture.
"Wall-E" is so transcendent that it's hard not to worry that it won't connect with a mass audience, despite Pixar's stellar history and the mildly surprising success of their last outing, "Ratatouille." Stanton has completely upped the ante for filmmakers in the animated genre by leap-frogging the current trend in Hollywood to create animated films that have enough action and distraction for kids but also pop culture trends for adults.
With "Wall-E," Stanton blends in just the right mix of silliness, action, special effects and humor for kids with intelligence, romance and a journey through cinematic history, especially in the sci-fi genre, that adults are going to be downright intellectually stimulated.
From the obvious incorporation of "Hello, Dolly" to the inspiring use of "2001," including an ingenious use of that film's Sigourney Weaver, "Wall-E" inter-mixes moments of Chaplin, "The Little Prince," "Star Wars" and quite a few more. I dare say that Stanley Kubrick himself would have adored "Wall-E."
Ben Burtt, an Oscar winner for "Star Wars," has created a majestic sound design and also the voice of "Wall-E," an endearing mix of sweetness, innocence and vulnerability. Elissa Knight ("Cars") voices Eve, a far more contemporary and polished robot than Wall-E, as the beautiful girl on the beach who SEEMS unobtainable but who finds herself enchanted by Wall-E.
Fred Willard shows up in the film's brief live action sequences, primarily in the form of a hologram of the greedy corporate CEO who started the Axiom project and who eventually became president of virtually everything...at least until there was nothing.
Kathy Najimy, John Ratzenberger and Jeff Garlin round out the voice work and Garlin, in particular, shines as the Axiom's captain who finally decides to take matters into his own hands.
It would be easy to say that the film's middle part isn't nearly as transcendent as its beginning and ending sequences. It is during this section that Stanton caters more to the film's younger audiences with a focus on slapstick humor and chase scenes, however, these scenes also add a surprising depth to the growing relationship between Wall-E and Eve. While one could argue that this section goes on a touch too long, it gives audiences more time to appreciate the growing relationship between the two robots and, perhaps just as importantly, to understand just how far humanity has fallen.
"Wall-E" makes sense for Pixar, a company that hasn't missed yet in creating films that satisfy emotionally, artistically and intellectually. When Pixar joined forces with Disney, it was hard not to wonder if their artistic integrity would be compromised. Yet, it's hard to argue with box-office success and Pixar has, at least so far, managed to find the perfect combination of artistic integrity and market viability.
"Wall-E," a wide-release arthouse flick if ever there was one, may be their ultimate test. I, for one, am hoping they pass the test with flying colors.
Often, I find myself trying to steer you away from the latest formulaic, wide-release crap from Hollywood. This week is different. This week, Hollywood gets it right and kudos go to Pixar/Disney for the beautiful, touching, funny and unforgettable "Wall-E."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic