Monday, March 15, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #2

Autopilot: On the Axiom, you will survive.
Captain MacCrea: I don't
want to survive. I want to live!

#2 - WALL-E (2008)

You have to wonder, sometimes, if people really understand the things they're seeing.

Take, for instance, Pixar Animation Studios, the makers of Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and this movie.

Every one of these movies was well-received. Every one of these movies had a sizable 'kid' audience (though in 'Up's case, there was some complaining that the movie wasn't nearly as kid-friendly as they'd come to expect of a Pixar film); as if to underscore the point, every one of Pixar's film with the exceptions of Up and The Incredibles was rated 'G' by the MPAA, with the latter two being rated 'PG' (and none were rated as 'highly' as PG-13).

And every single one of these movies has moments of almost unbelievable bleakness and despair:

  • In Toy Story 2, there's an entire song devoted to the moment where Jesse the Yodeling Cowgirl's owner didn't want to play with her anymore, and that moment so scars Jessie that she allows that feeling to justify her existence as a sealed-away collectible on a museum shelf.
  • In A Bug's Life, the entire plot is driven off of the knowledge that, if the ants don't drive off the bullying grasshoppers that are extorting them, they'll all die -- either murdered by the grasshoppers themselves, or left to starve in the winter after the grasshoppers have taken the rest of the ants' food.
  • In Finding Nemo, the main characters are two clownfish that are the only survivors of a predatory attack by a larger fish that resulted in the deaths of not only the mother clownfish, but every other egg in her clutch.
  • The Incredibles features a villainous plot where the main bad guy, as a result of being forsaken by the heroic Mr. Incredible, devises a plan by which he not only secretly murders other superheroes, but will eventually make the entire idea of superheroes obsolete, complete with the catchphrase, "When everybody's special, nobody will be."
  • Up, of course, is one of the saddest and bleakest films Pixar has ever made, with a protagonist whose main motivation though the first two-thirds of the movie is to get his house to a particular place in South America so he can die there. (Don't believe me? Well, it's not like there are any grocery stores near Angel Falls, at least not as it's portrayed in the film. And while the protagonist's hero has survived in the area for decades, that hero also has a horde of intelligent dogs to do his hunting (and cooking!) for him; no such assistance is forthcoming for the protagonist, at least that he foresees.)

Even the now-famous Pixar Intro, featuring a bouncy desk lamp named Luxo, Jr., is capable of being interpreted bleakly.

The supreme irony is that this company, responsible for some of the bleakest moments in all of animated cinema, has entirely replaced the classic Disney animation studio, renowned for, among other things, hardly ever being bleak.

Why I liked it

True to the Pixar form, WALL-E contains a number of moments of bleakness.

Begin with WALL-E himself, who as we see has survived his 700-year mission of cleaning up Earth (or at least the area around ersatz New York City) by cannibalizing broken-down versions of himself. We later see that he has plenty of parts from other WALL-E's, arguably enough to make an entire additional WALL-E, yet the only other thing on Earth with which WALL-E interacts is a cockroach, who WALL-E treats as a pet.

WALL-E's mission, of course, is to clean up the Earth while humans are away enjoying the luxuries of 'executive starliners'; when we finally meet the jewel of that fleet, we discover that nobody particularly seems disturbed by going on year 700 of an original 5-year trip.

While still on Earth, WALL-E meets -- and falls for -- EVE, a fancy-looking robot who nevertheless is violently paranoid and has anger-management issues, at least when we first meet her.

Lastly, in getting humanity back to Earth, WALL-E himself is beaten up to the point of near destruction, and ends up posing the philosophical Ship of Theseus question in an ending which is arguably much too intense for small kids to really handle, and I'm sure led to many more uncomfortable driving-home conversations than most parents really anticipated.

Let's quickly touch on my other personal love-buttons, as noted in previous posts in this series:

  • Protagonist not an uber-competent warrior but rather a 'regular guy': check (though one could argue that EVE is as much protagonist as WALL-E, and she manages to get quite a bit done, it is WALL-E who originally finds the plant and shows it to EVE, triggering the main conflict of the story)
  • Juvenalian satire of commonly-accepted 'truth': check (to wit, the idea that capitalism will naturally make us all healthier, happier, and leave us with a better world than we started with)
  • 'Hey, it's that voice!' moments: Not just Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's computer (which also makes a humorous contrast with her role in GalaxyQuest) and John Ratzenberger as John, but also MacInTalk, the Macintosh's text-to-speech software, as the voice of the autopilot
  • Science-fiction connections: check (the story itself takes place over 700 years in Earth's future, but is also, as noted by Matthew Battles on the Encyclopedia Brittanica blog, a re-formulation of a turn-of-the-20th century science fiction story by E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops"; this may, in fact, be more significant than it first appears -- see below)

Oh, yeah, one other thing: the juxtaposition of conflicting emotional images. Consider the end of the movie, with WALL-E restored and Captain MacCrea jubilantly explaining to the kids watering the plant that brought the humans home how they'll grow all kinds of plants as they grow up, as a triumphant orchestral snippet goes on in the background, eventually giving way to Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" as the end credit theme. Then recall that the beginning of the movie featured the jaunty "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the musical Hello, Dolly! as we approached Earth and discovered a barren, sepia-colored wasteland.

Oh, and remember the reference to Forster's "The Machine Stops" above? That story ends with the machine-addled 'civilization' falling apart as the machines that maintain it break down, with the machine-dependent humans dying off in favor of "The Homeless", those exiled from machine-enabled society for questioning it, some of whom manage to find a way to survive on a bleak and desolate Earth, and who inherit it with the collapse of machine-addled society. Now go back and re-read the exchange between the autopilot and the Axiom's captain that leads off this essay.

Still think this movie has an unabashedly upbeat ending?

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