By Darren Franich
June 27, 2018 at 07:44 PM EDT
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The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.

In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The Love Guru couldn’t ruin Mariska Hargitay, at least. Next week: Will Smith’s last Fourth of July movie. This week: Critic at large Leah Greenblatt and TV critic Darren Franich discuss some wonderful robots.

LEAH: Okay, Darren, I have seen your Speed Racers and your Narnias and your Made of Honors. (Just kidding! Why would I see Speed Racer? But I did read your and Chris Nashawaty’s excellent column about it, which was both more entertaining and less traumatic for my central nervous system.) Now, I raise you a WALL-E.

The movie doesn’t need much introduction, does it? It earned more than half a billion dollars at the global box office, won every award short of a Cable Ace and a Tony (including the Oscar for Best Animated Feature), and made thousands of small children beg their parents for a trash compactor for Christmas.

I can’t lie, I had to be dragged to see it — by EW’s former managing editor, no less. I just didn’t super-care about a robot who cleans up old industrial waste and talks to cockroaches. But 98 minutes later, I came out of the multiplex a new girl. Or at least a temporary groupie for sentient garbage cans.

This film is brilliant. And I say that as someone who secretly thought that whole anatomy-of-a-marriage scene in Up that everyone else on this planet adores was sort of manipulative and corny. There’s a timelessness to WALL-E’s story of a scrappy little robot and his lady love, EVE, that just gets me; a kind of Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplin-Mickey Mouse wonder to the near-wordlessness of it all.

Also, I would like to point out how prescient and subversive the narrative is, in its own way, about futurism and the environment and what relentless technology can do the human soul. Rewatching it now, I refuse to believe Denis Villeneuve did not screen this movie before he took on Blade Runner 2049: The dystopian skyline! The abandoned-casino thing! The bionic femme fatale!

But enough about me and my subreddit theories. Are you a fan?

DARREN: It’s interesting to hear that you were trepidatious about WALL-E, Leah! In hindsight, I don’t know if I’ve ever been more excited for a Pixar movie. The cutest little robot in the post-apocalypse arrived in cinemas in the midst of the animation company’s run of all-timers: Finding NemoThe Incredibles, Ratatouille (and in fairness, Cars seemed much better before the sequels). The first half-hour of WALL-E is, like, my beautiful dark twisted cinematic fantasy: a peppy, gorgeous, family-friendly romp through the abandoned trashpile ruins of our planet.

It almost feels as if director Andrew Stanton, and Pixar as a whole, were responding to a series of dares. Can you start a blockbuster cartoon with a basically dialogue-free opening act? Can you construct a story with a hard left turn, sending the characters to space and introducing a whole demented far-future human society? Can you do all this with a couple characters who barely speak, who barely have definable faces? Can you make it a romance? Can you also make it a compelling portrait of consumerism run amok?

I love your comparison of this film to Blade Runner 2049, which I will now always describe as “WALL-E but six hours long.” And I think you’re right to call out the genuinely subversive qualities of this film. In some ways, I think this was as deep and dark as Pixar’s ever gotten — way more bleak than the hand-holding inferno of Toy Story 3, and much more eerie than the spectacular(ly charming) deathverse in Coco. There’s something spiky about Wall-E that makes it a more rewarding rewatch than a lot of Pixar’s more recent movies, some of which have been good, all of which feel increasingly sentimental. I’m not against sentiment — I didn’t just cry during Inside Out, I cried during the lava love song that opened Inside Out — but there’s a serious foundation underlying Wall-E. It’s the only kids’ cartoon that you’d ever compare to Black Mirror.

I’d be intrigued to hear more of your subreddit theories, Leah, but I’d also like to get your thoughts on something: I seem to recall when WALL-E came out that there was this knock on the movie, that the opening Earth stuff was GREAT and all the stuff on the Axiom was “merely good.” Do you think the film makes the shift work? And where does WALL-E rank in your Pixar lineup?

LEAH: Darren, you are clearly a man with a PhD in Pixar, and I’m like, Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times, calling in pizzas and failing the quiz on Monsters Inc. But I love your idea of the plot being a series of challenges the studio set for themselves; it’s so WALL-E and the Argonauts. (And if we keep going with that Greek analogy, Andrew Stanton definitely gets the Golden Fleece. Also, a piece of my heart.)

Don’t get my wrong, I am generally very glad that we live in a world where Pixar exists, but WALL-E I think stands apart in a singular and special way, because it really shows their very best nature as creators and what they’re able to do that few other animated movies — and honestly, not many live-action ones either — can: Capture something cosmic about humanity that transcends age, culture, and even language itself.

As for where it stands in my own rankings, I do love a Ratatouille (there are tiny, French-y vermin paws in my soup, and I’m not mad!); Coco (when I die, I too hope to cross the marigold bridge); and Finding Dory (for Hank the Octopus alone — another triumph of visuals over dialogue, though, yes, I know he also talks). And if there’s a runner-up-slash-tie for first place, it’s Inside Out, hands down.

But I just keep coming back to WALL-E. And I understand the people who say it loses something when they land on the Axiom, even if I don’t completely agree; the ineffable pixie dust of that first half-hour does dissipate a little into something more conventional if still wonderfully Pixar-y when all the wobbly, spherical mortals roll in. Still, they’re more like the boneless ham in the magical metaphysical sandwich that is that central love story.

Lately I’ve been thinking that sooner rather than later, life might imitate art and wipe us right off this beautiful, messed-up planet. If it does, I hope somebody beams multiple DVDs of this movie into the universe and keeps them safe in a nice asteroid-proof box, because I’d be more than happy (cue the marigolds) to have it represent mankind. Wouldn’t you?

DARREN: There’s something so right about the notion of blasting WALL-E DVDs into space so they can become archeological detritus for far-future aliens to discover. After all, this movie is about detritus. You have a good point about the transcendent quality of this film, Leah, and I think that comes from a curious central paradox. This is a futuristic space-fiction drama, made with the highest-of-tech equipment in the century Arthur C. Clarke used to name books after. But there’s an analog longing in every frame of WALL-E, a bittersweet admiration for the world of real things.

When WALL-E watches his Hello, Dolly VHS tape, it’s a sweetly poignant moment of ascension. Here’s a robot who picks up garbage, watching a flop Hollywood musical on a low-resolution video format — and learning about Love, and Music, and so much more! It’s a portrait of a movie fandom, and a reminder that loving movies is another way to love humanity. So WALL-E is way up there on my list too, right alongside Toy Story 2 and Inside Out, probably just above Finding Nemo. Those films are beautiful in their own way, and they make me nostalgic for my childhood. WALL-E makes me nostalgic for, like, human civilization. And it gives me hope that, against all odds, we can clean up our trash planet.

Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:

May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny

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