Rick’s Favourite Movies, 2 of 52: “WALL-E”

Number 2 on my list of 52 all-time favourite movies is WALL-E, which stars WALL-E, and is directed and produced and written by a bunch of Pixar guys.

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(USUAL DISCLAIMER: I am not saying these are objectively the 52 best movies ever, or even what I think are the 52 best.  They are not presented in any particular order, aside from that I’m trying to avoid too many of the same genre of movie in a row.  They’re just the 52 I find the most interesting to discuss.)

It goes without saying, I guess, that the Pixar people have made a lot of great movies; WALL-E, Toy Story, Inside Out, Up, The Incredibles, and on and on.  They’ve had a few mediocre entries (all the Cars movies) but their record, in percentage terms, is better than anyone.

I promise I’ll get back to WALL-E, but… “Toy Story” is not going to be on my list – it’s great, it just isn’t going to make it, because this is Pixar’s turn here – but I’ll tell you this; I think WALL-E is a better movie, but “Toy Story” is one of the most important movies ever made, definition “important” as being “important in terms of the effect on the art and industry of movies.”  If you asked me “Hey, idiot, what are the three most important movies ever made in the 45 years you have blighted this planet” the list would be Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, and Toy Story.  Jurassic Park would just miss.

  1. Star Wars was the movie that truly began both the concepts of a cinematic/multi-media fictional “universe” and of absolutely gargantuan marketing tie-ins.
  2. Pulp Fiction re-introduced the small, independent film as a force in Hollywood.
  3. Toy Story invented the entire CGI animation genre.

So let’s give Pixar a lotta credit, man; they have made ten or more truly great movies and the most important movie in over two decades.   Of course, others have tried to imitate them, and some have had some success; “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks, or “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” by Sony, were both wonderful.  But those studios have as many losers as winners.

Oh, right, WALL-E.  Sorry.  WALL-E is, at least to my eyes, an absolutely stunning masterpiece; it was the best movie of 2008 and one of the twenty or thirty best movies ever made, in the opinion of your humble correspondent.  Like Fargo, I find the movie not just flawless, but unrelentingly brilliant.  Not every movie on this list will get that praise, by the way.  But it is.  I found every minute of the film breathtaking.

Now, while I think WALL-E is still the best Pixar film, it has a lot of similarities to their other very best work, like Inside Out or Finding Nemo. For all that Pixar is a money fountain, it’s clear that Pixar makes films largely – not absolutely entirely, but largely – for the sake of making good films.  Sure, they work in toy and merchandising opportunities; they’re owned by Disney after all.  Why that is I can’t tell you for sure; one theory is that Pixar, even under Disney ownership, remains a very reserved, almost cloistered studio that doesn’t invite in celebrity directors and writers.  A simpler reason, though, may just be that they hit it so big with their first movie (“Toy Story,” which made ten times its budget at the box office and remains the worst box office hit in the studio’s history) that they never really had to answer to an accountant again, and the powers that be are inclined to think “Let ’em do what they want, it’s always worked before, right?”

I’m trying to find my point here… Two linked scenes are worth watching.  One is very early in the film, when EVE, WALL-E’s crush, first arrives on Earth on her mission to find plants.  She dutifully begins to do her job, but after the rocket that deposits her flies away, she looks to see that it is gone… and then, for just a few minutes, she soars into the sky, rocketing around the abandoned city, blasting through the sound barrier, rejoicing, just for a few moments, in her freedom and the sheer power she is possessed of.  Despite the fact that she’s just a robot with few external features – she looks quite a lot like an iPod – the sense of joy is palpable, helped along by a thrilling tracking shot and just the right music.

Later, amidst a lot of plot and story going on, EVE and WALL-E (propelling himself with a fire extinguisher) fly along the side of the gigantic starship Axiom, spinning and weaving, flying just for the sheer joy of it, for a moment setting aside EVE’s mission, and the same music plays as WALL-E shares EVE’s gift of flight and freedom. They dance among the ship’s engines and around the exhaust shimmering in space like fountains of light, the two sharing nothing more than love and friendship and happiness.   It’s a truly wondrous scene, one of the most beautiful and stirring scenes in all of film, both unspeakably beautiful and perfectly scored.  In time they go back into the ship and continue their adventure, but for a few moments they are simply dancing, like in the musical of old, not advancing the story but telling us in no uncertain terms that whatever other technological advancements had been made in the eight hundred years between now and then, somewhere along the way, robots gained souls.

The genius of Pixar – one of the geniuses, anyway – is that very early on they realized that it’s one thing to use computers to make amazing things happens on screen, like have toys move and talk, or bugs behave like people, but anyone with enough money to buy workstations and hire nerds can do that.   Give me $150 million and I’ll produce an animated picture ten times better than The Emoji Movie (which ain’t sayin’ much.)  Pixar realized that the secret to transcending their medium was in finding ways to get their robots, toys, bugs and rats to tell stories about the human condition.

WALL-E is about a little robot, but it’s really a fable that teaches the audience what’s good about human beings.  Yes, the movie has very clear messages about consumerism and environmental destruction; that’s quite literally the story.  But the theme is humanity.  The movie’s trick is that the people are the robots and the robots are the people.  The humans in WALL-E have given up everything good about themselves; they simply consume and exist.  They never touch each other, never love each other, never do anything, never make anything.  They may as well be asleep (and in a sense they are.)  They are robots; food is inputted, and they produce outputs.  The robots, conversely, are becoming human.

WALL-E arrives in the sterile, boring world or the comatose humans because he has learned to be everything humans used to be.  He is curious, industrious, hard-working, dedicated, caring, funny, loving.  Even though he’s often afraid, he summons the courage to do the right thing and follow his heart.  That’s what being a person, a human being, is about.  That is what is good about us.  We attain our greatest heights as humans when we overcome fear and work towards love and creation and humor and joy. And because WALL-E does those things, he gives humanity a second chance to find those things in themselves again.

That’s the link to the other best Pixar films.  “Finding Nemo” isn’t about fish, not really; it’s about parents dealing with children growing up.  “Inside Out” is about how all a person’s feelings matter.  “Toy Story” is about honesty and acceptance.  I could go on.  You get the point.

The very best Pixar films may be about robots or fish or rats, but that’s just a disguise.  They’re really about people, and what’s in our hearts, and that’s why they’re so great.

What’s your favourite Pixar film?

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