Centuries from now, the world stews in the mounds of garbage and pollution left behind by the human race. Littering the roadways we also find derelict Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robots (WALL-Es), which were supposed to clean up the mess for us.
One survives. He continues the good fight, replacing his own broken parts with those he finds on his broken-down brethren. Over the centuries, he has developed a quirky personality. He's built a home in a garbage bin, and filled it with found items for which he finds practical uses and aesthetic value. He watches old VHS tapes. Hello, Dolly!1 has become his favorite, speaking as it does of love and a life about which he can only dream. He experiences a brief moment of cognitive dissonance when he discovers the spork he's found doesn't really fit with either the spoons or the forks. He also keeps a clever cockroach as a pet— a G-movie convention that doesn't really hurt the film, but adds only little.2
The first quarter of the film moves at a casual pace and features few recognizable words. It's a kind of storytelling sadly lacking in contemporary family films, and it has been done very well here. If visual poetry can be found in a planet-wide dump, Pixar has found it.
Then a ship arrives, bringing with it EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sophisticated robot sent by the human race, who lounge around in space, waiting for their eventual return to earth. After the kind of distrust found in, say, old musicals, the two 'bots fall in love. Their nascent relationship stalls when WALL-E offers EVE his rarest treasure, a living plant. She takes the item and lapses into a kind of coma. The ability of the film to communicate WALL-E's devotion and sadness as he waits for her to awake is an animated achievement. This could have been a short feature on its own, though it would have left a lot of sad viewers and sold few tie-in toys.3
Of course, there's a reason for EVE's state, and both robots soon find themselves aboard the AXIOM, where the remnants of the human race live a life both high-speed and sedentary.
The film's humans provide us with some excellent bits of satire. They're overweight, pampered, generally useless, hedonistic, trend-obsessed, and so plugged into their personal media they remain unaware of the world around them. In short, they resemble more than a little the film's audience.
At this point, WALL-E's pace picks up, the slapstick increases, and story turns conventional. We have a clear objective, setbacks and twists, heroes, villains, and characters who must make choices. The principal villain will be very familiar to fans of Science Fiction. Like a lot of SF WALL-E is political: surprisingly political for a family film, distributed by the sort of corporation it frequently mocks. Its messages about environmentalism, personal responsibility, individuality, and companionship, while not at all subtle, don't feel forced. They grow naturally from the tale WALL-E has to tell.
In the end, we have a very odd G-rated film with a high-tech setting but an old-fashioned approach: tell a story about characters and entertain an audience, and provide fodder for thought along the way.
Accompanying WALL-E is a Pixar short film, "Presto!" This cartoon features the studio's recognizable computer animation, but it hearkens back to the old Warner Brothers 'toons. It's funny, raucous yet innocent, and like the feature, generates maximum laughs from a clever premise. It even features a trickster rabbit.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Jim Capobianco
Ben Burt as WALL-E
Elissa Knight as EVE
Jeff Garlin as the Captain
Fred Willard as Shelby Forthright
John Ratzenberger as John
Kathy Najimy as Mary
Sigourney Weaver as the ship’s computer
1. Of all the up-beat musicals with a love story, why Hello, Dolly? I don’t know, but I can proffer several answers. As one of the last old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, it holds some historical significance. It's instantly recognizable as an old-fashioned Hollywood musical, even to people who have never seen it. It takes place in the era before the First World War, during the great age of belief in technology. Its title song can be sung as, "Hello, WALL-E." Most obscurely, it already has a connection to post-apocalyptic settings; sets from the 1969 film were cannibalized and used in the post-apocalyptic scenes for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Finally, the director/co-writer, Andrew Stanton, had appeared in a high school production of the musical years earlier. When he was going through possible songs to use, he recalled one of his favorite numbers from the famous Jerry Herman musical. The rest was future history.
2. The Custodian notes the "presence of the cockroach and its favorite food" could "be a shoutout to the trope 'cockroaches and twinkies will survive us.'"
3. Such a tale would recall (a little) Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline," which
has been nominated for won a 2008 Hugo Award. Although they differ in many ways, "Tideline" and WALL-E resemble each other enough that the appearance of the story and film in the same year represents an interesting bit of synchronicity.