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Released in 2008, Pixar’s ninth feature remains one of the studio’s most ambitious productions and one of its most critically acclaimed. WALL-E is about a lonely robot living 700 years in the future and his pursuit of love across the galaxy. It would go on to win the Best Animated Feature at ceremonies including the Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes.
Set on a future Earth that is a smoggy rubbish tip abandoned by humans, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class) is the last robot still working to clean up the planet sized mess. Over hundreds of years, he has developed into a curious romantic obsessed with trinkets and Hello Dolly. His existence is given new meaning by the arrival of EVE, a state of the art probe, tasked with searching for plant life. For love, WALL-E travels to the stars and discovers that humans have been changed by their time in space.
Structurally, WALL-E is divided into two parts. The first section introduces WALL-E and his life on a future Earth destroyed by humans with the help of a monopolistic global corporation, Buy N Large, which appears to have achieved absolute dominance in everything from politics and banking to shopping. Rubbish towers over skyscrapers as holograms play ads that no human has watched in generations. It’s a bleak and dystopian environment influenced by science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Akira and The Omega Man.
This section is also largely dialogue-free. The city’s only inhabitants are WALL-E and a cockroach who eats 700-year-old Twinkies. Instead, the story is told through pantomime as the accident-prone WALL-E investigates the junk left behind. The absence of dialogue is a bold move that communicates the central character’s isolation and acute loneliness. So too does his affection for Hello Dolly and one of its love songs, which the robot watches on an early iPod and a video cassette. There’s a genuine sense of longing in these scenes as WALL-E yearns for a hand to hold.
Described on Pixar’s website as a cross between R2-D2 and Buster Keaton, WALL-E doesn’t look futuristic. By contrast, EVE is sleek and modern with an appearance that could have come from Apple’s designers (Steve Jobs owned 50% of Pixar when WALL-E went into production in 2003). The pair communicate mostly through chirps and beeps. The love story is rather sweet and old-fashioned though WALL-E’s pursuit of EVE across the galaxy is a bit full on.
And his journey brings us to the second part of the film aboard the Axiom, the spaceship that has been home to some humans for hundreds of years. Robots dictate every aspect of life on board and the humans have grown obese and dependent on the machines for everything. The film shifts from a love story into a comic caper as EVE scrabbles to deliver the plant while WALL-E tries to win her affection.
Classic science fiction is a huge influence here as well. The first reveal of the Axiom suggests a space station from Star Trek or Star Wars. There are references to Flight of the Navigator, Titanic, Alien (Sigourney Weaver provides the voice of the computer) and 2001: A Space Odyssey as the red eye of the nefarious Autopilot conjures up the murderous HAL.
The second part of the film is weaker than the opening half in part because it’s just less compelling and original. There are holes in the worldbuilding that provoke awkward questions about life on the Axiom and its maintenance over the last 700 years. It’s unclear if these are the last humans or if there are other ships hiding among the stars. Humans don’t come out of the story well and the end credit animations attempt to soften this impression. Still, it’s hard to ignore a bleak attitude to the idea that people can change. It’s the robots who give the story its necessary sense of hope.
Since its release, WALL-E has been interpreted as a morality tale about the consequences of overconsumption, a sly dig at Disney (who distributed Pixar’s early films before buying the studio in 2006) and an environmental fable. Whatever its meaning, there’s no denying the ambition and originality on display even if the film isn’t entirely successful as a whole. The storytelling is complimented by Thomas Newman’s lovely score. Clips from Hello Dolly are integrated into the animation alongside live action sequences featuring Fred Willard as the Global CEO of Buy N Large.
An animated science fiction love story, WALL-E remains a unique entry in Pixar’s catalogue. Hopefully, no one will ever come up with an idea for a sequel.