WALL-E (USA, 2008)
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Sigourney Weaver

Asking what is Pixar's best film is something of a loaded question. The studio's immense acclaim has meant on the one hand that arguing between Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2 amounts to little more than splitting hairs, and on the other hand that a certain vindictive breed of critics are waiting in eager anticipation for when the big flop arrives. But despite a couple of wobbles (The Incredibles is too long and Ratatouille too shiny), said group of critics is going to be kept waiting just that little bit longer.WALL-E is further proof not only of the genius of Pixar as both animators and storytellers, but of the ongoing relevance of both highbrow science fiction and the conventions of silent movies. It is also a continuing demonstration of the ability of so-called 'children's films' to be perfectly pitched towards everyone, whatever their age or inclination. On top of that, the film has a visual beauty and a striking sense of humanity which give even the likes of Toy Story a run for their money.

For the opening 20 minutes, WALL-E is effectively a silent movie. There is next to nothing approaching dialogue, and the actions of our central character are a mix of menial routines and knock-about, Laurel and Hardy slapstick. The latter aspect is brought out by Thomas Newman's score: its prominent use of oboes and clarinets reflect the classical grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the individual riffs are playful and are timed to coincide with the jokes. Add in the great sound editing, by Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood, and you have an opening act of both humour and poignancy.
We've all seen various attempts to parody silent films; Richard Attenborough's Chaplin managed to stage the filming of one which made us simultaneously laugh with and at what was going on. But despite all the advances in technology, watching WALL-E reminds you just how much of the manner of silent cinema remains, and of how useful it is. Sure, the 'actors' may no longer wear black-and-white make-up, and we don't find the need to use inter-titles any more. But so much of WALL-E relies on the prominent use of physical gesture to convey subtle emotions - WALL-E's eyes are always prominently shot so that the smallest movement is amplified and the character becomes more recognisable.

owes a large debt to a number of science fiction films. 2001 looms over it, not just in the score but in the grand scale of human civilisation in space, and of course in the villain. The Autopilot looks exactly like HAL, the only difference being his voice; in 2001 HAL is the most human-sounding character, while Auto's voice was created by a Macbook. There are also references to E.T. and Short Circuit both in the design of WALL-E and the film's prominent sentimentality. Fortunately it never feels as mawkish or manipulative as either of these, and so you forgive it even when the highly predictable ending comes along.But by far the biggest influence on WALL-E is Silent Running. The first 20 minutes are literally Silent Running, both in the plot resemblance and in the lack of sound (boom boom). Both films begin with the premise of humans having to abandon the Earth due to the high levels of waste and pollution that have devastated natural life. The humans that remain in space have grown lazy and apathetic; they don't understand about how plants grow or how important it is to care about natural life, because everything they need can be delivered through a straw. Even their clothes can be digitally altered as fashions change (though Doug Trumball could have only dreamed of such an effect).

Where WALL-E differs from Silent Running, along with most other environmental films, is that it is not in the least bit preachy towards its subject matter. Silent Running, for all its virtues, quickly gets bogged down with Bruce Dern giving sanctimonious speeches about the need to take care of the Earth. Like An Inconvenient Truth, such speeches contain much that can be agreed upon, but they are delivered in such a way that you grew to dislike the character giving them and thereby disregard his words of wisdom. Because so much in WALL-E is subtle and underplayed, even when it is being very sentimental, we never feel alienated from its generally positive message.WALL-E's strength from a thematic point of view is that it manages to convey ideas about the environment and human emotion without either patronising the audience or giving them a negative lecture. The sight of humans being unable to walk because their bones have withered in zero gravity is more than enough to get children up and exercising; such images are so well-constructed that there is no need for the human characters to stand up and start wagging their fingers at the screen. The environmental lessons which the film focuses on revolve around positive action (i.e. take care of the Earth, do more exercise etc.) rather than simply berating the audience for all the damage they have done.

The visuals of the film are an aid to this. It's very easy to complain that all CGI looks the same, but actually much of the designs of WALL-E are above and beyond what we have come to expect. Although the entire film is digitally animated, it has a feeling of intimacy to it. This is not just intimacy in the relationship we have with the central character, but with the world in which he finds himself. The film has a beautiful cinematography, capturing a multitude of hues and tones among even the most sterile of surfaces: the inside of the spaceships are shot so brightly, they look like fairgrounds. The film doesn't feel like just another corporate knock-off which is made for the sake of advertising software, as the more recent Shrek movies have seemed.On top of all the intelligence, substance, humanism and beautiful music, WALL-E is also a great children's movie because it's really good fun. It never gets bogged down in the complexities of its subject matter, or hampered by the sense of smugness which seems to occur when Brad Bird is at the helm. Andrew Stanton, who co-directed Finding Nemo, understands not only for the need to balance light and shade, but that the two can be intertwined - bringing us right back to the pathos-ridden comedy of Charlie Chaplin. Some of the darkest moments in WALL-E are lifted by little sparks of comedy, like the little robot with a brush trying to clean WALL-E just after he has been badly damaged.WALL-E is a really intelligent children's film, which like all proper children's films is able to be fully enjoyed and appreciated by adults. Although its central relationship isn't as adventurous as one might like (i.e. the boy-robot and girl-robot end up together), there is very little else about the film which one could object to without being accused of sour grapes. The film is charming, humorous, sensitive and smart; you feel completely involved in the world of the characters and are left wanting more at the end. A real must-see.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: A children's film with brains (and heart)


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