Friday, July 15, 2011

About Damned Time

Anyone looking at this will probably cock their head to the side and say "You haven't seen Wall-E yet?" I certainly feel most people say that in person when they learn that particular news about Mr. Anderson. It's true; I've mentioned in the past how animated films have not been my usual theater-going fare, usually relegated to DVD rentals years later. This has been especially true in the past decade, when 3D animated films began to replace the old-school hand-drawn works. Several such films, many of which have been critically acclaimed and have won major awards, have gone unseen through my eyes. Amazing movies, from The Incredibles to Up to How to Train Your Dragon, were missed in the theater. Thankfully, with my recent renewed focus, I've begun to enjoy this genre upon its initial release once again. Still, the excellence of recent titles like Dragon and Rango doesn't guarantee that I'll give all animated films a chance (which is why Mars Needs Moms and Gnomeo and Juliet received a wide berth), but if I can be okay sitting down to see Kung Fu Panda 2 in the cinema, then hopefully that means I'm on the right track. Back to Wall-E. Pixar's 2008 release has since become known as not only the year's best animated film, but among the year's best overall films. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine even named Wall-E the best movie of the decade, a heady compliment that was representative of people's love of this film. For a long time people have told me that Wall-E was their favorite animated film, a strong statement that I was more than happy to find out.

The most adorable robot EVER
Hundreds of years after mankind has abandoned the garbage-strewn Earth to live among the stars, robots have been left behind to clean up our mess. Now there is only one left. Wall-E is almost completely alone in his mission to clean the trash that clogs the cities, his only company a nearly indestructible cockroach. After so long in isolation, Wall-E has developed a quirk for collecting some of the more intriguing finds, including Rubiks cubes, jewelry boxes and a VHS copy of Hello Dolly. His life to this point is lonely, but with no others around, he has resigned himself to this life of sorting and collecting garbage. However, the appearance of a landing spacecraft and a new robot named EVE shakes up Wall-E's existence sets him on an unstoppable course for adventures to worlds outside his own.

"That one's got a temper..."
The first twenty minutes of Wall-E are completely without dialogue. While we observe our intrepid hero, he doesn't vocalize outside of melodic humming and occasional shrieks of surprise. Despite not speaking to the audience (and not being able to even if he wanted) about his loneliness and wistfulness, the Pixar crews have done an amazing job with making the character's personality shine through, which really does the job of making the film more enjoyable while not forcing the audience to become clairvoyant in the process. Wall-E's dialogue-less opening has been copied by other films since (with Pixar successfully duplicating it in Up only two years later) but here it is flawlessly conceived and delivered, becoming one of the best introductions to a film in Hollywood history.

The fact that only ONE cockroach survives the end of the world proves that the film is fiction
The animation is among the best I've seen in a 3D animated film, and most likely among the best all-time animated films. I remember the jungles in The Incredibles being truly awe-inspiring, and the flow of balloons in Up was perfectly executed. That said, there isn't any particular aspect of Wall-E that stands out because it's ALL well above the standards set by its parent company. Character animations and designs, especially that of the robotic Wall-E, EVE, M-O and others, are wonderfully realized and move with such fluid animation that you really don't feel like you're seeing animation in play. If I HAD to say that Wall-E did one thing better than the rest, it would be the detail in the environments portrayed. From the colossal towers of cubed garbage to dust-strewn former cities to the bowels of a starship to debris-ridden outer space, Wall-E never looks less than completely real, painting a sad and shocking look at one of our potential futures.

Wall-E attempts to avoid a littering ticket
Unfortunately, the few human characters don't share that descriptor. 3D Animation of humans has advanced by leagues over the years, but never has it been able to overcome the power of uncanny valley, with its creepy human faces and movements that can't help but feel slightly off. This isn't a criticism of Pixar per se; the company has always veered more towards cartoonish human designs, which in this case are simplified to overweight humans who have allowed computers and robots to perform all the necessary physical exertions for hundreds of years. While a strong commentary on the evils of excess in our society, I can't help but feel that the humans all look alike, with only skin color and facial contours the only major difference, while the robots came in all shapes and sizes. Actually, that was probably intentional. Moving on.

Not just another day in the Wall-E-verse
You would think that if I commented that the best vocals in this film didn't even come from a human voice, I'd be insulting the cast. And yet sound producer Ben Burtt did an outstanding job putting together not only the computer program that synthesized Wall-E's robotic voice (and most of the others as well), but managing to imbue that voice with more personality than most of the live-action voices combined. Running a close second is voice actress Elissa Knight, who voices EVE, Wall-E's love interest and bad-ass robot. Knight only has a few lines that she repeats ad infinatum, but like her opposite she can add so much personality that you can understand exactly what her intended dialogue would be. The human elements are less impressive, though there's certainly nothing Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy do that is necessarily wrong. They are just far less interesting and compelling characters, fine for background but strained when given much to do, which is exactly what happens to Garlin's starship captain.

At least it was better than the Stardust adaptation...
So what is the verdict? Best animated movie of all time? Best movie of the decade? Maybe my expectations were a trifle high, but I'm not sure I would say either of those superlatives are correct. Taken alone, the first twenty minutes of Wall-E would be the best animated short film I've ever seen, hands down. The visuals, animations and voice-over work is all high quality and exceeded all of Pixar's standards at the time. However, the final act feels drawn out and a bit listless, the human characters don't really interest nearly as much as their robotic counterparts, and the finale seemed unlikely and overly optimistic. It is certainly a wonderful film, perhaps the best of 2008, but that was a weak year in which the Academy Awards shunned it in favor of the overrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, and Slumdog Millionaire (Yes, it was wonderful to watch, but Slumdog was only barely a "great" movie). Only The Wrestler or Revolutionary Road (neither of which were nominated) would I argue to be better films, and it would certainly be a close race between the three. However, I hesitate to call it the movie of the decade, my disagreement with Time writer Richard Corliss on par with many of his other choices (the man has Talk to Her, Moulon Rouge, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Avatar in his top 10, for heaven's sake!). It's not the movie of the decade. It's not even Pixar's best film in my opinion, as I was still more attracted to The Incredibles and Up. I know there will be those who disagree with my final decision, but we can all agree that Wall-E is a wonderful motion picture that is certainly worth a look if you've missed it so far, and one you can afford to see again if you've already done so.

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