Humans land a raw deal when it comes to animations. We upright, two-legged creatures regularly have to give way to the superior intelligence or endless fascination of a deer or a dog or a penguin. It’s part of the bargain: we draw them, they make us look stupid.
And so it is with ‘Wall-E’, except this time we have only ourselves to blame. Pixar has drawn inspiration for this bold, bleak and often very beautiful film from the worst approximations of the future we’re shaping for our planet.
In Pixar’s last film, ‘Ratatouille’, it was a sewer rat who brilliantly grabbed our attention and revolutionised French cuisine. For ‘Wall-E’, humans again take a back seat, and it’s a robot with a cube for a belly and binoculars for eyes who’s bleeping for our love. When we do, finally, encounter humans – living on a self-sufficient spaceship, waited on by robots, sucking on straws – they’re fat, sedentary, greedy and unpleasant.
Plus ça change: from Cruella de Vil to our fellow folk in ‘Happy Feet’, cartoons have always held a mirror up to our selfish instincts.This time it’s 2700, and we’ve polluted ourselves out of existence. The only humans left live a sterile, bloated life high above earth, where we decamp for the second, more frenetic and less inspired half of the film. But everything that comes before is magical. The only animate object left in the lifeless, rust-coloured, dusty landscape of urban desolation that we used to call earth is one tireless mechanical waste-collector called Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class). He lives in a cluttered container and spends his days buzzing about, piling up junk to look like skyscrapers or Mayan temples and sucking up sun for his solar panels. His only company is a lonesome cockroach.
So that’s one robot, a cockroach and a vision of earth gone to pot. This is a cartoon that offers an uncompromising, imaginative, angry portrait of the future. It’s daring in its simplicity: for the first 40 minutes, we watch in wonder as Wall-E goes about his business in near silence; it’s the sharp intelligence of the detail, always so painstakingly rendered, that most amazes. At one point, Wall-E finds an abandoned diamond ring in a jewellery box. What does he do with it? He throws away the ring and plays with the hinges of the container. Of course he does: hinges should fascinate more than precious minerals. Shame on us for not realising that before.
By rights, Wall-E shouldn’t be cute in the Bambi or Dumbo sense of the word: he’s battered and fading and the only noises he makes are computerised drawls not dissimilar to ET’s limited lingo. But Wall-E is alluring, and not because he’s got big eyes or dangling eyelashes but because he’s smart, hard-working, with a romantic side, and is hopelessly addicted to watching clips of Michael Crawford and Barbra Streisand in Gene Kelly’s ‘Hello Dolly!’ on a video screen. He’s everything we should have been if we hadn’t put all our energy into destroying the planet.
But none of this is preachy or obvious.
Environmental destruction is only the breathtaking backdrop to the film and it’s more the minimalism of Wall-E’s existence that fascinates. By the time a sleeker, feminine robot called Eve – who looks like an iPod shaped into a pepper-pot – arrives, we’re craving her company in sympathy with our mechanised friend. Pixar has done it again. I wonder a little what kids will make of the long silence of the first half followed by the disorienting mania of the second, but there’s nothing here that’s not wonderfully imagined and lovingly presented.