Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Brief: WALL-E (2008)

Last year's Pixar production has won the Village Voice 2008 film poll of independent critics. To give you an idea of the company the film keeps, and the proclivities of the critics, Flight of the Red Balloon was the runner-up, and Happy Go Lucky took the bronze. The Voice reaches Albany about a week behind New York, so I discovered this news today, just as I was returning the DVD that I'd watched the night before.

Pixar is just uncanny. I go through an annual cycle with the studio. When I see the first previews of the next production, I tell myself, "This one can't work! They're going to blow it this time." They can't do human characters! A movie about anthropomorphic cars? No way! A rat that likes gourmet cooking? Forget about it! A lone robot on a deserted planet? Who are they kidding? Each time I talk myself out of going to the theater for the new one, and even now I'm going through the same thing with Up. Now that one really looks lame -- the same way they all do.

As a matter of fact, I haven't seen a Pixar feature in a theater since Toy Story 2 -- the only one that was basically pre-sold. Furthermore, my inability to place my trust in the brand name, despite all evidence, means that to this day I haven't seen Monsters Inc. (an aversion to Billy Crystal has much to do with that, actually) or Finding Nemo (for reasons unknown even to myself). But since then the studio has gone from triumph to triumph, except that I'm always late figuring it out. Most remarkably, they've maintained a consistent high quality while increasing their output to a movie every year. Pixar mastermind John Lasseter probably should be ranked with the great creative producers of the golden age studio system for the quality control he sustains.

I'm not about to say that WALL-E is Pixar's best yet. To be honest, I haven't given much thought to ranking the studio's output. I will say that the present film is one of the most successful sci-fi visions I've seen in some time, from the skyscraping junkpiles of the abandoned Earth to the borderline-misanthropic satire of corporate consumer culture (it never does cross over; these films should have happy endings) on board the Axiom. The screenplay succeeds in having things both ways, investing its robots with gamuts of emotion while rendering their barely articulate. The protagonists communicate with extremely limited vocabularies of one or two word statements (their own names, "plant," "directive," etc.) yet the cumulative effect is to vest those minimal utterances with far more emotional power than you'd expect. And if you have a problem with robots feeling lonely, longing for romance, enjoying Hello, Dolly! on VHS and so forth, you need to remind yourself that you're watching a cartoon or ask yourself what you're doing in the room. Once you get over that, you can just enjoy the extraordinary production design, the wealth of sight gags, and so on.

Nor am I about to join the consensus and say that WALL-E is the best film of 2008. There's still too much of that year left for us to see up in Albany, with Gran Torino just arriving tomorrow and The Wrestler coming next week. But when I consider myself qualified to compile a list, it will certainly be there.

I can't leave the subject without addressing a topic that's nagged me about the movie since it came out. The EVE robot reminded me of something in the way it (or she) floated about, its eyes, its color scheme, etc. I did some checking up, and my memories didn't quite match historic reality. But then I had a different thought that tied everything together. What if our romantic robots were to, somehow, for some reason ... well, you know. Reproduce, I mean. Romantically, that is. The following might not be so far from the likely result. He even seems to be in the right setting. Discuss...


hobbyfan said...

Oh, you have got to be kidding! H.E.R.B.I.E. (From the NEW Fantastic Four, 1978-9) was one of Marble's lamest concepts. Ever. Trying to compare that to Wall-E is like trying to compare apples to onions.

What have you got against Billy Crystal, anyway? I've seen, let's say, Throw Momma From the Train. Some of Billy's best work. Your problem with Finding Nemo might be an aversion to cute fish characters or Ellen DeGeneres, or both, I don't know.

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