At first glance, Pixar’s iconic classic WALL-E is a complicated science fiction tale, set against a grand post-apocalyptic backdrop. But it’s an illusion. More than any other recent film by the geniuses at Pixar, it’s a kids’ movie, maybe the most simplistic and accessible of the animation giant’s golden age. If WALL-E were a book, it’d be in the children’s department emblazoned with a title like “My First Science Fiction Story” and there would probably be a page for coloring somewhere before the back cover.
In WALL-E, Pixar took an ambitious sci-fi concept and made it the perfect window for kids into a broader world of imagination and perhaps even activism. Does it have some appeal for adults? Sure. It’s still smart sci-fi, just told in the most straightforward, easy-to-understand way possible. Director Andrew Stanton is happy to have adults enjoy his work, but mostly, his movie, first and foremost, is designed to dazzle your 8-year-old son or daughter. So maybe for adults, there aren’t a lot of surprises, but that doesn’t mean you won’t revel in the Pixar-perfect execution of another story well told.
WALL-E happens in a far-off future where mankind has turned Earth into a trash dump. I mean that, literally. There’s no attempt at a complicated explanation for how our planet got screwed up. Basically, we ruined the Earth by littering.
It’s something kids can understand; why bother getting lost in a more complex and controversial problem like global warming? Man’s solution to the overabundance of garbage was to abandon the Earth and live life roaming the stars inside spacefaring pleasure cruisers. Now, 700 years since our departure from Terra, the human race has morphed into a bunch of overweight layabouts. In the future, we’re all starfaring, super-fat babies.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the cleanup effort is underway. It’s been underway for 700 years, and the results haven’t been stellar. The robots assigned the cleanup job while man went cruising have all long since ceased to function. All except one: a cute little robot and the last of the WALL-E models. He’s still there, toiling at his job, attempting to clean up the mountains and mountains of trash.
Hundreds of years have passed, and while he’s worked, WALL-E has developed something of a personality. He collects interesting junk from the piles he’s sweeping, and when he’s not trash compacting, he’s watching old movies or attempting to unravel the mysteries of the spork. WALL-E is curious, and unfortunately, he’s also really lonely.
That changes when a scout robot lands to check on Earth’s progress. Her name is EVE, and WALL-E is instantly smitten. When EVE is called back up to the luxury cruise liner where she lives to serve humans, WALL-E can’t bear to be parted, and he hitches a ride.
Somewhere along the way of trying to get EVE’s attention, WALL-E may end up saving the human race… or at least getting it to lose a little weight. Contrasted against the fat, gluttonous human drones he encounters, WALL-E is the closest thing our future universe has to human.
Explained like that in text, the movie sounds like a grand, epic adventure. It isn’t. It’s a small, simple story that basically takes place only in two locations and features a limited primary cast of two characters, with a couple of other minor roles around them.
There’s almost no dialogue in WALL-E since the robots speak mostly in beeps, which, at best, they can put together into something that resembles their names. Perhaps this, too, constrained the complexity of WALL-E’s story, with the movie’s exposition and character arcs kept simple and linear by necessity since, without dialogue, there are a very limited number of ways in which to explain what’s going on.
In WALL-E, Pixar took an incredibly complex sci-fi idea and went out of its way to keep it simple. There’s no grand epic adventure here, only the small love story of two very small robots in a far-off future.
Because WALL-E avoids letting this get any more complex than that, those cute robots are the entire focus, and the big environmental meaning of what man has done to his planet in our future never comes off as preachy. It’s merely a sad possibility, one which you’ll recognize without resenting, no matter your political leanings.
The plight of the human race is something that happens around WALL-E’s story; it’s not the reason we’re watching. Parents may get something from the movie’s anti-corporate, pro-environment message, but even that is told in such a straightforward matter, it’s not hard to imagine older kids picking up on it as well.
Despite its simplicity, adults won’t find themselves wishing for something with more meat on its bones. WALL-E‘s simplicity is its strength. The result is a movie that, for anyone of any age or ideology, it’s impossible to watch WALL-E and not enjoy it.
The characters are cute, the animation is lively, and the sci-fi idea they’ve used as the basis for their story, even in this stripped-down, fairly obvious mode, is smart enough to hold just about anyone’s attention. WALL-E may be a little robot in a little movie, but he’s got a big, warm heart.
Nearly two decades later, WALL-E has aged like fine wine. It’s not just one of Pixar’s best-animated movies; it’s a shining symbol of that past animation golden age. No one makes movies like this anymore. Especially not Pixar.
JOSH TYLER’S WALL-E REVIEW SCORE
WALL-E is free to stream on Disney+, as you’d expect. But you don’t have to subscribe to Disney+ to watch it. It’s also available to rent for the minimal price of $3.99 on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu, and Apple TV.