At first glance, 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 their most simplistic and accessible yet. 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. They’ve taken a fairly 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. They’re happy to have you in the theater, but mostly they want 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.
It 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 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. Basically we’re all starfaring, super-fat babies.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth the cleanup effort is underway. Actually it’s been underway for 700 years, and the results haven’t exactly 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 the movie sounds like a grand, epic, adventure. It isn’t. It’s a small, simple, story which 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 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 arc are 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.
Pixar has taken an incredibly complex sci fi idea and gone out of their 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 Pixar 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. The plight of the human race is something that happens around WALL-E’s story, it’s not the reason we’re in the theater. 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.
Adults might find themselves wishing for something with a more meat on its bones, but 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.