Perhaps the best portion of Andrew Stanton's Wall.E (2008) is the largely wordless first forty minutes, when the filmmakers crib from the best of Chaplin (particularly his City Lights (1931)) to depict the eponymous trash compactor's goofball infatuation with Eve, the sleek 'droid sent to Earth on a classified mission (might as well note here that the 'droid's flying sequence seems inspired by similar sequences from Hayao Miyazaki's great Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984)). Stanton manages to create a remarkable junkyard world of rusted metal and scrapped items, and his main character (much as Chaplin or Fred Astaire did decades before) turns each artifact of pop culture (funny how much of it comes from '80s America) into an object of mystery, inventive comedy, and ultimately, wonderment.
Not too crazy about Wall.E's character design--all you need to do is look into those huge lenses angled just so and you know the creature is begging for sympathy. Eve is a better creation I think, and I don't just mean the contrast between Wall.E's rusted Caterpillar yellow and her white Honda gleam--we first see her flying through the air, giving a cool demonstration of antigravity, and aren't quite sure what to make of her; when Wall.E makes a sound Eve promptly spins about, fires what I assume is a pulse rifle, and creates a huge hole rimmed with magma just inches above the poor compactor's head.
The filmmakers at least allow some ambivalence with regards to Eve--she's pretty but enigmatic, and not a little deadly. Wall.E presents little threat, and even less mystery; he reminds me of puppy dogs that demand attention, and when you refuse to respond they start humping your leg. And he's a creep; when Eve suddenly shuts down (it's part of her classified mission) Wall.E takes her out on dates without her permission, drapes her full of Christmas lights without her knowledge, even tries to force his hand on hers when she's clearly (if unconsciously) resisting. Yes, it's established early on that he's a collector and assembler of found objects (a junk installation artist, if you like), and there's emotional payoff later in the story with regard to the one-sided dates, but the sequence still reminds me of a necrophiliac locking himself inside a morgue with his favorite corpse.
The movie's latter half cribs its best ideas from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or (perhaps more relevant) E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops," where humans in womblike rooms live out their lives in complete helplessness. Turns out humans in this picture have degenerated into immobile fat slobs, have their day so thoroughly planned and acted out for them they'd rather talk to friends through computer screens than raise their heads and look at the hovering sofa beside them (an old cellphone joke).
Consumerist society satire--rather broad satire at that (rim shot). What doesn't quite compute is the speed with which the humans tumble out of their traveling sofas to take action (it sometimes takes me hours to climb out of a sofa on a Sunday morning to mow the lawn). Then there's the silly subplot where a seedling must reach the holowhatsit to confirm that life indeed exists on Earth--what was that all about? We send probes to Mars that happily transmit data of soil samples, without bring the soil itself in for analysis; you'd think they would be able to do as much so many centuries later.
The final credit crawl (which tells of what happens beyond the ostensible ending) is a direct steal from Miyazaki, at one point showing a Bayeux tapestry much like the one found in Nausicaa's opening credits.
Pixar is a skilled and passionate outfit, with its finger firmly on its audience's pulse--there's no denying that. It tells its stories with an enjoyable mix of drama and humor; it reaches out on occasion for the odd ambitious theme. With its recent efforts (I'm thinking of Cars (2006) and Ratatouille (2007) and this picture) it concentrates on less kiddie-like fare (there are no child protagonists, or even smart-alecky kid sidekicks for the younger viewers to identify with) and imagines wilder scenarios (a world where cars are the dominant lifeform (which makes one wonder: who wiped out the humans?); a world abandoned by humans and dominated by junk). With at least the first forty minutes Pixar has even tried for the kind of postapocalyptic imagery that recalls great science fiction filmmaking ('recalls,' mind you; I'm not saying that this is great science fiction filmmaking).
And yet I can never feel much enthusiasm for their efforts--why, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it's because Pixar wears its heart so belligerently on its sleeve (I keep thinking of Wall.E's eyes trained on me, screaming for attention). Perhaps it's because (unlike say the films of Studio Ghibli), Pixar has yet to learn the value of a quiet moment in everyday, ordinary life (I'm thinking of the lazy afternoon father and daughter spend together in Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988), or the utterly real--and utterly hilarious--moments of family bickering superbly rendered by Isao Takahata in his masterful yet lighthearted Hohokekyo tonari no Yamada kun (My Neighbor the Yamadas, 1999). Perhaps it's because their stories are so determinedly linear, with a beginning a middle and an end, in that order (unlike, say, Mamoru Hosada's Toki o kakeru shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, 2006), or Satoshi Kon's Moso dairinin (Paranoia Agent, 2004)), or even that they demand a story in the first place (compare Pixar's Ratatouille (2007) with Mamoru Oshii's near-indescribable Tachiguishi retsuden (The Amazing Life of the Fast Food Grifters, 2006)).
Perhaps it's just that Pixar filmmakers lack the ruthless clearsightedness that the best contemporary Japanese animation filmmakers (Oshii, Miyazaki, Takahata, to name just three) possess with regards to their characters, the direction their stories should take, the kind of filmmaking required to deliver said story to their respective audiences. No matter what Pixar does and in what setting, you can be assured that the ride along the way will be fun, kid-friendly, happily resolved; family relations are at most strained but ultimately re-affirmed, the love under threat either restored to its former strength or shown to be more enduring than before. You don't have that kind of guarantee with the aforementioned directors--Oshii was never big on Disney optimism, much less conventional Hollywood narrative (less so nowadays, thank goodness), and Takahata, best known for his relentlessly tragic Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), has done at least one other epic tragedy--Heisei tanuki gassen pompoko (Pom poko, 1994) which tells nothing more and nothing less than the passing of an entire people, its culture, its very identity.
Even the most mainstream of the three, Miyazaki, creates moments of unsettling terror (Chihiro discovering her parents have been transformed into pigs in Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001)), violence (medieval warfare in Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997); the firebombing sequence in Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle, 2004)), unresolved separation (the sick mother in Tonari no Totoro promising to visit her children but remaining sick, and afterwards still having to return to the hospital). And yet Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi and Tonari no Totoro are explicitly children's fare, and marketed as such in Japan--what this fully means, I don't know, or haven't completely worked out yet. Do the Japanese have a more liberal view of what their children are capable of appreciating, are they simply less protective (and is there a difference between the two)? That Japanese animators show a mastery of emotional tone and sophistication in storytelling far above and beyond what any American animator has been capable of at present moment*, that their work is viewed and adored by many Japanese children--and by the lucky few outside of Japan whose parents manage to show them these films--must tell us something about them, and about ourselves.
*(The closest any American animation director has come to what the Japanese have done is possibly Brad Bird with his The Iron Giant (1999)--and even that had its moments of emotional semaphoring, its last-minute concession to the relentless need for a happy ending)
I remember a classic argument against realist animation (as practiced by Hosada, the late Yoshifumi Kondo (Mimi o Sumaseba (Whispers of the Heart, 1995)), Miyazaki, and--above all--Takahata): why tell a story through animation when it can easily be done through live action? One possible reply is this: animation is the medium these filmmakers have chosen to express themselves; if animation were not an option, we probably would not have their works in the big screen--and the quality of their work is such that I, for one, am grateful for the option.
I'd wondered since if perhaps this argument for animated realism, nebulous as it is, might be re-formulated to function as a kind of personal litmus test for the indispensability of an animation director's work. Thus: are Pixar's movies such that I would be grateful to have the stories told, no matter what medium was used? Not really--if I never see yet another squabbling child's toy, or talking fish, or whining car, or cooking rat, or simpering robot for the rest of my life, I'd die a happy man. If, on the other hand, I never saw the moment when San blinks happily at Ashitaka, who guarded her while she rested in Mononoke Hime, I'm convinced I'd be poorer for not having realized how much love, tenderness and trust an artist can express simply through a series of lines and colored cels, drawn and redrawn twenty-four times a second. Hence my antipathy to the former, my undying, undimmed passion for the latter.
(First appeared in Businessworld, 8.15.08)