In a way, it’s extremely appropriate that Presto – a brilliant slice of Looney Tunes-esque slapstick that is by far Pixar’s funniest ever pre-movie short – is about magic, because “magical” is the word that first comes to mind when describing the main feature to which it’s attached – WALL-E. Or, to be perhaps more precise, when describing its opening 45 minutes – for in a quite surprising turn, it so happens that Pixar’s latest masterwork is actually more like two shorter films glued together, rather than one feature-length story consistent in look and tone. It’s almost as if they got cold feet halfway through the massive gamble in narrative style that the film had taken up to that point, and decided to fall back on safer, Cars-esque territory instead.
Which is a shame, because that gamble – to spend almost an hour of a film with barely any dialogue, relying only on visuals and noises – was in the process of paying off handsomely. With the only interruptions being a few bits of footage of live-action humans (itself a strange thing to see in a Pixar film), this opening half is an absolutely wonderful near-silent comedy. From the moment we first meet WALL-E – the last remaining waste disposal robot left on Earth to clean the place up while humanity waits in space for the planet to become habitable again – he’s instantly and utterly endearing, an absolute triumph of character-based animation, both visually and in the character-filled machine noises he makes.
Animation, of course, is the foremost attribute on show here – it almost goes without saying when reviewing a Pixar film that the capabilities of computer animation are pushed to their limit, but in this instance it’s even more prominent than usual, and not just because of the storytelling burden placed upon it. There’s more of a sense of scope than in any previous film – WALL-E has the entire planet to himself, after all, so we’re treated to a number of beautiful, massive landscapes.
Indeed, the extremely “filmic” nature of the movie’s look comes as less of a surprise when you see the name of Roger “Coen Brothers’ cinematographer” Deakins on the closing credits. But the quality of animation is even more evident in smaller scale – it’s the close-up scenes featuring the robot at “home” in his storage pod that are the most stunning. In these sequences, it really is hard to believe you’re watching an animation – WALL-E and his surroundings have such a tangible realism to them that you half wonder if Pixar haven’t just cheated and built an actual, animatronic robot.
Despite the fact that very little happens, this opening half flies by – but then, it would honestly be quite easy to sit and watch WALL-E going about his work for hours on end: gorgeous visuals and slapstick comedy allied to a lovely musical score, it’s almost like Koyaanisqatsi directed by Chuck Jones.
There’s a marvellous level of attention to detail – from big images such as the “graveyard” of fellow WALL-E models and skyscrapers built from garbage, to little touches like the robot “hanging up” his caterpillars when he arrives home, or the constant presence of his chirruping cockroach companion. The arrival of scout robot EVE, meanwhile, makes for an utterly enchanting sort-of-love-story – again, expressed through little other than robotic repetitions of each character’s name.
EVE herself is perhaps the first disappointing aspect of the animation – as she swoops around in her glistening, unblemished way, she looks more obviously CGI, and it detracts from the realism of WALL-E’s solo scenes. That said, later scenes set in the pod show up a similarly strong level of detail in her portrayal, most notably the pixellated nature of her “eyes” – and her presence results in an absolutely jaw-dropping set-piece in which a number of abandoned tankers clatter into one-another and explode.
After this eye-watering opening half, however, the film suddenly takes something of an unexpected turn – the pace, visual style, narrative rules and plot all shift into an entirely different gear. Initially at least, the sense that this is the darkest film that Pixar have yet made is maintained through some really quite scathing social satire – it’s hardly the most original idea, but it is a surprise in what is ostensibly a kids’ (or, at the very least, “family”) film to see a future where humankind has become so reliant on machinery that they all float around in identical mobile chairs and outfits, occasionally reaching out a corpulent limb to be passed a soft drink by a passing droid.
But it’s at this point, also, that the film loses steam somewhat. There’s the seed of a good story here, particularly with the growing sense of awe with which the ship’s captain learns about Earth. But it’s never really given time to develop, not least because whenever the humans are onscreen, we simply yearn for more of WALL-E. And while there are still some lovely sequences – including a beautiful set-piece involving a fire extinguisher in space – for much of the remainder of the running time WALL-E and EVE are reduced to running around the ship after one-another with a rag-tag band of malfunctioning robots.
Amusing though these scenes are, they feel more like a traditional Disney/Pixar than the genuinely mould-breaking material of the opening half. This feeling is enhanced by the obviously CGI nature of the human passengers – an in-movie explanation is given for why they look so different to the obviously-real Fred Willard we’d seen earlier, but it’s hardly all that convincing.
Despite this, it’s hard to say that the “second movie” really detracts in any way from the first – it’s just that it would have been nice if the first could have gone on a bit longer. Still, we’re treated to an emotionally satisfying conclusion (and even if you’re unfeeling enough not to have been moved by Ratatouille, you’re little more than a statue if you don’t get a little teary at any point during WALL-E) and an absolutely spellbinding closing credits sequence, both of which make the whole thing feel a touch more like a cohesive whole. And all the by-the-numbers wacky chase sequences can’t change the fact that Pixar remain one of the few companies out there genuinely interested in pushing the boundaries of what animation – and, indeed, visual narrative in general – can do. With WALL-E, they deliver on this fine tradition in spades, creating one of the most engaging characters in recent movie history in the process.Check out Ron Hogan’s review of WALL-E.
The Screen Robots Ready ReckonerCheck out WALL-E’s predecessors in arguably the most exhaustive rundown of screen robots on the web.