50 years, 50 films: Wall-E (2008)
As economic chaos raged, we watched a cute robot tidying up a ruined world.
The idea, as you may recall, was to select films that said something about the times in which they were made. The ninth year of the new century will be remembered for the great financial calamity that finally brought the orgy of debt to a close. So, we’ve picked a digital animation about a cute robot. What? Well, by accident rather than design, Wall-E turns out to be an appropriate choice. This is, after all, a film about a ruined world. As we join the sentient machine, he is pottering hopelessly about a post-apocalytic environment hopelessly compacting trash in a Sisyphean attempt to bring order to almighty chaos. He repairs himself from the junk and spends evenings watching (or all things) the film version of Hello Dolly! Then he discovers a plant. Then an apparently female probe — fashioned in the livery of an iPod — lands to disrupt his world. As Baloo says in an earlier Disney enterprise: “Forget those. They’re nothing but trouble.”
In an era when audiences had long ago stopped paying attention to studios — gone were the days when MGM meant escapism and Warners promised realism — Pixar unquestionably became the one film company that mattered to punters. From the company’s first feature, Toy Story in 1995, to this point, they had barely put a foot wrong. Only Cars from 2006 fell below the absurdly high standards Pixar had set for itself. Aside from the technical achievements, John Lasseter’s people always ensured that the scripts were immaculate, the voice-work spot on and the music gorgeous. In retrospect Wall-E is, however, a slightly problematic piece. I would now argue that Up, which came along the following year, counts as the studio’s very best work (sadly, a decline followed shortly afterwards). But the opening half of Wall-E is as brilliant a slab of cinema as you could ever hope to encounter: funny, moving, inventive, original. That section is almost a silent film and Wall-E certainly borrows some of Charlie Chaplin’s traits. He is brave, but slightly pathetic. He is sentimental, but practically minded.
The trick, obviously, was to create a clanking, creaking character that, despite having a solid-state heart, felt like a fully fleshed personality. In fact, Wall-E is a great deal more “real” than the cyphers who populate much mainstream cinema. Give audiences a personality and they will manage empathy. Once they empathise they are on board for the journey.
The second half of the film is certainly not bad. But, once Wall-E gets onto the space station, it becomes a great deal more routine: funny chases; hectic gags. Up did follow a similar formula, but it was a bit tighter in its later stages. Both films finish with a proper emotional surge. Not for nothing did Wall-E win as many prizes from science fiction bodies as it did from film and animation committees.
What happened to Pixar then? As we have mentioned, Up was superb. Toy Story 3 showed the right way to go about sequels. Then we got the genuinely wretched Cars 2, the above-middling Brave and the below-middling Monsters University. This is not a dreadful run. But it’s only fair to judge a body by its own standards. Manchester United have not had a dreadful season, but we all know what happened to David Moyes.
For 2008, we also considered Let the Right One In, The Dark Knight, Shotgun Stories, Man on Wire, The Class, Synecdoche, New York, Il Divo and Of Time and the City.