Saturday, 19 July 2008

WALL-E (2008)

Very sweet, visually gorgeous (actually I think I mean: texturally gorgeous ... texturally one of the most interesting films I've seen in a long while) and perfectly serviceable entertainment. WALL-E himself does indeed look like that robot from Short Circuit; and as I sat in the cinema with my six-year old daughter until the bitter end (ME: Can we go now, please? LILY: No Daddy, we have to wait until the credits have all gone past) I bethought me that Short Circuit was a Disney film too. Checking facts subsequently I discover that it wasn't, which is a shame for my theory.

... which is that WALL-E is all about Disney. WALL-E himself is not quite, and yet more than, Walt-D. He is what has become of Walt-D: old fashioned, square and out of tune with the wizzy computer-generated future. The step from the visually painterly landscapes of wasted Earth to the trademark-Pixar shiny surfaces of the spaceship Axiom is the step from old-school animation to that newfangled computer animation that so rules the animation roost nowadays. Of course WALL-E is himself computer generated too, but he has less of that look, and his world is more 'realistic' and less stylised and futuristic than the Axiom: it's a world of, amongst other things, actual live-action footage (Fred Willard's cameo). The film is partly a lament for the passing of that older style of animated moviemaking, and partly an ambivalent love-letter to the new technologies of animation ... ambivalent in the sense that, whilst of course WALL-E does fall in love with EVE, nevertheless that glossy high-tech futurist idiom looks awfully high-calorie and rather unhealthy: all those floating fatboys and fatgirls.

In other words, the film is not really about pollution, and it's not really a dystopia. It's a self-reflexive piece of visual art about visual art (hence the closing credits, through which my daughter made me sit, which cycle through series of pastiche images in the style of Egytian Art, Renaissance Art, Van Gogh and so on). Or more to the point, it's a film about its film-maker. Disney, despite its extraordinary backlist of titles, found itself in the noughties dying, in thrall to its past, clogged with inferior product: Dinosaur (2000), Atlantis the Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003), Home on the Range (2004). There were some hits too, of course, during this period, but the balance sheet was rather dominated by costly and damaging flops like these. 2003 saw the resignation of the company's chairman, the charmingly decayed, old-school robot ROY-E Disney [this photograph captures him in the process of shrinking himself down into a cube], and in 2005 Michael Eisner resigned too. You can judge for yourself the extent to which Eisner physically resembles Fred Willard.

What could ROY-E do? Everything was in the past for his world; recycling old Disney product, shitting out crate after crate of double-disc special edition Cinderellas and Lion Kings and stacking them into great commercial ziggurats. Then along came PIXAR. Here's a photo: you can see the sleek white lines and inquisitive eye of the PIXAR robot, adopting the position of the 'I' in the company's name (a sort of I-VE). I-VE is the future; stylish, successful, seemingly out of reach of ROY-E. But all ends happily: despite being elderly and clapped out, Disney acquires Pixar (2006; $7.4 billion) and suddenly it's all Hits Hits Hits: Ratatouille! WALL-E! The future is bright!


Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's funny. I came across much the same interpretation of Ratatouille last year. The chef whose spirit inspired Remi is Disney as it once was - an innovator, creating art that delighted and enlightened. Then the next generation came along, in thrall to commercialism, and producing nothing but cheap, flavorless knockoffs trading on a familiar name. Remi is Pixar, someone who brings a new twist to the old formula - the love of good food made well.

Frankly, I think it's a reading that suits Ratatouille better than Wall-E, as the latter film ultimately sides with Wall-E, his love of the old and his individuality, leaving the gleaming corridors of the Axiom and humanity's sterilized existence within them. Which, for better or worse, is certainly not what's happening in the battle between Disney and Pixar, and not, I think, because of Pixar's technological innovations but because Pixar knows how to tell a good story and Disney have either forgotten how or no longer care to.

Adam Roberts said...

It is interesting, I think. The difference, I'd say, is that you're reading Ratatouille allegorically, where I'm reading WALL-E in terms of the film's form and mode of representation rather than its content (welll, a little on the latter, but more in jest). But yours is certainly a compelling reading of the rat film ...

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