I saw Pixar’s latest, WALL-E yesterday, and am of two minds about it. I really enjoyed it, it’s a great movie. But it’s not as great as all the gushing reviews are making it out.
The first half-hour of the movie is outstanding: it’s a moody evocative story drawn with an apocalyptic palette, with a cute protagonist in the middle of it all. Without words, WALL-E draws us in and makes us feel for him. This is the part of the movie people are talking about when they say it is a great sci-fi film.
The second half of the movie takes place in space, but ironically is where the movie falls under the cartoon gravity of a kid’s movie again. The plot takes over, and simplistic characters and turns are the norm. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great kid’s movie, one of Pixar’s best. WALL-E himself is a great character, a believable robot with big expressive eyes that perfectly convey his emotion to us.
But let’s get something straight: the people who are talking about a Best Picture Oscar are crazy. Forget the insider movie calculus that says it won’t happen: it’s just not that good a movie. It isn’t that it’s animated: WALL-E’s earth-bound segment proves that CGI animation can carry a rich story just fine. It’s that it’s a cartoon: by the time the movie is over, the plot has been neatly wrapped up, a few strange holes in logic have been glossed over, our heartstrings have been expertly tugged, and we can go home happy.
A Best Picture can end happily of course, but stepping back to take in WALL-E’s full structure, you can see that it’s a kid’s movie. That means trading subtlety for some physical humor, all of which is fine, but it means you have to give up your seat at the grown-up’s table. WALL-E is rated G, a sign that the material is mild enough for small children, without the depth of story that a Best Picture needs to have. Oliver! was the only G-rated Best Picture, and that was in the early days of the rating system. It’s hard to imagine it would be rated G today.
I’m not even sure that WALL-E is my favorite Pixar movie. Finding Nemo and The Incredibles I thought did a better job consistently hitting their mark, and finding richness in the stories they told. The ultimate mark of a great story is the development of characters over the course of the movie, and for that, it’s hard to beat Pixar’s first, Toy Story.