Wall-E

2008-07-23

in Films and movies, The environment

Emily Horn kissing a statue in the Supreme Court of Canada

The Wall-E trailer did not impress me. It made the film look cute and trite. Nonetheless, I was convinced to see the film by strong recommendations in various news sources and ongoing debates about its environmental messages.

The film is definitely well done: engaging and entertaining, emotive without being sappy. Some of the messages are indisputable: that resilience is a virtue (Wall-E has learned self-repair), that the planet is vulnerable, and that technology can isolate us from natural processes, making us unaware of the impacts we are collectively producing. Others are more dubious: that people ignore their environmental impacts because they are half-hypnotized by machines, rather than because it is convenient to do so, or that a simple imposition of will is sufficient to turn things around. The danger is less that robots will mutiny, and much more that we will be willing to make exceptional ecological sacrifices in order to keep our favourite machines running. It’s not that our creations will defy our will, it’s that we will refuse to temper our desires, whatever the long-term costs associated. Wall-E does make the second point (largely though the vehicle of the floating, near-helpless humans), but it gives a bit too much of a free pass on the first.

It seems fairly likely that this film is destined for the cannon of ‘environmental films for children,’ alongside stalwarts like The Lorax. It deserves the slot, combining old messages about conservation and the sanctity of life with the imagery of contemporary society. It also deserves to be widely seen, by children and adults. That is as much on account of the strong storytelling as anything else – the dialogue is minimal, but it is never the slightest bit tedious. The story is strong, the film is beautifully made, and it generates thought.

On a side note: the various nods to Apple were slightly amusing, rather than tacky. Wall-E’s startup noise will be familiar to anyone who has used a Mac, as is the whole styling of Eve. The original iMac ‘mice’ infesting the garbage heaps in space were also an entertaining touch. Of course, it is a bit ironic that the main object of desire in the film – the robot Eve that Wall-E pines after – is fundamentally modeled upon a much hyped consumer product.

[Update: 8:01am] Emily’s review is here.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 23, 2008 at 10:30 am

Not only is it a creative triumph, but it manages to convey “lessons” (ugh) about “environmental stewardship” (ugh) in a way that isn’t didactic or overbearing. It’s really something.

. July 23, 2008 at 10:34 am

THE DEVIN’S ADVOCATE: IS WALL-E ENVIRONMENTAL OR HYPOCRITICAL?

The new Pixar film Wall-E presents a wonderful message about environmental stewardship and about conservation. It graphically shows us both the fragility and strength of the ecosystem, the dangers and hopes facing us as a species impacting the Earth with our pollutants and our junk. It also contains unsubtle jabs at corporate megapowers, out of control branding, insidious advertising and rampant consumerism.

But apparently that’s all there by happenstance – at least according to writer/director Andrew Stanton.

. July 23, 2008 at 10:37 am

“Walking out of a screening of Wall-E on the Disney lot last week I couldn’t help but mull over the irony of this huge, branding-obsessed, merchandise-spewing corporation releasing a movie where consumers are shown to be giant fat babies essentially taking orders from advertising (with this being portrayed as a negative thing. I’m sure Bob Iger sees most of his customers like that and loves it). When I got to the Four Seasons hotel the next day, the site of the junket for the film, and saw an entire room dedicated to showing off the marketing tie-ins, I lost the sense of irony and began to think what I was seeing was flat out hypocrisy. I wondered if maybe Stanton’s denials about the messages weren’t coming from a marketing point of view but from simple shame.”

Emily July 23, 2008 at 12:06 pm

To me, the message was not very close to making a point at all. The fact that the humans left to live in paradise, and then returned to figure things out by planting a couple trees totally ignores:

A. The apparent death of all living things on Earth other than humans – which cannot be ‘grown’ back.
B. The fact that saving a few thousand Americans who then repopulate the Earth is blatantly xenophobic.
C. How preventative measures are far more important than the cure that we would need in a situation like that.

No one visibly suffers for the ecological disaster. They just float around and get fat and depressed because they forget how great dancing was on earth. Then they return and plant a few trees. Then all the animals come back in the credits..

I wouldn’t show it to my speculative children as an ‘environmental’ film.

Milan July 23, 2008 at 12:16 pm

The apparent death of all living things on Earth other than humans – which cannot be ‘grown’ back.

I agree that the film was blatantly unrealistic: in everything from the breathability of the Earth atmosphere (with few plants, there would be little oxygen) to the mechanics of spaceflight. Further, without plants to both eat and alter the atmosphere, Wall-E’s cockroach companion would not have been about.

That being said, it must be taken allegorically. The aim is not to represent the world as it is or could be, but to convey certain general ideas through aesthetics.

The fact that saving a few thousand Americans who then repopulate the Earth is blatantly xenophobic.

The film repeatedly implies that there are other ships out there. The Axiom is just (apparently) the only one to return at that point in time. In the future, other scattered humans may also do so.

Milan July 23, 2008 at 12:18 pm

How preventative measures are far more important than the cure that we would need in a situation like that.

Naturally, anyone seeing this film today should think: “We ought not completely wreck the planet,” rather than: “Even if we do wreck the planet, we will endure as a species and eventually be able to return and rebuild.”

A quasi-apocalyptic film featuring the possibility of redemption is also likely to do better at attracting and keeping an audience of children than a straightforwardly apocalyptic one wou

Emily July 23, 2008 at 12:35 pm

The aim is not to represent the world as it is or could be, but to convey certain general ideas through aesthetics.

I understand the concept of fiction, but that doesn’t change the fundamental sentiments that I garnered from the film.

That being: it doesn’t matter if we wait to destroy the Earth, everyone will be fine. Just make sure that you don’t forget how Earth used to be, so you can return and re-habilitate it single-handedly.

How about teaching children.. OH, I don’t know. The delicate balance of the eco-system, and how we have the power to destroy but not to recreate?

I don’t doubt that it demonstrates to children about the transience of natural life under duress, but I think it would be a real stretch to call it an environmentally educational film.

Emily July 23, 2008 at 12:37 pm

“how we have the power to destroy but not to recreate?” I mean, once we really destroy it. Like, get ‘er done, extinction-style.

Milan July 23, 2008 at 12:39 pm

I certainly agree that the film is imperfect. That being said, there is an important trade-off between having an ideal message and being able to effectively market your message.

Wall-E strikes a better balance than many other similar films. I wouldn’t call it ‘educational,’ per se, but I would call it ‘environmentalist.’

Milan July 23, 2008 at 12:42 pm

I mean, once we really destroy it. Like, get ‘er done, extinction-style.

Vulnerability may be enough for children. We can save the terrifyingly real prospect of human species extinction through poor ecological management for teenagers.

Milan July 23, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Perhaps the best thing to do is to show Wall-E to your children between one of the ordinary episodes of Planet Earth and one of the we-are-wrecking-nature episodes on the final DVD.

. July 23, 2008 at 1:01 pm

Commentary

The film was interpreted as tackling a topical, ecologically minded agenda. Todd McCarthy said it did so with a lightness of touch that granted the viewer the ability to accept or ignore the message. Jessica Jensen of The Huffington Post, while praising the film overall, felt it did not make enough of a point with its environmental themes. She suggested it should have had environmental advice or a website link during the end credits, adding it was “troubling” that by the end “humans return to Earth and it seems as if everything will just be hunky-dory”. The film’s ecological theme was criticized by conservative commentators such as CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, and contributors for National Review Online; Shannen W. Coffin said that the film was “leftist propaganda about the evils of mankind”, and Jonah Goldberg wrote that he agreed with the charges of hypocrisy and “Malthusian fear mongering” leveled at the film by others, but said that it was “fascinating” and occasionally “brilliant”.

Patrick J. Ford of The American Conservative said WALL-E’s conservative critics were missing lessons in the film that he felt were appealing to traditional conservatism. He argued that the mass consumerism in the film was not shown to be a product of big business, but of too close a tie between big business and big government: “The government unilaterally provided its citizens with everything they needed, and this lack of variety led to Earth’s downfall”. Responding to Coffin’s claim that the film points out the “evils of mankind”, he argued the only evils depicted were those that resulted from “losing touch with our own humanity” and that fundamental conservative representations such as the farm, the family unit, and “wholesome” entertainment were in the end held aloft by the human characters. He concluded, “By steering conservative families away from WALL-E, these commentators are doing their readers a great disservice”.

. July 23, 2008 at 1:02 pm

The other half of the film (which is the year’s most heavily promoted release according to Variety, with a $50 million or so ad campaign) supposes that the human race of the future will become a flabby mass of peabrained idiots who are literally too fat to walk. Instead they zip around in flying wheelchairs surfing the Web, chatting on phone lines and stuffing their faces with food meant to be sucked down like milkshakes while unquestioningly taking orders from the master corporation that controls all aspects of their existence. I’m trying to think of a major Disney cartoon feature that was anywhere near as dark or cynical as this. I’m coming up blank. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a major corporation spend so much money to issue an insult to its customers. Those potato-y people of the future seemed uncomfortably close to paying guests of Walt Disney World, passively absorbing entertainment in a sterile, climate-controlled, completely artificial wonderland that profits from everything they eat, see or do.

Anon July 23, 2008 at 3:26 pm

It seems fairly likely that this film is destined for the cannon of ‘environmental films for children,’ alongside stalwarts like The Lorax.

What else falls into this category? I looked at Category:Environmental films on Wikipedia and found the list pretty lacking.

ToryC July 24, 2008 at 1:05 pm

“The danger is less that robots will mutiny, and much more that we will be willing to make exceptional ecological sacrifices in order to keep our favourite machines running.”

Who are you to say that it is wrong to prefer the immediate comforts of a pleasing life to the abstract appreciation of some far-off wilderness (never to be seen, if conservationists have their way)?

There may be cases where people make the wrong choice out of wilderness, but there are plenty of situations where people choose progress over wilderness with their eyes wide open.

Emily July 24, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Fern Gully jumps to mind, and The Secret of Nimh touches on the disturbance of the environment by man. There were a host of environmentalist children’s shows during the 90’s, like Captain Planet, and The Smoggies. The Raccoons was also about preserving the environment. I recall a few episodes of He-man where he defeats Skeletor or some other foe when they are trying to pollute.

I haven’t watched enough contemporary children’s shows to say whether there has been an increase or decline in environmental awareness media for kids.

. December 29, 2008 at 1:42 pm

The best and worst eco-movies of the year

WALL-E takes top honor and Quantum of Solace disappoints
Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 1:11 PM on 29 Dec 2008

“As for the brilliantly crafted Wall-E, the movie deserves special attention for two reasons:

One is that we can expect to see more environmental dystopias as the painful reality of global warming becomes more and more obvious to all (see here). Wall-E makes clear that even the most brutal satire of our self-inflicted environmental predicament can be a box office success, if it is well done. The second reason is the incredible irony of Disney making this movie.”

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: