As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
Pixar’s 2008 WALL-E was a film I didn’t properly appreciate in its own time. I remember being incredibly taken with the previews for the film; I couldn’t imagine a cuter lead character than WALL-E. I remember seeing the film in the theaters with a girlfriend, and I remember being disappointed it wasn’t the film that I expected it to be. I wasn’t ready to accept the film on its own terms; I wanted it to be talkier and not quite as slow as the thoughtful meditation on numerous deeper themes ended up being. If I’d been the type to publish movie reviews back then, this would be one I’d have to walk back as having been written from a place of ignorance.
Rewatching WALL-E in 2020 leaves me thinking it’s perhaps the most quintessential movie of the pandemic. I’ve refrained mostly from writing about the reason this little project of rewatching Pixar films even got started, but its roots are in the pandemic. The pandemic is what has kept the theaters empty of new releases. The pandemic is why Pixar’s Soul will be released on Dec. 25 directly on Disney+, the same place I’m rewatching all of these films in this rewatch. The pandemic is what has driven us inward, discouraged us from eating out in restaurants and going only when we have to, increasingly isolating us from our social circles.
WALL-E is, at its core, a lonely, isolated movie. It is not really subtle in its subversiveness. It depicts extreme capitalism and herd-like humans as the ruin of the planet. A single corporation seems responsible for it all, and it’s hilarious that a film from Disney of all places is making such commentary. There are numerous smart connections drawn between the film and consumerism, pollution, climate change, and myriad other evils, but rather than dwell on the causes (though each of those evils can be traced to irresponsible human actions and a failure of governmental leadership held hostage by those same irresponsible humans), the results are what make the film a perfect 2020 film.
The film is a study in the power of connectedness and contact with others. WALL-E is a simple little robot, who seems to be one of the few of his kind still operating at a simple task: sweep up the debris and crush/compact it into tight cubes so as to be more manageable. We’re not sure how long he’s been at it, but one has to assume it’s been a long time. We’re not sure if his prime directive has softened in necessity to him after years of repetition, or if he was made with this personality we come to know as his built into him all along. But he’s sentimental from the beginning. After a long day, he rolls back to his home with a small cooler/lunchbox strapped to his back, looking like a regular working stiff. Until you realize he’s a robot and has no need for lunch, thus no need for a lunchbox, and you see that it’s where he stores the things he finds during his day which he wants to keep.
He has a strange collection of random objects. Utensils seem to be a favorite, and we see him torn over where to place a spork: in the cup of spoons or the cup of forks? He shares his space with a loyal cockroach, who, true to common wisdom, seems incapable of dying, and WALL-E treats it as a pet. It’s not clear why he has this impulse, whether it’s learned or innate. But WALL-E’s love of an old VHS copy of the musical “Hello, Dolly,” where characters sing and dance and talk of love is hinted at as the root of WALL-E’s deeper feelings.
As soon as Eve, a modern and sleeker robot whose prime directive is to search for organic lifeforms, arrives, WALL-E is smitten. It’s not clear whether that comes from his longing for connection more generally or because the film has taught him the concept of love, encapsulated the act of holding hands. Whatever his initial interest, it becomes romantic quite quickly, though he must suffer a number of rejections.
Eve is not moved off of her prime directive, and she actually fulfills it all because of WALL-E. He gives her a plant that he found, at which point she goes into a hibernation mode as she waits to be scooped up by the main ship. In that time, WALL-E carries out a full-fledged relationship without her active participation. He takes her up to the roof of his house, why exactly isn’t clear other than he thought it might wake her up since he was solar-powered, and watches over her, protects her from the weather, drags her around to his favorite places, and tries to casually hold her hand while she slept.
He would do anything to stay with her, and that includes flying into space on the outside of a spaceship. He chases her down throughout the film, and she’s simply trying to fulfill her directive. In the process, she sees just how much he did for her when he had no reason to do any of it at all. Through the power of his company, she falls for him, little by little until she realizes it’s actually a lot. Her directive becomes secondary to her, as it had been for WALL-E the entirety of the film.
It’s such a beautiful reminder of the power of touch and physical closeness. It’s a reminder of what we’re all missing or quite possibly what we have but are taking for granted because, quite frankly, it’s from one or two of the only people we’ve seen in months. It’s easy to lose perspective, to lose the proper appreciation for the others in our lives under these circumstances, which is a crying shame in a year where so many people have lost loved ones in unimaginably lonely ways. Children of all ages have had their parents slip away under the ravages of COVID-19 from a great remove. Sometimes the best consolation for being there in person is a frontline medical worker, decked out in personal protective equipment, holding up an iPad for a final FaceTime. But those screens, as helpful and great as they can be, are no substitute for the lived-in reality of the world.
WALL-E shows us that, as an increasingly obese human race float around on hover chairs, talking on projection screens so close to their faces that they effectively serve as blinders. It gives the humans something, or better yet, the illusion of something, while unable to give them the full weight and gravity of the real thing. The only real notable exceptions to that level of plugged-in mesmerism are the two people WALL-E most directly interacts with — the man he helps back into his hover chair and the woman whose screen he turns off. Those two end up meeting and falling in love, and it was all made possible because they simply had their eyes opened to what had been around them all the time.
In a world where all of us, bar none, spend too much time on our phones and computers, too much time in front of our smart TVs with our instant access to any show or movie we want, it’s fitting that a pandemic comes along and forces us to rely on those very things before we realize what a gift the outside world was, with all its potential for connection and touch and stimulation of the senses.
The humans finally banded together and helped out WALL-E and Eve, and they helped them achieve Eve’s directive, which led to their return to the Earth. Though we spend the end of the movie mostly worried about WALL-E, there are those moments when the humans toddle off the spaceship and gather round the single tiny plant returned to the soil. It’s so small as to be insignificant if it weren’t littered with hope; that plant represents a new beginning and hopefully a new appreciation for the simple things in life. May we all emerge from our cocoons in 2021, vaccinated and hopeful, ready to appreciate the simple things in life that we’ve been missing out on for so long now.
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