Saturday, February 07, 2009


There's Something About Wall-E

I remember in the days before high school, when my mom or older sisters would buy a Disney movie, or maybe an X-Men or Ninja Turtles video cassette and I would spend days upon days watching and rewatching it. I memorized the situations and the dialogue and could recite them for anyone who would listen.

(There weren't a lot of folks who were willing, but those who were were impressed by my memory, and surely hoped that one day I use it more constructively.)

As the years passed I never lost my love of the movies, and now DVDs probably rank near the top of my leisurely financial expenditures. However, in my determination to see as many of the great movies of the 20th and 21st centuries (there's a lot of catching up to do; I feel guilty for having ever wasting my time watching Flight Plan)I rarely allocate my time to give movies a second viewing.

One exception was Mike Judge's Office Space. It appeared interesting when it was released in the theaters in 1999, but it never reached a cinema near West Tennessee, where I lived. As such, I didn't get to watch it until Spring 2002.

When I finally saw it, I was on Spring Break in my senior year of college. This was a time of transition for me, as a I feared I'd be without a job soon, or almost as bad, would acquire a job I hated. Office Space, with it's tale of disgruntled software engineers seeking retribution against the workplace that has made them miserable (and laid off many of them), spoke to me at the time -- it very clearly revealed to me the kind of job I didn't want to have later.

The biggest reason it appealed to me, though, was it's characters -- the squirrely guy who mumbles a lot, the disgusting pig of a boss, the straight man who always thinks he's on the verge of a breakthrough -- all of them were worth a master's thesis from graduate level film school scholar. After watching it at a friend's house (twice) I decided to buy it for myself. I don't know how many times I watched it that year, but it has since become a kind of fix; I need to watch every year or so to spend time with those characters again, and to make sure my current job doesn't resemble theirs.

(For the record, it doesn't; they were trapped in a boring office doing a job they detested, whereas I'm trapped in a boring office doing a job I can tolerate.)

For lovers of film characters, Office Space was without peer, and that's what made it my favorite. I don't claim it's the best movie ever made (it's story about stealing money from the company lacks a certain narrative zest), but it is my favorite. For a time, I was addicted to it, and until recently, it was the only movie I could remember feeling compelled to watch repeatedly.

This past summer, Wall-E was released. I wanted to go see it in theaters, since I liked nearly all Pixar flicks (Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles were my favorites; only Cars left me cold) and because critics as diverse as Roger Ebert and Slate's Dana Stevens (who rarely agree on anything) both gave it the stamp of approval.

My wife(to-be at that point) had her heart set on Kung-Fu Panda, however; perhaps because a panda doing martial arts appeared cuter than a robot, even one with sad eyes. Therefore, that was the movie we went to see in theaters.

Since they were in the cinema at the same time, it made sense that those two movies would be available on DVD at the same time. So, in mid-December, not long after their release, I bought both Wall-E and Kung-Fu Panda as her Christmas presents. Naturally, we watched the latter first, and when we finally got around to watching Wall-E it was my idea.

When we finally did watch Wall-E, I was captivated. I was taken by the detail that each frame requires, the different sounds and motions used to give Wall-E his personality, plus how his interactions with Eve are distinctly robotic and yet highly reminiscent of how a very reserved male (like me!) would act in that situation.

Wall-E is the first movie I've felt compelled to watch and rewatch since Office Space became a part of my life nearly seven years ago. Like Judge's flick, Wall-E has a real-world message that's critical for us now ... come to think of it, it has a pair of messages: 1) Out of control consumerism endangers our way of life on earth (very timely right now) and 2) Human beings are meant to be productive, not to have all our needs catered to.

Like with Judge's film, the plot is Wall-E's weak point, one that becomes all the more apparent when he and Eve leave earth to join the humans in space. However, both movies succeed in making their points through their characters: the blossoming relationship between Wall-E and Eve shows how companionship is necessary, even if it means sacrificing your "directive." The captain shows how unsatisfying life is without purpose. Then, there are the "defective" robots who rebel, helping Wall-E stop the authoritarian autopilot system from keeping them in space: In doing so, they show us that no one's contribution should be discounted.

One shouldn't let the search for a deeper meaning distract from the movie's obvious pleasure: Wall-E himself. As Ebert pointed out, Kung-Fu Panda's character was cute, but to a fault: "The panda was all but special-ordered to be lovable, but on reflection, I think he was so fat, it wasn’t funny anymore."

Dreamworks took the easy route in their character and reaped less in the end. Pixar, however, took a robot with fewer evidently lovable characteristics and made him a star:

"WALL-E ... looks rusty and hard-working and plucky, and expresses his personality with body language and (mostly) with the binocular-like video cameras that serve as his eyes. The movie draws on a tradition going back to the earliest days of Walt Disney, who reduced human expressions to their broadest components and found ways to translate them to animals, birds, bees, flowers, trains and everything else," Ebert writes.

Though Wall-E isn't a human, Pixar endowed him with the most admirable human qualities: Curiosity, pluck and love. In doing so, they reminded me (and more than a few others)of why we enjoy movies to begin with.

Plus, my impersonation of him has entertained my wife more than Kung-Fu Panda ever will.

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