Monday, July 21, 2008

Last Year's Model

I've resisted computer animation for years; it lacks the depth, ironically enough, of traditional 2D animation; too often, it ends up looking hollow and insincere, and its practitioners and apologists--many of them, anyway--are so infatuated with the technology that they end up leaving by the wayside insignificant things like story and character development. I've not seen Space Chimps, for example, nor do I plan to, but it looks like a perfectly unholy combination of poor writing and hollow effects. As for the bafflingly acclaimed Shrek series--it confuses cynicism with a legitimate critique of Disney mythology, and it features the most grating voice acting I've ever heard. It's clever without being smart, an attack on franchising that turned into a franchise itself. I hate these movies, I truly hate them, and Disney's own Enchanted, a much more affectionate tweaking of the princess trope, really shows how petulant and juvenile the Shrek movies are.

Disney screwed up, too, though--as movies like Brother Bear and Home on the Range foundered at the box office, Robert Iger and company shut down the Mouse's 2D animation department, only to produce Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, themselves greeted by tepid commercial reception. Disney apparently fails to understand that the third dimension doesn't help anything if the writing isn't there. This fall's Bolt, starring John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, looks pretty terrible but may surprise me. I hope so.

The exception to the general artistic failure of computer animation are the Pixar films, all of which--especially 2003's Finding Nemo and 2004's The Incredibles--have been whip-smart, innovative (both visually and thematically), and genuinely emotional in a way that DreamWorks features consistently fail to be. Pixar also has a penchant for choosing voice actors who are not huge stars, or at least not at the top of public consciousness, to great effect. Think of Craig T. Nelson anchoring The Incredibles or Albert Brooks as the emotional center of Finding Nemo or Don Rickles gruffing his way through the Toy Story movies. Pixar casts its actors because they're right for their parts, not because they want to capitalize on star power. These actors don't overplay their roles or use goofy voices for no reason--I'm looking at Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers, respectively--and so the films end up with an understated tone, and understatement is where the real emotion is.

I was certain Pixar's latest, WALL-E, would be an artistic success and a commercial failure, though. The cartoon-going public, after all, made the Shrek films hits, and I doubted their patience and ability to appreciate a film with limited dialogue--the main character, after all, says only about seven words the entire movie. Also, giving emotion to robots is notoriously difficult (as we learned from the Futurama DVD commentaries). But I didn't doubt Pixar's ability to make it happen--just the public's ability to do the work to identify with the robots. But my predictions, thankfully, turned out to be dead wrong: The movie opened at number one and made $23 million its first weekend, and it's still at number six a month after its release (ahead of Wanted, Kung Fu Panda, and Space Chimps). It's not going to be the studio's most successful feature, but it's going to do well.

More importantly, it's their best movie, and one of the best cartoons I've ever seen. The animation, particularly in the first half hour, is breaktaking, and the backgrounds are particularly well-done. (Backgrounds in animation are to some extent like bass in a rock band, in that most people don't pay a huge amount of attention to them but they subtly make the entire experience. Pixar's famed attention to detail makes them great at backgrounds, and WALL-E utilizes the talents of Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, late of The Simpsons, two of the best in the biz.) The animation loses some of its majesty once the humans show up--3D animation has a hard time making non-creepy human beings, though it worked well in The Incredibles--but the robots always look good and are beautifully designed.

A central, though unspoken, conflict in the movie involves generational technology, particularly the difference between WALL-E and the rest of the robots. WALL-E is a 1960s vision of the future, the kind of thing you might find in Tomorrowland. He's perhaps a little clunky, a little out-of-date, and he appears to malfunction on a semi-regular basis. The newer robots, on the other hand, look like iPods--they're coated with glossy Apple white and are all curves and smooth edges. They certainly work better than WALL-E, but the movie suggests that their efficiency is to their detriment. To put it briefly, WALL-E's malfunctioning gives him a soul; he's so poorly designed that he develops a personality. (This makes him human, of course; Nietzsche suggests in "On Truth and Lying in an Non-Moral Sense" that human consciousness is a similar accident of evolution.) But WALL-E's personality, in the ultra-modern world he will briefly inhabit, makes him something of a liability, as he's in trouble as soon as he sets his suitcase down. At the very least, he seems old fashioned once he gets to the space cruiser. His job performance (he's a garbage-bot, a rolling trash compactor left to clean up the mess evacuating humans have made of Earth) is not peak, as he spends a good part of each day collecting artifacts with which he decorates his sad and lonely apartment. He spends his nights watching a videotape of Hello Dolly, an old musical set in an even older time and stored on what is in the 22nd century a ridiculously outdated technology. He's learned from Dolly that life's greatest pleasure is holding hands, and he practices on himself. If humanity has an essence, say the existentialists, it's alienation; and so WALL-E is human, alone on a deserted planet with only Babs Streisand and a cockroach for company. (Leave it to Pixar to make those two palatable!)

The new robots are not evil, exactly, not even the Autopilot device who serves as the movie's de facto villain. But they're efficient, ruthlessly so,; they're programmed to get the job done, and such a mission has little room for personality. The new robots aren't dehumanized--they'd have to be human for that--but they're kept from attaining humanity. At least until they meet WALL-E. Last year's model shines a light on every robot he meets, starting with EVE, who's a ruthless killing machine until WALL-E gives her a nickname. And when she retreats into her mission and becomes totally non-responsive, WALL-E sits with her for days in the rain and the heat, watching over her. Once she sees her own security footage of his sacrifice, bam, she's human. Something similar happens to the valet robot who angrily cleans up after WALL-E; when the latter shakes his hand and asks his name, he gains a personality in a way he didn't formerly have one. Carl Jung talks about the zeroes who make up most of the world and the ones who bring them into the clear light of day; WALL-E is certainly a one, and probably the only one in the movie, at least until he starts making ones from zeroes.

If the new robots are ruthlessly efficient, the humans in the movie are disgustingly sedentary, completely unable to make a move--they are so alienated that they are completely unaware of their alienation. They ride around their cruise ship on recliners, watching television and drinking their food so they won't even have to exercise their jaws. They're so wrapped up in their chair-mounted screens that they don't even know they're sitting by a swimming pool. WALL-E's status as a Jungian one is reinforced when he knocks John Ratzenberger off his chair and turns off Kathy Najimi's screen--the two make a legitimate human connection (they hold hands, of course) and become heroes in their own right when utopia turns to dystopia.

The people who criticize the film's supposed attack on the obese miss the point (indeed, at least three of the film's stars--Ratzenberger, Najimy, and captain Jeff Garlin--are pretty overweight, and so is Pixar head John Lasseter). The film is not a criticism of obesity in and of itself; it uses obesity as an image of alienation. After all, the futuristic humans are not just fat--they are sedentary, and in being sedentary they are unable to make any connections, be they intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. WALL-E's heroism comes from his old-fashionedness; he seems to exist in an era where folks were industrious without being ruthless, where human connection was the main thing, where technology did not run our lives for us. Whether that era existed or not, I can't say, but WALL-E does a great job of making us believe it did, and in doing so, it eases our alienation for a little while. It makes us move, makes us want to hold hands with someone or maybe everyone.


Michial said...

I should add that V. and I also saw M. Night Shyamalan's abomination "The Happening" this weekend. The two movies deal with very similar themes, but they couldn't be more different, and it's not just because of "WALL-E"'s optimism. WALL-E and EVE and the rest of them feel more human than the ostensibly human characters in Shyamalan's underwritten film. I believe the threat in "WALL-E"; Shyamalan just comes off as preachy.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

And I will add that in your paean to Pixar you left out Cars, whose gorgeous opening credits sequence alone is a masterpiece and whose screwball voice acting cast--including but not limited to Paul Newman, Michael Keaton, Larry the Cable Guy, Ray and Tom Magliozzi, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., John Ratzinberger (because he does a voice in every Pixar film), and Owen Wilson (because he was the mid-decade's Jude Law, required by union code to appear in every third movie in some form)--is just great. To leave this movie out of the roll of the not-Shreks is a bit irresponsible, don't you think?

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Oh, yeah. It also had the voices of Bob Costas, Jay Leno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The range of screwy voice actors is just wonderful.

Michial said...

Nathan, I love all of the Pixar movies, and you're right--I should have said something about "Cars," which is visually stunning. The story reminded me of the town I went to college in, which was bypassed by a new highway and which subsequently died. I cried for half an hour in that movie and went home and wrote this:

"I've driven every back-assed half-road here to Franklin Springs
And I always kept the Alt. beyond my sight
'Cos when 17 got bypassed it put downtown under water
Now the tourists all skip their stones across the surface."

So yes. I love "Cars," and even the noxious presence of Larry the Cable Guy couldn't spoil it.

"Samson Agonistes" post coming soon, I promise.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I agree that Larry the Cable Guy can ruin just about any afternoon, but one should note that, like Kudzu in Japan, he actually stayed in his place (i.e. delivering one-liners, then fading into the background) in Cars.

Michial said...

I can agree with that. I went in expecting to hate him and was pleasantly surprised. I wonder if his fans were disappointed that he didn't carry the movie. Of course, we'll never know, since 95 percent of them are functionally illiterate.

Fun fact: Larry the Cable Guy isn't even from the South. He's essentially a blackface performer of the rural South. He's also a joke-free comedian. Jeff Foxworthy once said that "Get-R-Done" is Latin for "punchline goes here." That sounds about right.

Meredith said...

I just saw Wall-E yesterday. I loved it. My first impression was, "This is not really a kids' movie." It doesn't have any goofy characters like there are in Madagascar or Toy Story. I mean, I suppose you could say the fat humans are the "goofy character," but their role is small. There aren't any quotable lines which kids seem to love.

But, I agree. I was amazed at the beauty of the animation for the first hour. At some points I couldn't determine if it was real or not. It was absolutely incredible.

Ford said...

I echo your sentiments on both Wall*E and Pixar. I was unaware that Lasseter was behind the Princess and the Frog. He just keeps pushing for the best!
If you're interested, let me know about what you think of my review of Wall*E here:

Michial said...

I like your movie reviews, Ford--your writing is good, your analysis is insightful, and you manage to discuss the movies' relation to Christianity without being preachy. That's hard to do!