As animation as a genre has matured over the last few decades—and this is something where Japan still enjoys a huge lead over its Western counterparts—its authority to take on stories with greater heft than dropping anvils on one another has yielded some really remarkable stories. Being a realm of pure imagination, animated features can go places conventional live action never can. And few movies prove that more than Pixar’s WALL-E, an endearing fable about overconsumption, environmental neglect, and a need to look after our home, even if it’s a place we have never been before.
Some 700 years in the future, Earth is an abandoned junkyard, completely covered with enormous pikes of trash left behind by a human race that long ago left their homeward to vacation in the stars in the hopes that robots left behind might clean up the mess. Seven centuries later, the last remaining garbage collector robot, named WALL-E, life a lonely life of grimy duty, gathering and compacting trash while collecting things that interest him. Everything changes when he meets a sleek robot named EVE sent on a routine mission to check for signs that the Earth has become habitable once again so humanity can come home and re-colonize. WALL-E falls in love with EVE and follows her back to her starship, where he finds a humanity that has much changed, and not for the better, living amongst a robot society of servants that are beginning to wonder exactly what they’re supposed to be serving. And behind it all, as people begin to wake up to a life beyond idle comfort and consumption, is a sinister plan to make sure nobody ever returns to Earth at all, let alone cleans up the damage done to it.
Like so many other Pixar movies, WALL-E is a perfect blend of mirth and message, an exquisitely animated feature that manages to tell a deep, warm and engaging story while using very little human dialogue whatsoever. It feels like it has more in common with the high-concept science fiction parables of the 1960s and 1970s than the easily marketed blockbuster fare the dominated modern cinema. And yet, Pixar managed to craft a story that draws us in with its cute and personable robot protagonist, and use him as our tour guide through two very different kinds of future, neither of which are sustainable or remotely attractive, pricing that dystopia takes many different forms, and that the only real future anybody should look for is one that takes the good with the bad and figures some way to balance them.
The first 10 minutes or so are especially memorable, playing out as a kind of extended episodic prologue in which we see a day in the life of WALL-E as he makes his rounds and lives his life. Had Pixar produced only that, it surely would have earned at least a nomination for Best Animated Short, but even as part of a larger whole, it remains a remarkable bit of concise, self-contained narrative. WALL-E is a moving example of the dichotomy between trash and treasure, from plastic sporks to diamond engagement rings.
Once WALL-E leaves Earth and hitches a ride back to EVE’s mothership, the Axiom, he becomes our eyes and ears as we tour the last remnant of human civilization, thousands of people who have been living in microgravity and coddled luxury for so long that they all resemble morbidly obese seal pups, barely able to do anything more than sit in their hover chairs, slurp Big Gulps all day and talk to each other through screens, even when they’re physically next to each other. It doesn’t take a genius to see the mockery and warnings about our own lifestyles today, put forth with enough sugar-coating for us to not mind the sting in their middle.
Where WALL-E triumphs is knowing when to sermonize about the perils of late-stage consumerism and environmental abuse, and couch those things within a more intimate and personal context. And that is where we are treated to one of the sweetest love stories ever animated as WALL-E slowly wins over EVE’s robot heart, and the two see wonder in each other’s strengths and shortcomings, relaying that as well as they have been designed, they’ll never be complete unless they are with each other. It’s impossible not to root for them, nor to smile in delight as they pirouette around each other in a sequence that is equal parts a first date, and a serenade to the romance of space itself. To make it all the sweeter is how their lovestruck flight around the outside of the Axiom in turns encourages two of the ship’s human passengers to look at one another for the first time, and to feel love blossom in their hearts, too.
Ultimately, WALL-E’s story becomes a kind of grand wish fulfillment, as we see the added humans of the Axiom slowly awaken from their sugar-induced stupors and demand something more, both for themselves, and of themselves. They struggle to leave their hover chairs and, literally, walk on their own, a race of devolved babies making the decision to regain their adulthood and to do something worthy with it. Watching EVE and WALL-E’s heroic roles in this is suitably compelling, even if the outcome is never truly in doubt. But the moment of truth comes now in the conclusion of the story, but in its epilogue, where the movie—unlike so many others—deigns to show us what happens in the 700 years after the story ends. It’s far more than just a novel way to get us to sit through the credits. It’s a message of hope that we can still repair what we have destroyed, and that no problem has ever been solved by throwing it away. No matter how big the mess, we must always return to clean it, even if we’re not the ones who made it.