*. When watching kids’ movies the question any reviewer (or just casual notetaker) has to answer is whether their response should be based on how much they enjoyed/appreciated it or how much they think a kid would. In recent years, however, that distinction has come to be effectively elided by the rise in “kidult” entertainment, meaning books and movies aimed at both audiences.
*. I’ve written before about how much I despise the whole idea or cult of kidult (see my notes on Gnomeo and Juliet and The Lego Batman Movie). One of the people most responsible for it, or at least most successful at it, is the writer-director Andrew Stanton, who had a hand in such blockbusters as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. Not that I’m hating on Stanton for this. He’s someone who found his niche and struck gold in it.
*. So instead of looking at this movie from either a kid’s or an adult’s perspective WALL-E requires a double vision. I think kids liked it. There’s lots going on and even some music. For adults there are deeper layers. Or maybe not layers so much as Easter eggs. Like AUTO’s red eye being a reference to HAL from 2001, or the way WALL-E’s fire extinguisher blasts ejaculate on EVE as they do their space dance. I have to admit I did not recognize Sigourney Weaver supplying the voice of the ship’s computer, so some of this stuff is pitched at a pretty high fan level indeed.
*. But kidult also has a leveling effect on any deeper messaging. In particular Stanton claimed not to have had any political or environmental agenda. Indeed, the only point of WALL-E finding a plant was that it would symbolize the robot’s own determined perseverance. I don’t know how much to credit this, as the notion of Earth being covered in garbage by a soulless one-world corporate government is inescapably political, but maybe Stanton didn’t want to seem preachy or rock any boats.
*. Was Stanton also drawing on the robots left to tend the greenhouse ship by themselves at the end of Silent Running? He doesn’t mention that film on his DVD commentary so I wasn’t sure. I’ve also heard that the human grubs on the Axiom were inspired by the underground citizens of E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops,” but I don’t know if that was a conscious borrowing.
*. The story strikes me as weak and poorly structured. It just sort of moves from stage to stage without building much interest. I like the way humans have devolved into giant, seemingly boneless babies carried about on their automated strollers, dressed in onesies, and sucking from Super Big Gulp bottles. But this also made them far less interesting as characters. I wasn’t at all invested in the Captain’s transformation, and the way the shipboard audience cheers him on in his final struggle with AUTO struck me as a cheap trick, like a laugh track.
*. It does look great and they obviously put a lot of work into realizing WALL-E and EVE as characters without giving them mouths. They act mainly with their eyes. According to Stanton they studied the films of Chaplin and Keaton to learn how to do the comic bits with no dialogue. I guess it worked. But to be honest, this struck me as a movie that was more cute than funny.
*. Gender stereotypes are also pretty obvious. Not because male WALL-E is square and EVE smooth and ovoid, but because he’s a blue-collar working dude and she’s a highly educated professional woman with lots of girl power in her rocket arms. But of course when it’s time to get broody with a baby she’s ready to settle down in the best rom-com fashion.
*. The main takeaway for me is that beyond the rich look of the movie I didn’t think anything else about it was all that special. I wasn’t sure if Stanton even had much interest in anything beyond the look. He wanted to juxtapose the future with a lot of retro stuff because he’d never seen that done before (which is kind of hard to believe). Hence Chaplin and Keaton and Hello, Dolly! But do these go together, or comment on each other in any meaningful way? As noted, he didn’t want the film to carry any particular political message. He thought the big theme was how “irrational love defeats life’s programming,” but I wasn’t even sure that was a theme at all. EVE does follow her programming for the most part, doesn’t she?
*. The box office and critical reception suggests that both kids and adults liked what they saw, but as with most if not all kidult entertainment I thought it was thin gruel. I wonder if anyone is going to be watching movies like this forty or fifty years from now, when we may still be watching Buster Keaton and maybe even Hello, Dolly! I wouldn’t be putting my money on the robots lasting as long.