It’s been six months since I saw Pixar’s 2008 feature but, having found my original thoughts on the film, I wanted to post them while the retrospective mood of the new year is still upon us.
Wall-E is an anti-film. It is the kid-friendly counterpart to another 2008 release, Haneke’s remake of Funny Games.
Both films upset their formal continuity to disengage you from the viewing experience, but for different purposes. Funny Games’s formal gimmicks are intended to make us question the moral neutrality of watching a movie by implicating audience tolerance as tacit approval for violence on screen, while Wall-E highlights the artifictiality of what is on screen in order to remind us that real life is more important than total immersion both into oneself and into a medium other than another person.
The visual if not ontological disjunction between the sole live-action character and his animated descendants is used to un-immerse us from the film — as the humans in the film become un-immersed from their screens — and make us conscious that the anima sitting next us is more real than the illusions of animated beings on screen. The humility of the film is evident in its belief that such a reminder is worth disrupting our suspension of disbelief mid-narrative.
But Wall-E’s emphasis on its own artificiality is not to denigrate the medium of animation, only to secure it in its proper place relative to real life. However, animation’s proper place, as Ratatouille also insisted, is to be regarded not as a derivative art form which (like the musical) is considered inferior to “real” films, but as legitimate works of art in and of themselves. Indeed, by the standard of Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment, Wall-E (the robot) creates highbrow art on a daily basis.
Insofar as the iPod generation (forgive me) already to an extent resembles the people on the hover-couches, then the animated captain’s watching of live-action video (paralleled by Wall-E’s watching of Hello Dolly) is simply the negative image of us watching animated video.
Does this negative image of the theater audience imply that 700 years from now we will be watching ancient animated movies (and specifically animated musicals) rather than live-action ones? This is already reality for millions of parents who rewatch the same Disney movie over and over because their kids have it on. Like Wall-E’s VHS tape, parents must feel like the same song is always playing whenever they walk into the TV room.
The Pixar film is unclear whether the 800-year endurance of a musical like Hello Dolly — a “classic” to be sure but not necessarily great art — is a good thing. The film’s treatment of Hello Dolly is admittedly affectionate, and the lyrics gain significance with Wall-E’s life, but the incessant repetition of the same song makes it always an ironic enjoyment.
The result seems to be a sensitive critique of nostalgia. Yes, the animated Disney musicals are classics (see Ratatouille for Pixar’s defense of the true Disney spirit) but we must not let our nostalgia blind us to assessing such movies honestly, and admitting that not every song in a classic Disney movie is itself great.
It also critiques the Disney formula that animated films must be musicals — the trend broken by Pixar — and Wall-E (the film) reminds us yet again that it’s okay for an animated film to aim at visual beauty unadulterated by the flourishes of the musical genre. Interpolated songs, though perhaps enjoyable in the moment, result over time in becoming trite and lessening the impact of the film and distracting from its genuine qualities. The filmmed musical after all is a completely derivative form, more akin to the documentary in some ways, so Pixar’s use of the musical as “found footage” documenting a previous era is entirely appropriate, and appropriately ironic.
The jarring effect of Hello Dolly intruding every so often into this visually beautiful film, which encourages us to adopt a patronizing attitude towards Hello Dolly, is exactly the effect of many a classic animated Disney musical. Pixar is saying the time has come (finally! why has it taken so long?) for animation to treat itself as a legitimate art form without slavishly following the model that Snow White bound us all to by the historical accident of its financial success.