Day By Day

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What to Make of WALL-E?

“She Who Must Not Be Named” is a beautiful, mature, accomplished, educated woman, but beneath that sophisticated exterior lurks a fourteen year old girl who emerges from time to time to demand that I accompany her to see some film pitched at that demographic. A few weeks ago it was Nims Island, an extremely weak Abigail Breslin vehicle that confirmed what I already knew – that Breslin cannot act, that Jodie Foster can’t do comedy, and that Gerry Butler should stick to action/horror roles – and a script that was a silly mashup of “Romancing the Stone” and “Home Alone”. Next week it will be another Breslin vehicle – Kit Kitteridge, American Girl, which apparently is based on some doll that is popular with pre-teens.

Yesterday, “She” insisted that we go to see “WALL-E”, a SF cartoon feature from Pixar. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The pre-release hype assured me that I would be seeing something really extraordinary and I had fond memories of The Incredibles, an earlier Pixar SF effort. So I was hopeful. But I had also seen Ratatouille, a technically brilliant, sentimental story about food snobbery produced by food snobs for food snobs. I had admired the film for its craftsmanship but was put off by the cultural attitudes that informed it. Would WALL-E be an exhilarating experience, or would it be a disappointing display of arrogant elitism?

Well…, it was both.

On a technical level the film is stunning. In this respect Pixar just keeps getting better and better. The first forty five minutes are a breathtaking cinematic experience, culminating in an amazingly rendered mating dance between two robots in deep space, using a fire extinguisher. The dystopic future world and the anthropomorphized critters that inhabit it are rendered in such extraordinary detail and the characters so well drawn that the SF fan I used to be responded uncritically to what he was seeing. In short, I loved it!

But then the film took off into space and soon whole experience came crashing back to earth. Years of reading and watching Cold War era dystopias had dulled my perceptions. I had simply accepted the setting of the film uncritically, and the technical wizardry on the screen masked the fact that I had been watching nothing more than an extremely conventional, paint-by-numbers romantic comedy with hackneyed characterizations and plot situations. In fact, it was pretty much the same story as Ratatouille -- Shy, cutely inept boy with equally cute sidekick meets cute with dominant, unresponsive but cute girl; misunderstandings ensue, but his uncritical devotion to her softens her heart and they become a cute and competent couple. The magic, in other words, was not in the story, but in its rendering.

The second half of the film, however, was just plain offensive – a relentless assault on American consumer culture, global corporations, couch potatoes, and [without a hint of irony] an all-embracing mass entertainment media. There was even a gratuitous slam at Ronald Reagan. The cute love story evolved into an environmentalist screed produced by scolds who disparage the contours of contemporary American mass culture. The dystopic future, rather than simply being a wonderfully rendered SF backdrop, became a hysterical depiction of what environmentalist wackos see as our future unless we adopt their agenda.

And what, according to Pixar, is that agenda? We should stop immersing ourselves in mass media, get outside in the real world or at least to a gym, diet, go back to the earth, to the natural world, plant a tree. In other words, use the miracle of modern technology to free ourselves from its grip. Perhaps this is all good advice – certainly it must seem so to the affluent left-coasters who produced WALL-E, but it is also a blanket repudiation of the American public who flock to their entertainments.

I don’t like the recent trajectory of Pixar’s productions. WALL-E is no less a product of unrestrained snobbery than was Ratatouille. It is a paean to the sensibilities of affluent and arrogant scolds who find ordinary Americans repulsive, or at least disappointing, and badly in need of reform.

Ultimately, despite all the technical wizardry on display, I found it more than a little offensive. "She" will have more trouble dragging me to the next Pixar production than "She" did this time.