From the moment it began, I started crying.
It's not unusual for Australian audiences to have to wait a few months after the rest of the world to see a movie, but back in 2008, the almost three months between the United States release in June of Pixar Animation Studio's ninth animated feature 'WALL-E' and our September release date in Australia felt particularly interminable. Despite a lacklustre marketing campaign, the initial reviews for 'WALL-E' were rapturous. Critics were calling it an instant American classic, comparing it to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, naming it the best film of the year, even predicting that it would be the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture since 'Beauty and the Beast' in 1992. I spent those two months trying to dodge any plot details, my excitement for the film rising daily, but the small snippets that crept through - that there was no dialogue in the first 20 minutes, that it had strong ties to the early days of cinema, that it was the most daring major animated film in years - only fuelled my anticipation and my frustration at having to wait a second longer.
And from the moment it began, I started crying.
Seeing 'WALL-E' for the first time (on what I imagine was probably its first day of release in Australia) was one of the most overwhelming experiences I've ever had in a cinema. I remember the audience around me disappearing from my periphery. I remember the screen being enormous, inviting, engulfing, wrapping itself around me. As each astonishing, breathtaking second passed, I became more and more emotional. Half an hour after it was over, standing next to my friend's car, I was still sobbing. I'd just seen something perfect, and I didn't know how to process it. That was 15 years ago, and I still feel the same way about 'WALL-E'. It may no longer induce an emotional breakdown of the same magnitude, but the impact of it on me hasn't lessened. Even revisiting it for this celebration of its anniversary, I still felt my heart quicken and my skin shimmer in anticipation and my eyes start to well up.
From an historical standpoint, using silent film language as a reference point for an animated film isn't revelatory. In the 1910s and 20s when both animation and live-action were finding their feet alongside one another, the two mediums continually bounced off each other. You can see the influence of the work of Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Roscoe Arbuckle in the early work of Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers, and certainly by the time the Looney Tunes kick off, that idea of purely visual slapstick humour had been refined to a fine art. Consequently, you can see the influence of live-action cinema on the first Disney animated features, the German Expressionist movement present in films like 'Fantasia' (1940) and 'Dumbo' (1941). These weren't seen as two seperate mediums, but all part of the same developing art form. The camera and the pencil were just different tools to achieve a similar end. The two languages diverging likely occurred due to the Second World War, when the resources to costly animated projects were cut back. In the following decades, while live-action filmmakers reached for even greater heights of artistry, animation had to make do within stricter parameters.
Thanks to the success of films like 'Toy Story' (1995) and 'Shrek' (2000), animation by 2008 relied more heavily on a clipping pace and snappy dialogue. Great artistry was present (certainly in that first phase of Pixar's output), but there was a cultural expectation of how an animated film should look and feel. They were driven by dialogue and a packed narrative, and the visual language, while more ambitious thanks to computer animation, was led by what the dialogue demanded. Pantomime was still explored in animated shorts, but the idea of an animated feature film where dialogue existed purely to serve a function or otherwise wasn't ultimately necessary felt like a revelation, even though animation was born without a single word being spoken at all.
That isn't to say that 'WALL-E' came out of nowhere. Outside of Studio Ghibli (whose 2001 masterpiece 'Spirited Away' had reminded audiences across the world of how profound an animated film could be), Pixar had been the most consistently daring animation studio in the world. Each film was a carefully considered boundary pusher, whether that be in terms of visual scale such as with 'A Bug's Life' (1998) or with mature storytelling with 'Monsters, Inc.' (2001). In 2003, director Andrew Stanton had left audiences and critics enraptured with his debut film 'Finding Nemo', as emotionally breathtaking as it was visually sumptuous. The relationships between these pixel-crafted fish were as real as between any human actors, and for the first time since the beginnings of the Disney Renaissance, it seemed possible that animation could compete with live-action as a dramatically satisfying experience. A year later in 2004, director Brad Bird threw down the gauntlet with his action masterpiece 'The Incredibles', pushing the technology to new heights and reminding us that the advantage of animation is its relatively limitless possibilities. These two films in particular feel now like stepping stones towards 'WALL-E', making necessary discoveries that would be integral to its success - 'Finding Nemo' reminded us how powerful an animated film could be; 'The Incredibles' reminded us how daring they could be.
In the 2008 book 'The Art of WALL-E', director Andrew Stanton shares the starting point of the film, the idea, "What if mankind were forced to evacuate Earth and someone forgot to turn the last robot off?" Through its many years of development, this idea would be expanded on and enriched, but the essential thematic elements are there - an intimate story of a character abandoned and alone, set against an epic backdrop of catastrophe and dystopia. "We just loved the idea of the last little robot on the planet Earth," said Stanton. "What would be the best way to tell that story? Well, I wouldn't want the robot to speak English like a human being. I'd want it to communicate within the limitations of how it was constructed, and that just wouldn't demand much dialogue."
The power of the great silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton are their immediate accessibility. It doesn't matter what language you speak or where you come from, their open expressions and clear, simple gestures give us space to pour our own feelings and experiences into them, to create our own very personal connection with them. WALL-E's design utilises all these same elements - those wide glass eyes as sympathetic as Keaton's, his beaten-up rickety body as rough-and-tumble as the Little Tramp. By removing complex dialogue from the equation, his gestures have to communicate across language and generational boundaries, but like Chaplin and Keaton, within physical limits. WALL-E shouldn't be able to do anything; he should be fallible, breakable, always on the brink of danger.
The same, ultimately, can be said about his emotions, their clarity and simplicity adding a level of complexity that no amount of dialogue could hope to capture. The opening silent stretch of the film is there to teach us all we need to know about him. He cares for his pet cockroach, so he has empathy. His treads fall apart, so he is breakable. He fishes interesting bits out of the trash, so he is curious. He crafts a small, safe world for himself inside an abandoned transport, so he is creative. And watching the worn VHS of 'Hello, Dolly!', we see he has dreams and longings, that his seemingly fulfilling life is missing something that, despite the fact he is the most functional of robots, he feels very deeply. This could all have been communicated in a well-written monologue, but by introducing these characteristics of WALL-E through carefully-crafted action instead, we thrill at the joy of discovery and luxuriate in the time and space given for this sublime character to emerge.
All of these qualities converge with the arrival of EVE, and the reveal that, at its heart, 'WALL-E' is a love story. Pixar hadn't told a romantic story like this before. In fact, it wouldn't be until 'Elemental' (2023) that they would put romance at the forefront of one of their films again. The romantic relationship in 'WALL-E' is so successful that it nestles the film amongst the greatest romantic comedies, from 'It Happened One Night' (1934) to 'When Harry Met Sally...' (1989), the difference being that in this film, neither of the romantic partners are organic life forms. By comparison to WALL-E, EVE is the ideal of a robot, modern and sleek and powerful. If WALL-E is an old Nokia brick phone, EVE is the latest model iPhone, and the joy of those precious few minutes where their courtship begins is watching them find their common values. His wide-eyed awe of her is gorgeous, but the kick comes with the ways in which he opens EVE's eyes to the wonder of the world around her. Once again, the decision to free the film from the anchoring of dialogue gives space for this beautifully complex relationship to develop. We see that EVE is falling for WALL-E because of the way he opens up the world for her, the freedom he finds outside of his directive, the space he has for creativity and empathy.
As vast as the sepia landscapes of the crippled Earth are, beautifully imposing against the optimistic humming speck diligently trundling along within it, it's still startling when the scope of the film suddenly erupts and WALL-E leaves the Earth behind. Again, there could have been a more complex reason for him to get on that spaceship; after all, the two robots have discovered life again on Earth, something both are gloriously unaware of. But the magic of 'WALL-E' is that the objectives for all its key characters always remain simple - WALL-E wants to be with EVE, so he follows EVE. The second half of 'WALL-E' is often thought of as a step down from the astounding opening, but Stanton and his team are employing similar storytelling principles here, even with dialogue now at their disposal. The amount of care that went into crafting the look of both WALL-E and EVE carries over into the many, many robots of the Axiom. They each serve a specific function that is clearly expressed through their design, and even as their individual personalities emerge, their actions never stray from their key directive. It's also here, seeing him interact with far more characters, that we see how inherent WALL-E's own directive is. At every turn, he sees his job as helping and problem-solving, even to the extent that it causes him harm. His empathy is directly related to his directive, guiding his creative interpretations of that directive. Consequently, we see EVE's emerge as powerful leadership and decisiveness; where WALL-E leads with his heart, she leads with her head and judgement.
The treatment of the human characters is a touch more complex, presenting both an optimistic and a damning portrait of how we would react in such a situation. The fact they have grown bigger through inaction risks the film engaging in fat-shaming, but there's a thematic point underpinning this that hopefully saves it from making such an uncomfortable and unnecessary statement. To a certain extent, the humans on the Axiom have lost autonomy over their own bodies, reduced to consumers in an effort to keep them distracted from their predicament. No one seems concerned that they've been in space for over 700 years, but why would they when everything around them bombards them with products and convenience? When Mary (Kathy Najimy, 'Hocus Pocus') realises that they have a pool, it's both very funny and very telling, especially now looking at the ways we have been distracted from the impending climate crisis in the 15 years since the film was released. If we're continuously told that these systems of capital are for our benefit and will make our lives easier, why would we worry about the collapse of our world and our bodies? The people on the Axiom don't choose to become inactive, they are trained to be inactive and compliant, and in contrast to the robots whose whole existence is their directive, the humans have no directive. When the Captain (Jeff Garlin, TV's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm') sees what the Earth was and what it can be again, and chooses to take control from the Auto-Pilot, it gives him and the rest of the Axiom a purpose, a reason to look, a reason to walk, a reason to try.
There are few moments more devastating in contemporary cinema than the blank look in WALL-E's eyes after EVE replaces his circuitry.
Rather than sidelining WALL-E and EVE's romance through this stretch, the film weaves the two threads together in (literally) a symphonic dance. When asked to define dancing, the computer (Sigourney Weaver, 'Alien') describes it as "a series of movements involving two partners, where speed and rhythm match harmoniously with music". The idea of harmony is integral to the emotional core of 'WALL-E', both for the romantic relationship between its protagonists, the relationship between the human race and the natural world, and the larger thematic notion of the balance between purpose and expression. "You often hear the term 'You should have something to say in a story'", said Stanton in 'The Art of WALL-E'. "But that doesn't always mean a message. It means truth. Some value that you as a storyteller believe in. And then, through the course of the story, you debate that truth, prove it wrong, test its limits." It's one thing for the film to reduce all its storytelling elements to what is absolutely essential, but it still needs to be guided by a strong thematic principle, and I would argue that the notion of harmony is what underpins every second of 'WALL-E'. It becomes vital to its action, vital to its relationships and vital to landing its astonishing, overwhelming, soul-shattering final minutes.
There are few moments more devastating in contemporary cinema than the blank look in WALL-E's eyes after EVE replaces his circuitry. She looks at him with hope and longing, and these once-bright eyes, these points of light so full of life and curiosity and joy, are reduced to nothing more than specks of empty electricity. Pixar has become maniacal in their ability to emotionally manipulate their audiences, but I would argue that this moment is the most affecting they've ever put on screen. In that opening silent sequence, we are given just a glimpse into the rich life WALL-E has led. Through the film, we see his horizon of experience expand, not only in what he sees and does but in what he feels, the connection he has made with another entity. For most of the film, we have been guided gently by Thomas Newman's astonishing score, but now, as if in reverence to the deep sadness of this moment, it falls away to silence. I still remember my heart slowly falling to pieces as EVE gently hums 'It Only Takes A Moment', how devastating and exquisite it was. I sat in the cinema, wracked with sobs, unable to contain myself. And then a spark, and the eyes move, and the light sparkles again, and as these two robots finally come together, these two figures impossibly constructed from pixels out of thin air, the harmony of the film falls into place. The film may end gently, but the emotional scale of those final moments are as enormous as the universe itself.
The idea for 'WALL-E' came to Stanton in 1994 while Pixar was in the final stages of production on their first feature, 'Toy Story'. At a lunch with John Lasseter, Pete Doctor and the late filmmaker Joe Ranft, a lunch that would also see the inception of 'A Bug's Life', 'Monsters, Inc.' and 'Finding Nemo', Stanton proposed the idea of a story about a robot left behind on Earth. Nearly 15 years later, despite the ambivalence of their distributors at Disney, that film about a lonely robot would be met with some of the highest acclaim of any animated film, named by countless critics as the best film of the year. It would be nominated for six Academy Awards, winning for Best Animated Feature. Controversially, it was not nominated for Best Picture. 2008 would be a decisive year for the Oscars due to both this and another snub for Best Picture for 'The Dark Knight'. For audiences, the latter was the more egregious, and for critics, it was the former. The following year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the Best Picture nomination field would be expanded to ten films, citing both 'WALL-E' and 'The Dark Knight' as key to this decision. The idea was that this would open up the opportunity for animated and genre films to be considered for the award, but apart from 'Up!' and 'Toy Story 3' in the following two years, no animated film has been nominated for the award since.
We're now 15 years on from the release of 'WALL-E', nearly 30 years from its inception, and even now, the film still feels like a miracle. I've never forgotten the intensity of that first viewing, the memory of which still underpins every time I've revisited it. I still can't quite believe something so delicate, so purposeful, so careful, so perfect could possibly exist. 'WALL-E' is one of the purest expressions of the power of connection, with those close to us and to with the planet we have been entrusted to protect. The ecological message of the film has only grown as the climate crisis worsens and capitalism continues to wring the neck of our planet and its inhabitants, so much so that the David Lean-esque visages of the dead Earth seem more and more possible. And yet, what stays with you, still radiates from this exquisite work of all these years later, is how full of hope it is, the hope that we can do better, together. That hope, absurdly, magically, remarkably, is expressed through the soulful eyes of a beaten-up garbage compacting robot, one who sees the endless possibilities for beauty in this world and wants to be a part of it. That is the beauty, tragedy and glory of WALL-E - that he wants so badly to be a part of something greater than himself, and that he finds that in the simple act of holding hands with someone he loves. It is both intensely intimate and infinite all at once.
One thing I remember thinking as the credits began to roll on 'WALL-E' back in September 2008 was what Walt Disney might have thought of this film. Walt was a complicated man, a complicit participant in the capitalist machine, a deeply ambitious man whose choices were not always well-considered or well-informed. He was a man though who believed in the power of storytelling to move, affect and inspire, and the collision of these values with artistic integrity that can occur in animation. Those principles are present in those first Disney animated features, those benchmarks we still look to today, and what was apparent from its first second to its last was that these principles were there, impossibly there, in 'WALL-E', still one of the greatest animated films ever made.
If Walt Disney could have seen 'WALL-E', I think he would have felt the same way. I think he would have cried too.