Mapping Contemporary Cinema

WALL-E, 2008

Production Companies: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Andrew Stanton

Producers: John Lasseter (Executive), Jim Morris, Lindsey Collins (Co-Producer), Thomas Porter (Associate Producer)

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon (original story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter)

Animation: Angus MacLane

Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky

Editor: Stephen Schaffer

Cast: Ben Burtt (WALL-E/M-O), Elissa Knight (EVE), Jeff Garlin (Captain), Fred Willard (Shelby Forthright, BnL CEO), John Ratzenberger (John), Kathy Najimy (Mary), Sigourney Weaver (Ship’s Computer, OTTO)

Music: Thomas Newman

Running Time: 98 mins.

Classificaton: G

Tagline: After 700 years of doing what he was built for–he’ll discover what he’s meant for.

Box office gross: domestic $223.8m/worldwide $521.3m. Continue reading


Plot The XXIXth century. Earth is buried in litter and for this reason humans have deserted it. Only lonely robot WALL-E remains on Earth, programmed to compress and shape the refuse into towers. The robot also collects random objects that belonged to humans and is able to make an iPod work in order to watch a romantic comedy. The Earth seems barren but WALL-E finds a single plant in the soil. An automated spaceship descends, unloading EVE, a feminine egg-shaped robot probe who fascinates WALL-E. His attempts to communicate almost cause the trigger-happy EVE to disintegrate him; she is frustrated at being unable to complete some program. WALL-E takes her to his home, showing her his possessions and the film. When he reveals his plant, EVE instantly swallows it; it’s what she has been looking for. She shuts down, upsetting WALL-E who obsessively tries to protect but also wake her. The spaceship returns to collect EVE. WALL-E clings to the ship’s side, in order to follow EVE, and is whisked into space, arriving at a massive spaceliner, Axiom, which carries millions of humans. The humans are obese to the point of immobility, wholly dependent on the ship’s automated systems. EVE is taken to the ship’s captain, who sent her to see if Earth was becoming inhabitable again. However, when he inspects EVE, the plant has vanished. WALL-E and a reactivated EVE hunt for it and find it being dumped in an escape pod set to self-destruct. They save the plant and take it to the captain. It is revealed that OTTO, the ship’s autopilot, tried to destroy the plant, acting on a centuries-old secret judgment that Earth would never be clean and humans should stay in space. When the captain disagrees, OTTO imprisons him and tries to dispose of WALL-E and EVE. They escape and lead a revolt of rogue robots. WALL-E is damaged in the ensuing chaos and it is EVE now who looks after him. The captain shuts OTTO down and sends Axiom rocketing back to Earth. EVE rushes WALL-E to his home to repair him. The humans nurture the recovering Earth and WALL-E and EVE live happily ever after (Osmond).

Film note WALL-E is one of the successful computer-animated films produced by Pixar Animation Studios, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. In total, the film grossed $223.8m in domestic sales and $521.3m internationally, making it the ninth highest grossing film in 2008 according to Box Office Mojo. As a G-rated film, WALL-E is primarily directed at children; indeed to maximize the revenue potential from its target audience the film opened at the end of June–a time when schools are closed for summer vacation and children are more likely to go to the cinema, meaning that this can be a highly profitable period for child-oriented releases. However, while the film’s “simple […] plotting […] and binary divisions […] between good and evil, male and female […certainly appear to be] designed to serve a younger audience” the many positive critical reviews and the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture indicate that WALL-E also appealed to adult viewers (Cornea 114). Indeed, WALL-E’s commercial success has been built on the film’s ability to extend its reach beyond a child-only audience and one of the ways this has been achieved is through a clever play with genre. The film also pushes at the boundaries of corporate critique, but offers a complex negotiation of competing cultural and gender models that is not wholly consistent.

Genre hybridity and the family film According to director Andrew Stanton, “animation can tell as many stories in different ways as any other medium, and it’s rarely been pushed outside of its comfort zone” (qtd. in “WALL-E Production Notes”). WALL-E’s complex articulation of other genres–ranging from science-fiction to the musical and romantic comedy–can be read not just as a commercial strategy but also as an attempt by Stanton’s to push animation out of its comfort zone.

The decision to develop a science-fiction animation project is very much in tune with the renewed focus on the genre since the turn of the millennium. Films such as A.I.–Artificial Intelligence (2001) and I Am Legend (2007), as well as television series such as Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), offer challenging visions of the potentially catastrophic consequences of unchecked scientific and technological development. These resolutely adult films share much terrain with WALL-E, drawing attention to the emergency of a natural world destroyed through human carelessness and avarice and telling stories of “atonement in a modern, scientific post-Copernican cosmos” (326).

As with much science-fiction, spectacle plays a major role in WALL•E, especially through Pixar’s visual invention of imagined technologies–the mise-en-scene is clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with the production design of the spaceship a direct quotation from that film. This science-fiction iconography provides a context for other elements of spectacle more commonly associated with the musical genre. The dance-in-space sequence between WALL-E and EVE, for example, reflects the musical narrative convention of the male hero “initiat[ing] his partner musically and [in a symbolic way] sexually […] introduc[ing] her to a generally liberated attitude toward life itself” (Schatz 197). Indeed, the critically acclaimed opening sequence of the film is accompanied by the song “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” part of the soundtrack of the musical Hello Dolly! (1969), that, in later scenes, WALL-E will watch repeatedly, indicating to the audience his desire to find love. To this extent, WALL-E’s intertextual play with codes and conventions associated with the musical genre enables its robotic protagonists to display their “human dimensions” without recourse to traditional language. In the best musical tradition, “the music itself [helps] determine the attitudes, values and demeanor of the principal characters” (Schatz 194).

Thus, WALL-E brings together the narrative tropes and spectacle of science-fiction and the musical with the more intimate narrative of the romantic comedy and its familiar pattern of “boy wins girl’s love as a result of romantic courtship”. This blending is perhaps intended to ensure that various cinematic tastes can be served, something evidenced by the different taglines used to market the film–on the one hand adventurous spirits will be pleased by WALL-E’s journey “beyond the ordinar-E”; on the other hand, more romantic viewers will be happy to realize that what the protagonist “is meant for” is experiencing directly as well as bringing to others the magical redemptive power of love.

Peter Kramer argues that ‘family films’ like WALL-E appeal to children and adults by “offering two distinct points of entry into the cinematic experience […] childish delight and absorption on the one hand, adult self-awareness and nostalgia on the other” (Krämer, “Would You Take Your Child” 305). This sense of nostalgia, for example, is largely activated in the film through its repetitive use of references to older science-fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Aliens (1979) and Short Circuit (1986). Most of these films were cult movies in the 1980s–that is, in “the decade of the child consumer” (McNeal 6); they were films (especially Star Wars) that generated big communities of fans and that from then on have entered into the cultural milieu of several generations of men and women who keep “passing their fascination on to their own children” (Krämer, “It’s Aimed at Kids” 360). WALL-E works a similar angle with its references to the musical, allowing adults with an investment in that genre to tease out intertextual references and nostalgically recall pleasurable cinematic experiences from their past.

Thus, genre hybridity and play with references to films from earlier eras, especially from the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the tight family bond forged between child and adult cinemagoers enables WALL-E, and films like it, to attract large audiences of nostalgic adults and their children. This dense intertextuality encourages repeat viewing and according to Variety, DVDs of the film–complete with behind-the-scenes special features and a new short film titled BURN-E–have sold strongly, making WALL-E one of the top five best-sellers in the DVD marketplace in 2008 (Garrett). What is more, references to past cult films also facilitate and promote the development of a wide range of ancillary products. Disney Consumer Products, for example, developed their first robotics toy line inspired by WALL-E, with such expensive toys demonstrating Disney’s commitment to exploiting adult/child consumption. To this extent, Disney exploits the influential business model whereby “movies coexist with franchises, tie-ins and licensing as elements in a diversified product range”(Maltby 28).

Eco-catastrophe and capitalism WALL•E’s generic self-reflexivity and intertextual knowingness is indicative of a playfulness of tone. However, the film also has some serious points to make about eco-catastrophe and the perils of rampant consumer capitalism. In line with science fiction tradition, this film largely relies on the “tension between future and past” as a way to understand and question the present (Howey,”WALL-E” 172). The opening sequence, for example, introduces this tension as the ‘camera’ moves across the galaxy, the solar system and finally through the atmosphere in order to reach planet Earth; yet, the futuristic point of view of the camera is combined with the nostalgic music of Hello Dolly! the echo effect of which, finally, matches the uncanny image of a bleak and desolated Earth, covered in garbage and inhabited only by a solitary robot. Thus the composition of the sequence cleverly brings together futuristic images and past melody in order to reflect on the state of the present represented by the much familiar image of Earth. The sequence finally foregrounds environmental fears while suggesting that the memory of the past may be helpful in the present to critically assess and confront a possibly bleak future.

WALL-E brings to the fore the real-world problem of waste disposal at a time when “cities [like Toronto] have been known to truck garbage into neighbouring countries” and others, like Naples, in Italy, have streets piled high with toxic waste as a result of corruption and inadequate landfill sites (Howey, “Going Beyond Our Directive” 45). Unusually for a mainstream animation, the film draws on these real-world scenarios and offers a compelling image of the drastic consequences our planet may suffer if we fail to act to protect nature and the environment. The film valorises the work of WALL-E, a lonely environmentalist who only uses renewable sources of energy such as solar panels to recharge himself and light his house. WALL-E develops the habit of collecting disparate objects in order to recycle them for both decorative and practical ends (as in the case of binoculars used to fix parts of his body). Indeed, it might even be argued, that the film’s intertextual/generic playfulness models WALL-E’s “make do” approach to environmental activism.

WALLE’s environmental stance might be said to parallel that of many ecological critics who call for an “affective engagement with […] the living world” (Howey, “Going Beyond Our Directive” 64). This position stems from the assumption that “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts [which…] include soils, water, plants, animals and so forth” (Brereton 29). Thus co-operation and communitarian spirit (as opposed, for example, to the aggressive individualism showed by George W. Bush’s government in the withdrawal of the US from the Kyoto Protocol) are the keys to the sustainability of the mutually dependent system of nature. WALL-E acknowledges this by showing the “good” characters progressively remembering or even learning about the beauty of nature and how to respect it; this message is finally enhanced in the final scenes, which show the Captain and a large group of children–who epitomize a more environmentally aware generation–reverently gathering together around the only surviving plant in recognition of its importance to the well-being of all.

WALL-E’s environmentalism is also tightly linked to a discussion of capitalism as a system whose internal logics directly depend on “excessive consumption and waste” (Howey, “Going Beyond Our Directive” 48). A similar analysis is offered in Davis Guggenheim’s feature-length documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Indeed, the capitalist machine, represented in Stanton’s film through the depiction of the Buy-n-Large mega-corporation, proves to be the principal cause of Earth’s deterioration. The corporation reduces human beings to helpless automatons whose main “directive” is that of buying the products advertised by the same corporation, whose brand awareness–following the model of American Channel One–is even built in schools. Thus, the film reveals “the shallow pseudo-satisfaction of the commodity form” by portraying humans as hedonist, passive consumers at the mercy of an imperialistic power whose ultimate aim is to increase human appetite ignoring the waste it leaves behind–on Earth and in the outer space (Tomlinson 76).

According to the film, the most dreadful aspect of corporate hegemony is the obliteration of individual and pluralistic stances (i.e. the mutual interdependency and respect required to sustain the natural world). Indeed, on-board the Axiom, people and robots all move in similar ways, following pre–established pathways; men and women all dress in the same clothes and change them (from red to blue) at the same time when invited to do so by the Axiom’s adverts. The only way to gain individuality is to distance oneself from the enslaving influence of the mega-corporation; so, when WALL-E accidentally breaks Mary’s computer her clothes suddenly turn red, thus symbolically marking her individuality and activating the possibility of a critical stance in relation to the world around her. Similarly, the only identifiable robots on the spaceship (including WALL-E and EVE) are the ‘rogue’ ones, those who refuse to follow the directives imposed on them by the Axiom and who team up to fight the evil corporate power, save the plant and the Earth. To this extent, the film celebrates individuality as a response to subjugating capitalist power but also as a way to recognise the existence of others and appreciate the value of collaboration

The seriousness of these themes–almost without precedent in animated entertainment aimed at children–adds credibility to Pixar’s claims that they are not driven simply by the commercial bottom-line. John Lasseter, co-founder of Pixar and now Disney’s chief creative officer, states “marketability is not a factor in decisions about what projects to pursue” (qtd. in Onstad) and director Stanton asserts that he “never thinks about the audience [in terms of profitability and that] if someone gives [him] a marketing report, [he] throw[s] it away” (qtd. in Onstad). Indeed, Pixar has built its reputation around the image of “a multibillion dollar company that acts like a nerd hobbyist in a basement” (Onstad), a company whose collaborators contribute to each other’s projects, constantly aiming at “quality [which they consider their] best business plan” (Lasseter qtd. in Onstad).

In comparison to more avowedly commercial animation projects such as many Disney’s classic films or the more recent The Smurfs (2011), WALL-E certainly seems to wish to articulate a complex story world designed to challenge adult and child viewers as well as entertain them. The inquisitive and clever tone of the film’s narrative is enhanced by its particular use of colour, lighting and photography. According to producer Jim Morris, the aesthetic value of the film lies in its ability “to seem real and much more gritty than animated films tend to be” (qtd. in “WALL-E Production Notes”). To achieve such an effect, directors of photography Danielle Feinberg (lightning) and Jeremy Lasky (camera)–helped by consultants and acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins–modified the available technology in order to be able to recreate realistic “imperfections”. This desire to create a realist aesthetic for an animated film indicates a seriousness of intent with regards trying to ensure that WALL-E’s critique of environmental degradation and rampant consumerism is taken seriously. For the same reason, “the austere, glaring and harsh [look of] Earth […] in the first act […draws its aesthetic value from] the chromatic aberration and barrel distortion” (Morris qtd. in “WALL-E Production Notes”), typical of 1970s cinema, a period when, as Christine Geraghty argues, New Hollywood science-fiction deliberately engaged with critical dystopian narratives that challenged audiences to question and resist the American social and political status quo (Geraghty 35-63). WALL-E clearly strives to do likewise, but its intentions in this area should be understood as problematic.

Conflict of interest Two years before the release of WALL-E–that is, during the four years of the film’s production–Pixar was bought by the Walt Disney Company, its former financial and distributing partner, for $7.4 billion. According to Edwin Catmull–the then president of Pixar who after the takeover was put in charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios–the merger was a cause of intense concern for the creative team at Pixar. Worries were expressed that the parent company would reign supreme at the expenses of Pixar’s allegedly more independent spirit: after all, Disney’s “very name has been turned into a neologism–Disneyfication–for a kind of bland commercial aesthetic” (Onstad). Thus, WALL-E’s discussion of themes such as freedom of expression might be seen to parallel and arguably give voice to some of Pixar’s anxieties; i.e. that the film is forged in the crucible of this conflict of interests. Many similarities have been noted between the design of the Axiom and that of “luxury cruise ships […] operated by Disney” as well as that of Disney amusement parks (“WALL-E Production Notes”). What is more, additional comparisons can be made between Buy-n-Large and the overwhelming corporate structure of Disney. WALL-E depicts Buy-n-Large as a repressive force that creates a false consciousness by exploiting different media such as the sparse old newspapers left on Earth, the radio-like voice played across the Axiom and the television/cinema/computer screens which represent the sole forms of interaction between humans. This process is akin to Disney’s saturation of the media (including film, television, radio and publishing), a strategy that allows it to shape “children’s fantasies and identity” (Krämer, “Disney and Family Entertainment” 277). The placement of the viewer alongside rogue romantic robots and liberated human consumers ensures that the way corporations exploit the persuasive effectiveness of the media in order to reinforce the authority of the dominant, capitalistic culture on which they rely, is subject to critique.

Depicting Pixar/WALL-E as heroic and radical activists resisting Disney’s crushing consumerism is perhaps to oversimplify. A conflict of interest is certainly identifiable in other areas of the film, suggesting the movie is a product of a deal being struck between different parties with different goals. For instance, the blame put on the media is counterbalanced in the film’s narrative by additional representations of media products and technologies–such as the film Hello Dolly!, the iPod used to play it, the Captain’s computer showing him the beauty of life on Earth, and arguably the film itself–which prove to be the key means to human salvation in that they all foster positive human values. As a consequence consumer culture is here used to redeem humankind from consumer culture. Also, the positive sentiments that WALL-E discovers (by watching Gene Kelly’s movie) finally prove to be rooted in traditional social practices that, far from being ideologically neutral, in fact reflect and support–especially through the stereotyped depiction of the two protagonists’ gender differences–the conservative value system that underpins capitalism and consumerism.

On the one hand, WALL-E is a hardworking boy-like machine whose body reminds us of motors and gears–that is, objects typically associated with male activity and interest. His desiring masculine gaze is made prominent by the disproportionate dimension of his binoculars/eyes. On the other hand, EVE’s aesthetic depiction stems from the assumption that the mark of feminine gender is beauty and desirability; indeed she is represented as a shiny egg-shaped robot with blinking eyes and a sensual voice. What is more, while a powerful and active heroine, EVE’s femininity is depicted as unruly: she swiftly flies across air and space, her movements rendered erratic by the fact that she occasionally escapes the frame, while she is also prone to bursts of violent rage not associated with any male characters. To this extent, EVE epitomizes feminine sexual energy which, according to patriarchal ideology, must be controlled and subjugated in order to protect “the symbolic order” (Creed 37-42). And by the end of the film WALL-E does indeed master EVE’s body and passions; she dances as required by convention and her sexual drives are contained by the strictures of heterosexual union, represented symbolically by her holding hands with WALL-E and living with him under the same roof.

Close analysis of the threatening, hideous villain of the film also makes this patriarchal logic clear. The film places the abject–that which “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4)–on the side of the feminine. Although the mother ship’s computer bears a masculine name–‘Otto’– its voice and operation are reminiscent of what Barbara Creed calls “the castrating archaic mother” (Creed 21-22). Indeed, Otto’s voice is that of Sigourney Weaver, the iconic heroine of Alien, a film that is something of a study of the fear of the archaic mother. As such, WALL•E’s construction of repressive corporate-controlled false consciousness is coded as feminine: the Axiom feeds her childlike human passengers food and images, controlling them in the manner of a benign matriarch. Far from benign, however, Otto’s control of everything from clothing colour to mission imperatives should be seen as an expression of “the dyadic mother; the all-encompassing figure of the pre-Oedipal period who threatens symbolically to engulf the infant, thus posing a threat of psychic obliteration” (Creed 109). This association of feminine motherly traits with threats to personal identity and free will appeals to a patriarchal ideology that sees male control as more truthful, righteous and effective than the rule of the “archaic mother”. Otto’s “powers are concretized in the figure of her […] offspring [EVE…] whose […] mission is [visually] represented as the same as that of the archaic mother–to tear apart and incorporate all life” (Creed 22). EVE, in fact, takes the plant –a symbol of life–away from Earth, carefully placing it in her womb and bringing it to the mother ship. Otto then controls not only the life of the plant but also the future of all on board. The narrative solution of the film–in which Otto is defeated–emblematically reinforces such ideology as the symbolic order and the law of the father is reestablished with the Captain–and WALL-E–placed firmly back in command of human destiny.

In sum, as a Hollywood product created during a corporate takeover, it is perhaps no surprise that WALL-E is contradictory. The film does provide a compelling critique of the status quo and is innovative as well as unconventional in its hybridisation of science-fiction and the musical. In the end though, the film’s critical and challenging depiction of eco-catastrophe and the degradations of consumerism sits uncomfortably with a more conservative desire for order to be reestablished through the imposition of patriarchal ideology. WALL-E performs a conflict of interest that makes the film’s message at one and the same time compelling and difficult to swallow.


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Written by Caterina Lotti (2010); edited by Guy Westwell (2011), Queen Mary, University of London.

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Copyright © 2011 Caterina Lotti/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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