Wall-E: when Theme and Plot get out of sync

It might seem odd to be musing about Wall-E on the weekend that Up is tearing up the box office, but I like to look back at films after all the initial hoopla has died down.  In the next few weeks I’ll also have some observations about some of the other animated films of last year, but let’s start with a film that many called the best film of 2008.   It was not only glowingly reviewed, but it won the Oscar for Best Animated Picture, and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  I enjoyed the film, but found it flawed.  Given the reviews and success, I’m clearly seeing a problem where most others don’t, but bear with me.


My issue, put simply, is that the film’s theme was revealed and resolved early, robbing the remainder of the film of meaning.  Put another way, by climaxing and resolving the theme about half way through the movie, it ended up feeling like two distinct, shorter episodes welded together, with the first one quite a bit more compelling than the second.

Wall-E‘s theme, as co-writer and director Andrew Stanton often stated, is “Irrational love defeats programming.”  There are certainly some apparent secondary themes, but the power of Wall-E’s love, and the way it transforms Eve from icy, buttoned-up machine to a real woman, so to speak, is what drives the film.  At least it drives the film until Eve overcomes her programming and shares Wall-E’s love. At that point, the central motive force of the movie disappears.

And after that, stuff happens.  Cool stuff, entertaining stuff, but still just stuff.  The film becomes an action/thriller.  Some might argue that new themes emerge or are further developed at this point, and the film goes from being Wall-E and Eve’s story to the captain’s story.  But, despite what some people read into the film, ultimately, as Stanton has repeated in numerous interviews, Wall-E doesn’t have an environmental message, it isn’t a rumination on the dangers of a Walmart/Costco culture, it isn’t a Christian allegory, and it isn’t about the dangers of human laziness and dependence upon technology — it is a simple robot love story.  Irrational love defeats programming.  To the extent that any of those other themes emerged in the movie, the story and characters barely dealt with them.

Wall-E‘s central theme could have operated for several characters, instead of just Eve.  Lot’s of movies use that model, with different characters exploring variations on the theme.  But the only other character in the film who has any real story arc is the ship’s Captain.  And the Captain’s transformation is nothing like Eve’s.  Where ‘she’ (and, frankly, assigning gender to a robot is a weird thing, but that’s what Wall-E does)  yielded to irrational love from a devoted, implacable suitor, the Captain’s arc is driven by . . . some stale photos from elementary school textbooks about farming.  There was nothing on the scale of irrational love operating with the Captain.  Mild curiosity? Yes.  Annoyance at the ship’s robots disobeying him?  Yes. But powerful devotion, irrational love, feelings worth dying for?  No, not even close.

What about the human couple, who become so rebellious that the actually dare to talk to each other face-to-face, and to wear last-year’s blue (or was it red)?  Didn’t they have a parallel path, overcoming society’s programming to find love? Uh, if you experienced any emotional cathexis from those characters, then please stay away from Up, because the emotional outpouring might kill you.

So we’re left with Eve and Wall-E to carry the theme.  And once they’re a couple, the only question the film had to answer was, can you care about the blobby, character-less, and profoundly clueless Captain and his shipload of blobby, indistinguishable things that are supposed to be humans?  For me the answer was no, and so I was emotionally checked out for the second half of the movie.

Let’s take a step back and look at the issue of theme.  Plot is about what happens, to whom, and in what orderTheme is what the film is about.  Themes give films meaning, depth, and enhance our sense of entertainment.  Not all films have much of a theme, but I’d argue strongly that there are no memorable or great films that don’t have well-developed themes that infuse and drive the narrative. And, as I recall reading somewhere I can’t place now, the great films tend to make the resolution of the theme the key to resolving the plot.  The protagonist comes to understand something (emotional or spiritual) that they’ve been struggling with throughout the film, make a difficult decision based on that realization, and from that decision take some decisive/difficult/dangerous action that resolves the plot.  This integral connection between plot and theme gives the film a deeply satisfying ending.  Theme and plot finally meet, and then climax in rapid succession, and the audience feels that tingle that keeps them thinking about the film long after it’s over.

You can find plenty of films that violate this idea, films where the theme is weak, poorly developed, or doesn’t drive the resolution of the story.  You can also find plenty of films that just aren’t very good.  I think (and this is not my own brilliant deduction) that the theme and the plot need to deepen and develop right up to that climax for maximum benefit.  For me, the emotional climax of Wall-E occured about half way through, and the eventual story climax therefore didn’t generate the giddy elation it should have.  In fact, the ending felt more like an anti-climax.

As for solutions?  Lot’s of films reveal and work their theme through the arcs of several characters.  Each character demonstrates a version of the theme.  Perhaps the Captain, instead of being a bored dope, could have been a devoted scholar of man’s time on Earth.  Maybe this is how he spent his countless hours of leisure time, looking at old National Geographics.  Perhaps, through books and digital images, he’d made a study of how things were on Earth 700 years ago.  Like Wall-E, he would have been something of an eccentric, a throw-back, a little out of step with his time.  And after his contact with Wall-E and Eve, his dry academic interest could have flared into its own irrational love, a love for the land and for the old ways, a hunger for something more than the sterile, droning life on the ship.  Not only would his character get some badly needed stature and depth, but his character arc would have also demonstrated the central theme.  His own irrational love, in overcoming his educational programming, would have driven his actions to return the ship to Earth.

Yes, that might have taken some of the story away from Wall-E and Eve.  But the film still became more about the Captain than any other character for the last 45 minutes or so, so why not make him a real character?  Plus, he wouldn’t have looked so pathetic when the humans tumble out of the ship and . . . look utterly lost as they take in the alien, ruined landscape of Earth. Knowing he actually knew something about Earth would have made it feel a whole lot more like the happy ending it was meant to be.

19 Responses to “Wall-E: when Theme and Plot get out of sync”

  1. Ross Says:

    Thanks for the great article about Plot and Theme in WALL•E…

    After watching WALL•E at the AM meet-up last year, my reaction was similar to what you described in your article—just not quite as thoroughly analyzed. I thought: “Man, the first half was amazing and really interesting, but the second half was just ok.” I think your article begins to explain why I felt that way.

    I really enjoy your in-depth looks at these fine details. It really helps when analyzing great films/animations and trying to infuse those concepts into my own work! Thanks!

  2. Matt Says:

    WALL-E was and is Pixar’s best effort, and one of the finest films of all time. Flawed? Hardly, only if you’re trying to find something to nitpick, and if you’re trying that you’ll inevitably find it in any film. If you simply look at WALL-E for the work of art it is, it’s far from flawed, it’s perfection.

  3. keith lango Says:

    Excellent analysis. Thoughtful, accurate, well articulated, and given the current rabid environment we find ourselves in- rather brave. I’m still amazed at the unwavering fanboy deification of Pixar by many folks (most reviews of Up I’ve read read like rapturous praise for a divine accomplishment). Pixar can do no wrong, is absolutely perfect and anyone who disagrees is obviously just a jealous negative nabob out to pour rain on all things pure and good. Such mindless devotion- a stark unwillingness to explore critical & honest thought- is astounding to me and is usually reserved for cults and politics. Damn the soul who questions the perfection and purity of the objects of our obsession.

    Anyhow, this post is good stuff. Keep up the excellent blogging, Kevin.

  4. Kevin Says:

    Thanks, Ross. Your reaction is one I’ve found to be fairly common when I talk to people about the film, though it surprises me that I didn’t see any film critics making the same point.

    Matt, I’m not sure what to say. Assuming you’re being serious, you seem to be one of those who mistake a critique for an attack. I’m someone who enjoys breaking down why things work and why they don’t. And I’ve been around long enough to know that just because I like something that doesn’t make it perfect.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with Ross. I was very engaged with the beginning of the film and after that it was fun but not incredibly engaging. I would say that the very end suckered me in (the credits) but that was really a little mini-story unto itself and I’m a tree-hugger.

    I really like your alternate idea for the Captain, and I would love to see that movie!

  6. Dan Says:

    Having the captain be a distinguished scholar of earth wouldn’t have made much sense though. The whole idea is that everyone has become relient on robots and quite bored. They themselves, ESPECIALLY the captain, have succumbed to their own irrational programming.

  7. brad clark Says:

    Just a note, great write up but even if the “plot” was over half way through, my 4 year old loves,loves,loves this movie and it is an amazing experience watching it with her, the amount of breathing room and lack of talking was a great change compared to something like Shrek ( that I won’t let her watch) let her interpret the film on her own and it was very powerful as she asked questions and talked about it for days after until we had to take her again.

    That said… the real humans in the picture and a few other issues pulled me out of the film a few times and had I not watched it and experienced it alongside and through the eyes of my child I would not have enjoyed it as much.

  8. Kevin Says:

    Keith, many thanks. I’ve enjoyed your online postings and thoughts many times, so it’s nice to return the favor. And yeah, it’s kind of a drag that for some people a simple critique or opinion about a film gets construed as a political statement or worse. I think you, like me, just want the field to grow and prosper. I can’t comprehend the notion that animation perfection has already been achieved, and anyone who dares advocate for change or improvement needs to be decried.

    Dan, it’s interesting that you think the captain having a hint of personal will wouldn’t have made sense, but you didn’t have a problem with a robot who was designed simply to compact trash developing an overwhelming curiosity about humankind, and an overwhelming desire for companionship. Anyway, a fundamental part of the human condition is curiosity, and the almost complete lack of that trait in the humans in Wall-E was one of the reasons I didn’t connect with the second half of the film.

    The captain as shown in the movie was actually totally and completely unnecessary. The ship didn’t need him. But the plot did need him. Which made him a film-making convenience, and not a real character.

  9. Teresa Says:

    Wow! Great breakdown Kevin!
    I thoroughly enjoyed Wall-E, but I definitely find myself agreeing with everything you pointed out. I had a difficult time staying with the movie when they were aboard the ship with the Captain, John, Auto Pilot.. etc.
    I read some time ago that it’s really great practice discussing what works and what doesn’t work in a film right after you’ve seen it and I’ve tried to start practicing that on my own. Until now I haven’t really discussed any of those deeper thoughts online in fear of them being taken the wrong way (while trying to get my foot in the door I don’t want to put my foot in my mouth). A film can still be great and enjoyable even if it has it’s weak spots and a few problems. Heck, I can find weaknesses even in my most favorite of films.
    I agree that it’s crazy to think that animation perfection has been reached. When animation perfection has been achieved then complacency sets in and that is not what anybody wants. The strive to get better and reach that perfection is what keeps pushing the medium further and further. It’s like searching for the Holy Grail. I hope we never find it. 😉
    The only way to keep making films better and better is to discuss and realize what those weaknesses are… even in the greatest of hits. Nobody is perfect… as close to it as they might be. 🙂
    This post has inspired me.. maybe I’ll get brave and post my personal review of UP… I can honestly say that I have loved every Pixar movie to date and have trouble picking a favorite. I openly admit to being an unwavering Pixar fan, (maybe one of their biggest), I would absolutely love to work there someday. However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I can also pick out which parts of the movies really worked for me and which parts were more of a stretch.
    Anyways, I don’t see this critique as an attack at all and I think that you make really great points.
    A more interesting Captain would make this movie even better!

  10. Dan Says:

    The captain was definitley not the best character, but I think he did have a personality. I think it would have been against the idea of the film to have the captain be really interested and be a scholar, since a large part of the movie is the the idea that the only one who is really “human” is a robot.

    Honestly, to me, and you might not agree with this (granted, I find your blog fascinating, especially the stuff about “shot flow”), but I feel like it comes down to how much you find yourself caring about the captain. I personally felt a lot for him, as well as the humans. I think the idea of “love defeats irrational programming” extends to the humans and their love for the earth. I agree that the captains desire to return to earth was a little bit undercooked, but not as undercooked as you feel.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Dan, I would say that if one central idea in Wall-E is that a robot is the only ‘human,’ then that robot needed to be the character who drove the story from start to finish. But the captain becomes the central character pretty much from the time he appears on screen. Therefore, his arc needs to reflect some aspect of the film’s central theme, and he needs to be as strong a character (if not stronger) than little Wall-E.

    And, in a way, his arc DOES reflect the theme, but in such a muted and unbelievable way that the second half of the film loses its motive force. You’re right that a lot of it comes down to how much one cares about the captain. I found it pretty much impossible to care about him — there was nothing to relate to. He was sleepwalking through life, like every single other human in the film. So his transformation, spurred by the hokey visuals and definitions (“What is dirt?,” for crying out loud!), had no resonance for me.

    It was like watching an ice cube burst into flames. It didn’t make sense, because he went from absolutely zero knowledge, zero curiosity, and zero passion to risking his life and every life on the ship for something he still didn’t remotely understand. Imagine, instead of an ice cube bursting into flames, some dry kindling bursting into flames. That’s still a huge status change, but one that makes some sense. If the captain had a shred of the humanity, he would have been a real character, and there would have been some kindling that could have burst into a flaming passion for the lost earth.

    As for the other humans, what’s there to say? Frankly the humans throughout the movie were treated with a certain contempt. The ‘real’ humans (the live action ones) destroyed the Earth through crass, senseless consumerism, and the few we saw were either engaged in trivial activities or (thinking of Fred Willard here) downright contemptible. The later blobby, CG humans were uniformly shown to have given in the the laziest, basest, most self-defeating behaviors in the spectrum of human capability. Not a single human was doing anything worthwhile or interesting.

    Hell, the humans on the ship didn’t even reproduce anymore — the ship did it for them! That’s why the humans mostly looked identical, and why all the little tots were the identical age (check out Aldous Huxley’s ‘Bokanovsky’s Process’ from A Brave New World, which Andrew Stanton has cryptically referred to in interviews). ‘Love’ had completely disappeared from the human race, so the humans had no where to start from. Seeing two of those humans actually touch each other (gasp!) was more like watching one of Harlow’s monkeys clinging to a wire-and-terry cloth surrogate — more heartbreaking than moving. At least for me.

    But I recognize that your mileage may vary. It’s still an entertaining movie, just one that I don’t think lives up to it’s first half.

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  13. Kohl Says:

    Thank you for the words to finally explanation why I didn’t enjoy Wall-E.

  14. Pete Says:

    Great discussion on the matter. I’m a huge Pixar fan but I agree that their movies are by no means perfection.

    I remember having really high expectations for this film, and while I think it’s great, I remember at the time wanting something more out of it. I felt that it was a little too safe with it’s content and I wanted it to say more. On watching it the second time though I began to like it more for what it was. And while this may sound like a cop-out, I think you have to remember that it is essentially a kids film.

    On another note I find that sometimes the characters in Pixar films are not always that appealing. While I didn’t mind the captain, in Ratatouille I found Luigi to be a pretty unlikable character without much of a back bone (no offence to lou romano 🙂

    As other people have mentioned I think that while the humans in Wall-e weren’t all that likable, they fit with the theme of being programmed. It was up to the humans to break from their own programming to get back to earth.

  15. Jen H. Says:

    I had no idea that the theme of WALL-E was “irrational love defeats programming.” When I watched the film, I thought the captain summed up the theme when he said: “I don’t WANT to survive! I want to live!” The film worked for me on that level, constantly pointing out the difference between “survival” and “living.”

    I’ll have to watch the film again with this article in mind. ^_^

  16. Brad Says:

    I agree that the human aspects of the film were the parts that kind of took me out of the story. My biggest problem was that, especially for a film that accomplished so much without speech, when the (human) characters DID speak, the things they said sounded blatant and clunky. I’m not sure if this is just because they were said in the context of a movie where gesture was more emotive than words and thus by comparison they sounded contrived, but I think that the human “awakening” that happened seemed too abrupt – while I undersand the time constraints of the film required that it happen quickly, I personally feel it would have been more moving if the humans’ awakening – like WALL-E’s and Eve’s – happened almost wordlessly as well. When the characters see the stars for the first time, for example, their words “Look at all the stars!” actually seem to ruin the moment instead of enhance it. Awe is typically something that take our words away, and therefore the humans, by VOICING their emotional breakthrough, actually detract from its power.

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  18. vm Says:

    I agree with you here that Wall-E is not such a hot film and I think it didn’t deserve the Oscar. I was totally disappointed that the Panda didn’t get it. Panda is a much better movie, as story, storytelling, characters, even character animation.

    My main problem with Wall-E is that I didn’t believe for one second in the love story between the 2 robots. It was not a love story. In reality, these 2 robots would have continued their separate lives and didn’t care a molecule about each other. And not because they were robots, but because they were incompatible ‘beings’, as characters. This is the main theme, the main plot element, and is flawed to the bone. It’s fake and a lie and therefore an insult to the audience 😀

    I heard people comparing Wall-E with ET… umm, the year ET didn’t get the Oscar, another movie did, something about Ghandi… maybe it’s even called Ghandi… I don’t care. Just like I don’t care about Wall-E, as a movie, or as a story. So I’d compare Wall-E rather with this Ghandi thing, and lets rather compare ET with Panda, if we really must, because among these 2 movies, if there is one that touched some heart and had some soul, it was the big fat Panda. 🙂

    PS – I was also majorly disappointed by the story and the characters of Up. It seems like a hugely popular movie though, so I’ll just shut the hell Up. 😛

  19. gabsfa Says:

    That was a very well written and excellent rhetoric as far as my writing and film knowledge go and I loved reading it! As someone who very much enjoyed both halves of the movie I would have to say that “irrational love defeats programming” lines up with the plot for me in walle’s self-sacrifice for humanity and eve which in my opinion only happens out of love, especially for the very pro-life eve. Also I think many sub themes and allegorys (even if Andrew Stanton denys them) which only come to light in the second half by juxtaposition to what annoyed you about the human characters and their dialogue.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch