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 order. Theme 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.