“Put on your Sunday clothes, there’s lots of world out there.” There are few riskier and more unexpected ways to begin a sweeping science-fiction opus than with show tunes, but that’s exactly what director Andrew Stanton did when he introduced the world to Wall-E 10 years ago, on June 27, 2008.
Wall-E, considered by many upon release to not only be one of Pixar’s best films, but also a highpoint in animation, has remained a cinematic achievement. While Pixar established itself as an innovator with its first film, Toy Story (1995), Wall-E felt and still feels different from the rest of the studio’s output. There are only a few Pixar films, like the Cars series, that haven’t lived up to the greatness associated with Pixar’s namesake. From Toy Story to last weekend’s release of The Incredibles 2, Pixar has changed animation across the world, creating an increasingly competitive arena for engaging storytelling and box-office success. Wall-E, with its simple love story and $533.3 million global haul, was not the most narratively complex or most financially successful. Instead, Wall-E’s success came from a source not as easy to replicate: an intricate understanding of the eternal appeal of art and its ability to inspire. Wall-E’s love story is a tableau of art history and the science of movie making. When Stanton took us to the future a decade ago, he did it by looking to the past. The result was revolutionary.
Except for music, and the sound of a few advertisements still running on loop on the post-apocalyptic Earth where Wall-E is initially set, a significant portion of the film is silent. Before the title appears onscreen, the film’s cold open shows robot trash compactor, Wall-E, making cube after cube of rubbish which he piles high on staggering monuments comprising other cubes — a testament to the wasteful nature of mankind. As “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! (1969) plays from a cassette tape Wall-E carries around, we get the sense of the robot’s ennui and loneliness without him ever speaking a word.
Wall-E collects trinkets and objects left behind on Earth’s wasteland, displaying a strong sense of nostalgia. But along with his nostalgia comes a strong desire for progress, a complex emotional interchange that speaks to Stanton’s ambitions as a filmmaker. Stanton told The A.V. Club in a 2008 interview that his script for the film contained robot dialogue that he consciously knew would be replaced by the various robot noises heard in the finished film. His inspiration for conveying this dialogue came from the beginnings of film history. Stanton looked to silent films to achieve the emotional resonance he sought — in fact, he and his crew watched at least one Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film a day for a year in order to hone their ability to convey emotion silently. So much of Chaplin’s and Keaton’s artistry came from the expressiveness of their eyes, convincing audiences that the world’s most interesting conversations and monologues resided within.
When the probe scanner robot EVE lands on Earth in search of plant life, we’re given a much fuller sense of the wordless emotional range of these robots. EVE’s oval eyes, displayed in digital blue across a monitor screen, change shape, becoming wider or C-shaped depending on her mood. While she occasionally issues forth “Wall-E,” much of her emotional state is conveyed through the motion of her eyes. While Wall-E, a less advanced robot model doesn’t have the aid of a digital screen, his binocular-esque lenses move up and down, independently in a way that’s reminiscent of Chaplin’s eyebrow work. But even when Wall-E and EVE aren’t using their eyes to convey meaning, their stillness speaks volumes.
At its core, Wall-E is a love story, and the courtship of Wall-E and EVE isn’t just achieved through silent film influences, but also films from the golden age of Hollywood as well. Beyond the obvious, Hello, Dolly! references and Easter eggs, Wall-E borrows elements from Gene Kelly song and dance movies, as well as explores the divisions of class in a way that feels like an allusion to the romantic comedies of Billy Wilder. While the end result of the film is saving Earth and pushing humans to a point where they can rely on themselves again, this is simply a result of a boy chasing a girl across the galaxy in the hopes that she’ll see him in the way he sees her. A visual highpoint in the film comes when Wall-E and EVE dance through space, showcasing not only Pixar’s attention to detail but to rhythm as well. It’s a scene that highlights their entire relationship without contradicting their established personalities and desires. Whether it’s through the footwork of Kelly, or the witty banter of Wilder, cinematic romances are all about rhythm, and Wall-E and EVE’s back and forth hums along lines that are familiar to film lovers.
It’s not only romantic comedies and musicals of the ’60s that Stanton draws from, but epics by way of Kubrick as well. The sinister presence of the autopilot system, Auto, who sets the course for atrophied and consumer-driven humans aboard the space station, is arguably the subtlest antagonist to come from Pixar’s stable of characters. Auto, depicted as a steering wheel with one red lens in the center, evokes HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Auto’s attempts to prevent humans from returning to Earth and insistence on their reliance on robots is further connected to 2001 when the film makes use of Richard Strauss’ composition of “Also sprach Zarathustra,” during the struggle between Captain B McCrea (Jeff Garlin) and Auto.
Man versus Machine, with the evolution of both at stake feels directly in line with the themes Kubrick was exploring, among others, in his seminal science-fiction film. Another reference to Kubrick comes in the form of a robot uprising. Wall-E and EVE successfully lead a group of malfunctioning robots in their cause to save the human race through the proof of plant life. Ultimately, the space station humans join the cause of Wall-E and EVE, overcoming their complacency and taking a literal step out of their comfort zones. When the robots revolt and the humans make stand, it’s nothing short of reinvention of the iconic scene from Spartacus (1960), but instead of yelling “I am Spartacus,” the actions of the humans and robots are a silent declaration of “I am Wall-E” and thus a declaration that we are capable of change, and love, and being the caretakers of progress through which to counter a lonely and menial existence.
Wall-E charts a course through the early history of film, something the film’s end credits expound upon by going even further back in art history with an epilogue that imitates the various styles that took us from cave drawings to computer design. Wall-E’s most significant film references seemingly end with the ’60s, and perhaps suggest that 2001 was the peak of cinematic achievement at the time. What followed in the ’70s was a complete revolution of themes and characters, giving way to the New Hollywood era and a greater attention placed on filmmakers rather than star power. In terms of animation, Wall-E operates as a zenith in the same way that 2001 did, and suggests that what comes after its release should be a similar revolution in animation. What followed Wall-E weren’t only Pixar films like Toy Story 3 (2010), Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017), which took full advantage of the wide-screen approach and auteur-driven cinematography. Films like Rango (2011), Frozen (2013), How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), The Lego Movie (2014) and Kubo and Two Strings (2016) display cross-company attention to the creation of new concepts, art styles, sound design and director-driven voices, all born from influences taken from our art and pop-culture history.
Wall-E is a conversation between the past and present about art, about cinema and about the human emotions that bring them to life. It’s a conversation that didn’t end with Wall-E credits, but continues, sometimes silently and sometimes loudly, through the evolution of animation. With each year delivering an animated film that seemingly breaks the boundaries of what we thought animation was capable of on either a technical level or narrative one, we’re witnesses to an art form that’s still pushing the limits. There’s lots of world out there indeed.