Pixar’s ninth film lands somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of box office revenue and rating on the review aggregators. Even though WALL-E earned the studio its fourth Best Animated Feature Oscar and was nominated for more Oscars than any of its predecessors, it can be easy to overlook this amazing film when you look at Pixar’s collection. Woody, Buzz, Nemo, Sully and the rest of Pixar characters cast a long shadow and WALL-E usually isn’t the first Pixar film people remember. But it’s my personal favorite and one of my favorite movies in general. It may not have as many laughs as the others and it has nowhere near as much action as most, but it more than makes up for it in other areas. Let me try to convince you.
WALL-E himself is arguably one of Pixar’s most endearing lead characters. His love for old human culture and goofy attempts to recreate his favorite movie scenes instantly win us over (Okay, so maybe I like WALL-E so much because he’s kind of like me, holed up in a tiny apartment watching old movies. I’d like to think WALL-E would have a pretty amazing movie blog if he could type). It doesn’t take us forever to like him like Lightning McQueen (Cars), he doesn’t do anything suspect early on like Woody (Toy Story), and he doesn’t occasionally mistreat his counterparts like Marlin and Carl (Finding Nemo and Up). Sure in those other movies we watch the characters grow and redeem themselves with time. And that’s part of the fun. But WALL-E is likeable from the start and stays that way throughout, protecting EVE when she’s in lockdown mode, hanging out with Hal the cockroach and politely introducing himself to everyone he meets, including a grumpy cleaning robot.
What is especially amazing about WALL-E is how little he actually does to win our affection. He’s not witty, strong, or scary (in a good, Monster’s Inc. way), and he doesn’t really say much at all. And that holds true for the whole movie yet despite scant dialogue throughout, WALL-E and EVE express more emotion with tiny expressions and mechanical noises than any dialogue laden rom-com. With just a shy clasp of his claws and a downward glance you instantly see WALL-E’s crush on the newly arrived EVE and later we see how devastated and afraid he becomes once she shuts down. When she’s unconscious/hibernating, we don’t wade through a quiet, McConaughey-esque bedside admission of his love for her. Instead we watch him stay by her side, protecting her from sandstorms and trying to play her in Pong (spoiler alert, he wins). Later, EVE realizes how much he cared for her in those moments and in the next few scenes we watch as the roles reverse and she tries to save him. At the tail end of the story, the movie doesn’t flinch in its approach and maintains the charming interaction between WALL-E and EVE in a moment where many movies would crumble under the pressure of hollow payoffs.
Despite fewer characters and fewer jokes about super-suits and falling with style, WALL-E accomplishes a great deal. This may be a reflection of the studio’s maturity. By 2008 Pixar already had eight films under its belt and six Academy Awards (counting three Best Animated Feature wins). And unlike their early years, there was plenty of competition in the animated film field. WALL-E shared a release year with Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks), Madigascar: Escape 2 Africa (DreamWorks), Bolt (Walt Disney Animation), and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! (Blue Sky Studios / 20th Century Fox Animation). While other studios pursued sequels, adaptations, and star-led productions, Pixar moved in the other direction and brought it back to basics featuring fewer characters and less dialogue than it ever had before, while still managing to incorporate moving character development and a theme to challenge its audience.