Wall-E: Pixar’s apocalyptic romance

Last week, I watched Wall-E for the first time in years, and wow, does it ever hold up. Its cultural criticism is sometimes hard to watch, but it’s ultimately a story of hope–though not a cheap one. It’s also not a children’s movie, I would argue, even though it has an adorable protagonist: it’s too slow, too subtle (there’s almost no dialogue until halfway through the movie), and too bleak. It’s also a romance, which makes it unusual if not entirely unique among the Pixar filmography.

Let me take a little detour to make this point. I’m probably forgetting about a few movies, so please feel free to critique my analysis. Pixar is good at making films about the crucial relationships in life: with oneself (Inside Out), one’s friends (Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc.), and one’s family (Onward, Coco, Brave, Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, The Incredibles…I think it’s safe to say that this is Pixar’s wheelhouse). But, perhaps for obvious reasons involving its target audiencePixar doesn’t really do romances. Up, despite its famous tearjerker opening sequence, is not primarily the story of a marriage but the story of an unlikely friendship between a crotchety old man and a quirky little boy. Ratatouille is basically a romantic comedy, but like many rom-coms, it’s more about the protagonist’s development as an individual than about the romantic relationship.

So Wall-E is unusual, because cultural criticism aside, it’s a love story. Wall-E and EVE progress from infatuation to companionship (where many romantic movies stop) to self-sacrifice. Each becomes the other’s mission in life, or “directive,” to use EVE’s term. But their relationship looks outward, too; instead of losing themselves in love, they draw strength from it that allows them to help save the world (and the human race, to which they don’t even belong) in a very literal way. Watching this film with my fiance roughly one week before our wedding, I was profoundly moved by its depiction of a love that actually changes the world.

There’s also another love story in Wall-E, between the humans John and Mary. Though this story gets about five minutes of screen time, it’s important to one of the film’s main themes, the survival of the human race. Wall-E and EVE are almost an apocalyptic Adam and Eve, but they can’t quite fulfill that role because they’re robots (a fact that makes the brilliant depiction of their love an even more stunning achievement). John and Mary, though, can actually carry on the human race, a truth that is not very subtly hinted at when they rescue a whole nursery full of babies. Their relationship, too, is built on selflessness: their meet-cute occurs when they literally bump into each other and are forced out of the insular, self-absorbed life their culture has lulled them into.

There’s so much more I could say about Wall-E, from the apocalyptic landscapes as startling as anything in The Road or The Walking Dead to the beautiful score by MY BOYYYYYY Thomas Newman. (The track “Define Dancing” ranks among his greatest hits in my opinion–plus, that’s a beautiful scene overall.) But I’ll stop here and implore you to go watch Wall-E. Maybe not with your kids. And let me know what you think.

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