Monday, July 07, 2008

    Movie Review: The Problem with Wall-E

    Anyone who knows me knows that I love robots. I imagine it began when I saw "Star Wars" for the first time the summer after 4th grade and decided I needed an R2D2 and C3PO of my own. Later, I would discover Robby the Robot of "Forbidden Planet" fame, Gort, the stoic companion of the alien in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and lovable Huey, Dewey, and Louie from the 70's flick "Silent Running." So it should come as no surprise that, when I saw the trailer for Wall-E, I would be one of the first in line to see this tale of a little robot left behind on a deserted and trash-covered planet earth. The visuals in this film, as we might expect of the Pixar folk, are amazing, particularly the opening 40 minutes or so when we see Wall-E travelling about a city emptied of its people, scooping up junk into his trash compactor body and forming it into neat, stackable skyscrapers of garbage. We quickly discover that this mostly voice-less little robot represents the best qualities of humanity: innocence, curiosity, diligence, compassion, and love. Had the movie spent its entire time hanging out with Wall-e on planet earth, I could give it a whole-hearted endorsement.

    Unfortunately, the second half of the film finds us and Wall-E on a floating ark in space, the home of the human race for the past 700 years while they wait for creation to reclaim itself on their garbage-strewn home planet. While the humans wait for the little white robot Eve (the "dove" in this version of Noah's ark) to find an olive branch and bring it back to the ship to show them the earth is inhabitable again, the people have nothing to do but wait. It is here that the Pixar folks demonstrate an amazing amount of insenstivity in portraying all the humans as shockingly obese "do-nothings" who spend their days laying on hovering lounge chairs, sucking on sugary slurpy drinks while watching TV and being waited on hand-and-foot by robots. As soon as this part of the story began playing out, I immediately wondered how any heavy-set people in the theater must be feeling. Even worse, how might any overweight children in the theater be feeling about this obviously negative portrayal. Pixar tries to suggest in one throw-away moment that the people are fat because they have been in space so long and lost some bone density, but the much clearer message is that they are chunky because they are lazy and eat too much (and several times the characters' large size is used for visual jokes). A clear sign that Pixar recognized the nastiness of their message is that they chose not insult their target audience: kids. There are no children, let alone overweight children, at all on the ship -- we see only babies and chubby adults. [And good luck finding images of any of the chubby characters in Disney's advertising for the film or the film's official website.]

    More ironic still is that the film's criticism seems to be levelled at the very folks who are viewing the movie -- you and me, sitting there, doing nothing, watching a screen while consuming buttered popcorn and Junior Mints. The movie wants us to know that mass consumerism will doom this planet and its people. And you can show your support for that message by going out and buying all the Disney tie-in products and toys that will be filling your store shelves, and eventually your landfills, in the next 6-12 months.

    Don't get me wrong. I still want a Wall-E of my own and I really enjoyed 80% of the movie. I just wish the filmmakers had been more sensitive to the unfortunate bigotry in the plot and the overt irony and hypocrisy in their preachy "save the Earth" storyline.

    So, what did you think of "Wall-E?"



    Joel Mayward said...

    Interesting perspective, and one I had not thought about. I did not view the humans as overweight--though they were--but rather as adult infants. They cannot walk; they have all-liquid diets; the animators even dressed them in infantile "onesies." I suppose it could be perceived as portraying obesity in a negative light, but not any more than any other Pixar films portray touchy subjects ( such as The Incredibles and violence). I am curious--did you view the very large caterpillar in A Bug's Life or the overweight cook Gusteau in Ratatouille in the same light?

    Overall, I loved the film and its subtle but poignant theme about the dangers of consumerism. I didn't find it as preachy, though I can see how it could be perceived that way. Beyond that, it's just a really well-told love story (between two robots). Good post!

    Brian said...

    Appreciate your thoughts, particularly the observation about how the story, in essence, infantalized the adult characters.
    I did not have the same issue with Gusteau in Ratatouille because his size was not made a central issue in the plot whereas in Wall-E the size of the people is directly related to the how the world got so messed up to begin with. Regarding a Bug's Life -- I don't remember if the catepillar's weight was used as a source of humor (if so, I would criticize it as well) but at least in that situation the character is an animal, not a human.

    I too loved the "love" story and actually thought a better ending (and perhaps more realistic) would have been for the people to opt to stay on the ship with all their robotic comforts, and for Wall-E, Eve and the misfits to return to earth with the plant and start life anew together.
    Good to hear from you!

    Dave said...

    Well i have not yet seen the movie but I think this post sheds some real light on how we interact with the plot of not only that movie but others. I heard a secular commentator say that he "remembers when he went to church to be preached at and the movies for entertainment. Now it seems the other way around." I have to admit i cringed a little when I heard that thinking of how the church has lost it's voice in society.

    Calvin Park said...

    Brian, interesting perspective. I rather liked the movie because it made fun of us as Americans. I am overweight, and up until I started losing weight several months back was over the line and classified as "obese." The reason was not a medical condition, but the fact that I sat around all day and ate way too much. I think that's probably the case with the vast majority of obese Americans, children or otherwise.

    I can certainly see how the movie might be offensive to those who have medical conditions that cause obesity...though I haven't yet heard from any of my friends who fall into that category that they were offended.

    I do agree that the message is a bit hypocritical. The tie-in products, in particular, are crazy.

    Brian said...

    Dave and Calvin,
    Thanks for joining in on the discussion. I really don't want to sound like I'm down on this movie. I really enjoyed it -- it's just that when the part on the spaceship with the people started up I couldn't help thinking "Ohhhh..Why did they have to go there?" If you do a quick search of blogs and websites talking about this film, you'll find many people who picked up on the percieved "anti-overweight" bent to the film and found it troubling.

    I know we could argue that many people are overweight because they don't exercise or eat properly, but I don't feel shame and guilt is a way to change that, nor do I make the assumption that people just choose to be that way. We live in a culture that encourages us to be so busy that we don't have time for exercise and that makes junk food cheaper and easier to buy than healthy food. There are so many cultural reasons we are an overweight nation -- think of the economic impact on McDonald's, Frito-Lay, Ben and Jerry's and other parts of our economy if everbody just decided to life healthy.

    I also didn't mean to suggest that the film itself has a preachy enviromental message (and I'm all for saving the environment)-- the "preachiness" factor comes into play when you consider who the corporate sponsor of the film is.

    Dave Carrol said...

    Don't know if you read this blog but Brant Hansen wrote a really interesting piece about how it's about heterosexuality...

    Anonymous said...

    I am right there with you. I was surprised Disney went this far to say: SAVE THE PLANET YOU LAZY AMERICANS.

    The idea of consumerism is two fold. First we as American function under corporate America, which means big big business who have a high potential to monopolize the market. Second we Americans eat way too much. Think about it. We are fat.

    I love the romantic elements of Wall-E however the Consumerism seemed to be disjointed with the thrust of the movie.
    I gave it a B+

    Dean P said...

    Surely this is an overreaction. Implicit in what you're saying is that not all fat people are fat as a result of inaction and overeating; however, all people who are inactive and overeat are fat. The movie's point is that rampant consumerism, super-sizing everything, and too much convenience lead to inaction and overeating.

    If you're suggesting that it's just insensitive to have fat people there generally, then I think that critique has to be applied to almost any movie; I'd rather that a few overweight people feel bad than all movies be bland PC things that don't insult anyone.

    But getting upset about the portray of humanity as having gotten fat and stopped caring about the planet seems a little overwrought.

    Craig Ranapia said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Craig Ranapia said...

    I immediately wondered how any heavy-set people in the theater must be feeling. Even worse, how might any overweight children in the theater be feeling about this obviously negative portrayal.

    Well, Brian, since you asked I thought that was as much 'about' Sloth and Gluttony (and dare I say it, a healthy dose of Pride) -- which, as sins of the spirit as much as the flesh, I'd actually like to see a few more negative portrayals of in popular culture.
    They're the descendants of people who utterly failed in their stewardship of the Earth, and just walked away to leave something else to clean up the mess.

    Yes, it's a little crude and way too simplistic but we're actually talking about an animated feature for children. I just don't see how it's 'fatist' or anti-American to suggest that spiritual and moral infantilism isn't attractive.
    One of the kids I saw the film with put it rather nicely: "Why don't they go help, Wall-E? He's so small and all alone. They're mean."

    Note, Brian: "They're mean". Not "they're fat."

    aaron.spencer said...

    I told my aunt, who is morbidly obese, to take her daughter to the film. I picked her up from the theater and saw she really didn't like it. She didn't say it was because of the fat people, but I couldn't help but think that's what it was.

    Dave Barnes said...

    Saw the movie and loved it.

    Am fat and was not offended.
    FAT. Not "heavy-set". FAT.

    Way too much PC analysis here.
    Get over yourself.
    FAT people need to fix themselves.

    Tom Provost said...

    I have to agree with a couple of the other comments that you are being way too sensitive and PC here. Are you advocating art that never makes someone feel uncomfortable? Sounds pretty bland and boring to me. Perhaps most importantly...Americans are indeed fat. We are fatter as a nation and more sedentary than we ever have been in our history. Consumerism and overeating are a major cause. Maybe some of us should be made uncomfortable by that aspect of the movie (which I thought pretty amazing).

    Dean P said...

    Really, it's pretty astonishing that you all think it's just about you Americans. I didn't take it as a critique of Americans. I took it as universal. Sure, you Americans probably are more fat than others, but stop navel gazing and thinking it's all about you.

    John said...

    I had the same initial cringe reaction when I saw the humans. Stanton has indeed said he was going for adult infants, as the first response suggested. He had originally planned to make the humans become boneless masses of flesh (based on a NASA presentation he saw about bone loss in space) but it was just too much for a G movie so he pulled it back to this.

    To me the most important point was that the present-day people were not "bad" people, just asleep. When Wally knocks the couple out of their chairs so they see the universe beyond, they react with enthusiasm. Same story with the captain, who makes a big effort to return the ship to earth. It's also the case that the BnL head and original captain, the ones who got humanity into the mess, were quite slender.

    Anonymous said...

    The folks at PIXAR come from computer science backgrounds and even the artist/creative people there are exposed to the rigors of the new "scientific method of CGI feature production". Research in space human factors long-term body morphology evolution studies -- has shown, that living in ZERO-G full-time we'd evolve to look very round and homogenous, blobby like (without the benefit of physical whole body excercise technology that must work with gravity.

    Daniel said...

    I thought the movie did an excellent job at both giving us a wonderful message, and making us uncomfortable with our current situation. It was beautifully masked, a light slap on the face, a reminder that, while, yes, we were there for entertainment, life is real, life is work, and we have fattened ourselves too much in this society of ours. I am overweight, and I know it. This beautiful, gentle reminder, did not depress me. It, rather, made me feel better about myself. It actually inspires me to get off my fat butt and improve my life and the world around me.

    ryan said...

    It's hard to ignore biology. When a human being becomes so dependent upon machines that he no longer moves about, he becomes fat. The point the movie was trying to make was about dependency, and taking enough initiative in your own life to improve yourself. As someone who has had his own troubles with weight, I have little sympathy for those who would become offended by such portrayals.

    Greg said...

    I'm 370 pounds, and a recently-developed blood pressure issue means I'm panting and helpless after climbing a single flight of stairs.

    I did not see the portrayal as bigoted towards people like me. I enjoyed the shipboard half of the movie.

    Brendan said...

    Yours is a unique perspective, I suppose, but I have to respectfully disagree with your worry that the film's second half might hurt some obese people's feelings. We have an obesity epidemic in the United States. It is rampant among the youth of this country. Pretending like obesity is a disease like AIDS or cancer, however, is preposterous.

    Most obesity is preventable by simply eating right; don't eat right, and you'll end up the size of a whale, like the characters in "Wall-E." Far from being preachy or touchy, I think the message of the movie is exactly what obese people (especially obese kids) need to see. Maybe then they'll change their habits and take more of an interest in healthy diets, exercise, and good ol' fresh air. Like Calvin, another poster here -- good for you, buddy!

    Brian said...

    And I thought I had issues with the movie: here's a interesting critique from someone who found the film to also have racial and gender issues:

    I appreciate the many critiques here of my critique. I stand by my criticism, not because I arrived at it after much navel-gazing of the plot days later, but because of the visceral negative reaction I had as I was watching the film when I went from thorough enjoyment to disapointment.

    Dean P said...

    Oh come on, that's just silly, re the gender issues. It would surely have been great to have gender-neutral roles for Eve and Wall-E, but can you imagine the gnashing of teeth that would have brought from conservatives suggesting it was promoting homosexuality? Please.

    ryan said...

    I'm really not sure why you're reacting this way. The passengers of the Axiom were clearly mobidly obese, and there's a reason they call it "morbid": being fat isn't healthy. If anything, that's the message of the movie. Obesity isn't simply an alternative lifestyle choice which must be respected. It has massive negative health consequences. Feeling uncomfortable about it is good.

    And yes, it's true that dietary options in this country aren't what they might be. A healthy weight is partially a sign of means (historically wealthy people were plump because they had enough to eat while the peasants starved; now, wealthy people are slim because they can afford to eat better than the poor), but it's also a sign of discipline. But even if all you have is junk food, people still have a choice about whether to eat 1800 or 5000 calories a day, and though you may still be unhealthy if those 1800 calories are all fast food, you won't get fat. Just because self-discipline is hard doesn't mean that failing to exercise it excuses one from necessary consequences. Even if the movie does portray the obese in a negative light--and I'm not entirely willing to concede that it does; the captain is still pretty heroic when it comes down to it--it isn't an unjustified one.

    Bambi said...

    About the consumerism message--I agree. I thought that the giant corporation "Buy & Large" was an obvious stand-in for Wal Mart. But that won't of course, stop Wal Mart from stocking the movie or Disney from profiting from it.

    About the obesity--I disagree. First of all, I think it is undeniable that there is a correlation between an increase in the obesity rate and an increase in video viewing and gaming and more sedentary lifestyles. So the message there is that technology may be wonderful, but it can also cut us off from, you know, living. Second of all, the obesity is not just a literal image, it's also a metaphor for modernism and consumerism. What's good for us in small doses can sedate us and destroy us if it becomes our reason for living.

    So, yes, it's ironic that this message comes filtered through a corporate giant, and it wouldn't be surprising if it went unheeded by most of the audience. But that doesn't mean there isn't the potential for some of it to get through.

    Brian said...

    I definitely understand what many of you are saying about the problems with obesity and the way the film deals with it honestly. As adults, we are able to critically look at all these issues logically. I wonder, however, that children are not so logical. They see a film where (as in many films, particularly those for children) overweight characters are shown to be less-then-sterling role models (often even the villian!). I certainly acknowledge that the Captain becomes the hero towards the end (and this fact blunted my criticism of the film) but even he gets made into a visual fat joke when he's too portly to fit through the hole in the floor when he's fighting with the computer.

    Brian said...

    I certainly understand the observations many of you are making that the film deals honestly and realistically with the problem of obesity in our culture. We can see the characters' condition as social commentary. I wonder, however, that most children watching the film see it less knowingly. For them, it is just another example of a kids film, of which there are many, where overweight characters are portrayed as less-than-sterling role models (in many films, they are the villain!). I was glad to see the Captain become a hero at the end of the movie (and this fact blunted my concern with the film) but even he is used as the butt of a fat joke when he is shown as too portly to fit through a hole in the floor when he's fighting with the navigational computer.

    Another aside: no one has addressed the question of why there are no fat children shown to us on the ship. Furthermore, just wondering where all those babies came from, since the adults are shown as not even able to lift themselves up off the floor. Hmmm...

    Patrick Roberts said...

    Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit," minus the cheesy 80's style... but i'm sure Pixar made a totally original story otherwise

    Nate said...

    One aspect that hasn't been pointed out in the many helpful comments thus far: the movie presents sloth and obesity as a cultural problem, not an individual one. There is no fat kid who gets mocked for his problem, or fat guy who gets cut to for a hilarious joke every once-in-a-while. It's presented as a monolithic human condition.

    The fat humans are not made fun of or resented or portrayed as lesser people; they are fully part of the choice to return to a life that is harder and better than the one they have.

    Your objection may simply be that being fat is portrayed as being undesirable. If so, I must say that I agree with the movie: health and strength are human goods. We should not deal with those who do not have these goods in cruel ways, but to decide, therefore, that we can no longer acknowledge the essential worth of health and strength would be a terrible thing indeed.

    Brian said...

    Great observations, Nate.

    Joel Mayward said...

    This post has been in the back of my mind for a few days now, so thanks for getting me thinking! To address your question about there being no children on the Axiom, it may have to do with the overall plot. The humans on the Axiom are really secondary characters; the main plot centers on WALL-E and EVE. Could the PIxar animators have included a brief scene including children? I suppose. Would that have added anything important to the overall story? I'm not sure it would.

    Your review raises a deeper question: is potentially offensive content, no matter how subtle or subjective, worthy of our viewing? I didn't find WALL-E offensive--in fact, I found it quite profound--but some people clearly were offended, yourself included. Where is that line? And would you ever show WALL-E to students at church?

    Brian said...

    Hey Joel. Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts on this. To answer your question, Yes I would show this movie to youth at church since it does raise so many interesting issues and questions on consumerism, the environment, love, making choices, etc. And I suppose I'd also spend some time asking them to critique the movie itself. I suspect some would be sensitive to the negative sterotypes that I spotted, and others would see them differently, just as has been the case with many who have posted here. I'm not for censoring art and media and I think much can be learned by realizing we do not all interpret art/film/literature (the Bible!) the same way.

    Anonymous said...

    For some visual help on our consumerism, Chris Jordan has some disturbingly beautiful imagery.

    Robin said...

    Well, I am fat, and while I don't exactly object to "un-PC" movies (I've laughed at them myself), I felt like I'd been ambushed when that part of the movie started. Then of course there were the kids making not-so-quiet comments about how gross and disgusting fat people are. (Philosophy aside, that is the message conveyed, and anyone telling themselves differently is either defensive or deluded about human nature.) Even worse were the kids -- fat and otherwise, I noticed -- who suddenly looked uneasy. As these kids walked out of the theatre, they weren't chatting thoughtfully about the nature and future of humanity, they were quiet and looked miserable and self-conscious and desperate to escape.

    Having said all that, my main objection to the movie lies with the bad science (blob people who had never walked ... walking? An isolated ship in space for 700 years with no renewable resources, commercially wasteful and somehow self-sustaining?) and the less subtle but equally disturbing fact that these completely unprepared humans were unleashed back upon a fledging and no-doubt delicate ecosystem to destroy it yet again with their ignorance.

    Loved the love story, but I definitely wasn't feeling the love that day.

    Anonymous said...

    Do you know that an estimated 10% of America's preschoolers are dangerously overweight? Obesity rates for elementary school students have tripled in the last three decades, and 31% of adults in the U.S. are now considered obese which means they are at least 30 pounds overweight.

    AmandaR said...

    I just ran across this post while searching for something else and I have to say something. What is wrong with protraying obesity as bad? It IS bad.

    Childhood obesity is a terrifying thing and kids need to see it shown in a negative light. If we all tip toe around the issue it will get bigger and bigger (no pun intended). Sometimes the truth hurts, but it needs to be said. A big fat mirror may be just what people need!

    Juliet said...

    I have not seen the movie as yet but I have heard positive reviews from family and friends.

    Here is what concerns me about the review. Have we become so self obsessed that everything said and every image presented is about us personally, literally? Have we lost all understanding of metaphor? We have many expressions in our language that are not to be taken literally. Someone can be 'full of it', have an 'inflated ego' or be 'full of themselves', 'puffed up'. Couldn't any of these expressions use a 'fat' image to be expressed? If we say someone has a 'big head' we are not disparraging people with genetically large heads.

    Story telling involves images. The storyteller brings us images to reflect a broader message. Metaphors are a building block of stories.

    Seems to me the narcassism of our society could easily present us as 'fat'.

    Ryan said...

    Do you not think that obesity is at all linked to the American "consumer-culture" that IS leading us down a similar road to Walle's? It's not PC but I think there's valid reasoning in that choice to make the people fat. How could they (those behind the the concept of the movie) more accurately get their point across if the humans weren't over-indulgent, out of touch people?