Nearly everyone has a Pixar movie that they absolutely adore. The computer animation studio is renowned for their ability to create child-friendly G-rated feature films that have weighty underlying messages, making them relatable to viewers of all ages. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is their 2008 film WALL-E.
A futuristic tale of heroism and romance, WALL-E follows the journey of the last trash-compacting robot on Earth left to clean up the massive amount of consumerist waste left behind on a planet that has been entirely abandoned by humans. The movie forces viewers to confront dark themes such as the dangers of consumerism, environmental neglect, and the loss of human connection.
While most all Pixar movies confront deep moral questions, WALL-E may be the most in-your-face film ever produced by the studio in regards to the sociological implications that are present from the beginning of the film to the end. Anyone watching this movie is forced to think about the future of humanity, their own reliance on large corporations, and their ability to develop meaningful human relationships. If you shed a tear or two at some point during the 103-minute film, you certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so.
The Making of WALL-E
WALL-E was incredibly well-received by critics not only for its deep moral underpinnings, but also for the fact that it was visually stimulating, well written, well scored, and an overall beautifully-made animated film. The writing, animation, soundtrack, and directing came together in such a harmonious way as to make WALL-E the masterpiece it was destined to be.
The idea for WALL-E was apparently conceived as a team of Pixar writers were having lunch near the end of production of Toy Story. The writers were brainstorming ideas for their next film when writer Andrew Stanton suggested they write a movie about a world in which humans had abandoned Earth and there was only a single robot remaining on the planet. The idea to make their lead robot a waste collector whose job was to compact human garbage followed naturally from there.
Development of the film began under the title Trash Planet in 1995, but the project was put aside as Pixar’s creatives chose to focus on Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo instead. In 2002, the writing process of WALL-E resumed and, by 2003, they had produced a story reel of the first 20 minutes of the film.
In designing the character of WALL-E, Pixar chose to model him after R2-D2 from Star Wars and Luxo Jr., the title character from Pixar’s 1986 short film. They wanted to avoid making WALL-E overly complex or humanoid so that his function would be very clear and so that viewers could project their own emotions onto him as one might do with a baby or a pet. Pixar studied robots such as a Mars rover and a recycling machine for inspiration for WALL-E’s design, and the result was the rusty, box-shaped robot running on Caterpillar treads that we see in the film.
In designing the post-apocalyptic Earth setting that’s been entirely covered with garbage, Pixar looked to real-world places like Chernobyl, Russia and Sofia, Bulgaria for inspiration. Art director Anthony Christov was originally from Bulgaria, and recalled that the city used to have a serious problem with disposing of its garbage. The color scheme of this trash-covered abandoned Earth was meant to contrast the bright green plant that’s found later in the film and make this pivotal moment all the more dramatic.
The setting of the Axiom, the luxury starship on which all of humanity has taken refuge, was meant to contrast the Earth setting as well. For this, Pixar’s design team looked to some of the most commercialist places in the world, such as Disney World, cruise ships, and certain fixtures in Dubai and Beijing. The ship was meant to portray the height of human luxury and consumer culture.
The soundtrack for WALL-E was composed by Thomas Newman, who had recently won an Annie Award for Best Music in an Animated Feature for his work on Finding Nemo. The music in the film, combined with the sounds used for the voices of robots like WALL-E, EVE, and AUTO, make the film relatable and hopeful despite the desperate position the characters find themselves in.
WALL-E Plot Summary
The film begins on an Earth that has been entirely abandoned by humans. WALL-E, which is short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, is the last functioning robot on the planet. Earth is no longer capable of sustaining life due to the incredible amount of consumer waste produced by the Buy N Large corporation, and so WALL-E was built by Buy N Large to clean up the garbage and stack it into skyscraper-sized piles.
While WALL-E performs his function daily, he has also curiously developed an affinity for human culture. He enjoys collecting items like lightbulbs and Rubix cubes, he watches Hello Dolly! on an old TV set, and he even decorates the interior of the storage container that he lives in. WALL-E clearly yearns for love, as he tries to replicate the romantic dances he sees in Hello Dolly! Unfortunately, at the start of the film, his only companion is a cockroach that follows him around.
WALL-E’s wish for companionship is fulfilled when another robot called EVE arrives on Earth. EVE is a probe sent by the Buy N Large corporation to search for plant life on Earth, and it just so happened that WALL-E had recently found a live seedling during his daily routine. When EVE takes the seedling from WALL-E, he hitchhikes on her as she is transported back to the Axiom, the starliner where humanity has been surviving for the several generations since Earth became uninhabitable.
In the years since humanity has left Earth, people have become completely reliant on the robots that run the Axiom for every aspect of their survival. They sit in floating chairs and are unable to walk on their own, they drink their meals out of cups that get delivered straight into their hands, and they are constantly bombarded with Buy N Large corporation advertisements.
WALL-E and EVE make their way through the ship, trying to return the live plant to the ship’s captain so that the humans can begin the process of recolonizing Earth. However, this becomes more difficult when they learn that AUTO, the overseeing robotic system that controls the ship, is operating under a secret directive never to return to Earth. AUTO takes control of the ship, throwing WALL-E and EVE down a garbage chute and locking the captain in his quarters, until the captain is finally able to overpower and deactivate AUTO and regain control of the ship.
Once AUTO is deactivated and the plant is saved, the captain is then able to initiate the process of returning to Earth. Upon arriving on Earth, where they now know that life is sustainable, the humans are able to begin growing crops, and turn the planet into a fertile paradise. WALL-E and EVE’s romantic affair is presumed to continue for generations to come.
What We Can Learn From WALL-E
Embedded within this tale of action, heroism, and romance are some very hard-hitting societal critiques that make viewers reflect on the direction in which our world is headed and the ways in which these societal trends influence our own capacities for happiness and love.
The most obvious statement made in WALL-E is the dangerous potential of consumerism. The human beings in the film have been reduced to helpless, unthinking blobs with no ability to take care of themselves. They are spoon-fed their preferences and have no autonomy over their own lives whatsoever. Through this movie, Pixar is asking its viewers to question consumer corporations that may be numbing people to reality while purporting themselves as human benefactors. While I think everyone would agree that the lives lived by the humans in WALL-E are not desirable, Buy N Large’s motto is “We Want More for You”, clearly a satirical take on real-world corporations that claim to have the people’s best interests in mind.
Hand-in-hand with Pixar’s warning about the dangers of consumer culture is another cautionary message about environmental neglect. The deplorable state of the Earth in the movie is a direct result of human carelessness. A once-fertile Earth has been turned into a revolving trash heap because of our lack of concern for the environmental consequences of our actions. Pixar is trying to awaken people to the need to care for our environment and warn people about the potential impact of environmental neglect on future generations.
The love story woven through the plot of this film also carries an interesting message about what consumer culture is doing to our ability to form interpersonal relationships. On the Axiom, familial and romantic love seem to have no place whatsoever. The only characters who seem to have the capacity for love at the beginning of the film are WALL-E and EVE, two beings made entirely of metal and wiring. Later in the movie, there’s a scene where two humans accidentally touch hands, and get a glimpse of the feelings of intimacy that have been lost from human society. Throughout WALL-E, we’re forced to take a close look at how consumerism and overstimulation are distracting people from the feelings of love and empathy that are fundamental to the human condition.
While WALL-E may be a G-rated animated movie, it contains messages that should resonate with viewers regardless of age. I believe that by using the messages in WALL-E to examine the current state of our world as well as our own personal lives, we can work toward a world where we care for our environment, remember to enjoy the little things, and never forget the importance of interpersonal relationships.