YTAH's Weblog


WALL•E, Or The Ghost of Chaplin Walks.

Posted in movies,reviews by YTAH on July 21, 2008
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Okay, so I suppose I have a reputation by now (at least among regular readers of Africans, thus an average of three to six people) of being a somewhat harsh critic of popular culture. (At least I hope so.) Okay, so I hate bad lyrics, and bad movies, and bad remakes of other movies, and pretentious cunts, and so on. But really – am I all that bad? Am I ever unfair? Biased? Opinionated? Upset? Sure. But I am always, always right.

Biased, moi?

Mariah CareyPariah Carey: If she only had a brain.
Thanks to my valiant efforts, nobody would dream of defending Noel Gallagher’s lyrics, or suggest that Tom Hanks’ performance as Forrest Gump is any less ridiculous or patronizing than Steven Seagal’s claim to be the apotheosis of Native American learning, Zen environmentalism, and blues music. No-one would dare to argue that Mariah Carey selects her lyricists with half as much care as she expends on her choice of nail polish. (Incidentally, a recent scientific study reported in the popular media has shown categorically that this is exactly the same amount of effort she expends on choosing her record companies, or her misguided film vanity projects, or the next five words coming out of her mouth.)

No Dylan signKeep your hippy shit OUTSIDE.
Likewise, no-one seriously believes that Celine Dion deserves a long and happy life, any more than they believe Bob Dylan is as good as he’s cracked up to be. We know this because not one of those three to six people posted any comments defending him, so I am going to assume you fully concur with my opinion. (Of course, if you did post a comment in defence of His Bobness I would simply assume that you are inveterately retarded and that your opinion is therefore of no consequence.)

Wall-EYTAH makes WALL·E cry.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that I am, once again, focussing on an artefact of popular culture. And just in case you’re worried that I’m about to rape a cute animated robot, let’s start this thing on a positive note: I liked this movie. I really, really did. And then we reached the half-way mark, and everything went to hell. (Oh, the tyranny of high expectations; “it could have been so much better.”) Of course, the fact that I have my reservations shouldn’t deter you from watching the film. In fact, I recommend that you do, and that you try to see it on the big screen – the animation is both marvellous and splendid. (If you don’t know that means, or you think I’m being redundant, look it up.) Oh, and from here on in I shall make absolutely no reference to the animation whatsoever. This follows the well-established precedent for my film criticism for africans, since I said almost nothing about comic-book nonsense in my review of the Hulk movies.

Cleaning up… at the box office.

Terminator 2 stillsArnie says: ‘Ve’ve come to check yor pipes.’
On to the film: the story takes place in a world where the entire, well, world has been covered in humanity’s junk, and technology is so far advanced that it’s become oppressive. But instead of turning against their human masters a là The Terminator, the robots remain compliant and gladly follow their short-sighted creators into space, while a number of cleaning druids – known as Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth models – remain behind to clean up the mess. This works about as well as can be expected, and many, many years later, the single surviving robot – “The Little Trash-Compactor That Could” – is still sorting through piles of garbage, waiting for human life to return. (Also, rather than using robots to fight our battles, ostensibly because robots are cheaper than human life – they’re not – the human overlords make robots to do their dishes, which is altogether more in keeping with what we know about human behaviour.)

Movie robotsRobots: Generations.
In this case, “human life” is completely redundant. If the advertising folks and critics hadn’t made such an issue out of it, you’d hardly notice that our hero wasn’t human. By contrast, when the future people arrive later in the film, they seem kind of … robotic. Now, this isn’t the first time that the titular robots in a robot-themed movie delivered more convincing performances than their human counterparts. Think Robbie the Robot from The Forbidden Planet. Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arnie in Terminator 2. Not to mention Short Circuit, whose protagonist served as a vague visual prototype for the character design of WALL·E, even if the director doesn’t think so. (Okay, so Johnny/Number Five looked more like a praying mantis, whereas WALL·E resembles a box with eyes, but still. Apparently the filmmakers were going for R2D2 – go figure.) Imagine the bastard offspring of Number Five and E.T. and you’ll start to get the idea. (By the way, if you think this means you should watch that other movie again – don’t. Trust me.)

Silence is golden…

Chaplin on the high wireComedy: a dangerous, death-defying act.
It’s commendable, I’ll admit, that a contemporary movie can be so supposedly indulgent as to rely solely on characterization for its enjoyment. The director freely acknowledges his indebtedness to silent filmmakers, having made his team watch a bunch of movies by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd in their spare time. (Why can’t I do that for a living?) It’s ridiculous that this film was ever considered a financial gamble, because believe it or not, the silent parts of this movie are far and away the best. Also, if you think kids don’t understand pantomime, you’re a fucking moron, or you’ve never seen a cartoon in your life. (Since I made the mistake of seeing this at 5 o’clock on a Saturday, I know from personal experience that even the drooling five-year-old behind me could follow the story, well enough to explain it to their parents. The whole. Movie. Through.)

…But bad dialogue just sounds tinny.

However, this is also where the filmmakers went wrong. Not because they watched Chaplin movies (everybody should watch Chaplin movies), but that they didn’t watch enough of them. Their biggest mistake was in not watching his first forays into dialogue-driven films, once ‘talkies’ arrived on the scene. At first, he simply refused to include any dialogue in his films at all; he believed, rightly, that if the Little Man (his name for the Tramp) ever spoke, it would diminish the character for the audience – it would rob him of his most valuable characteristic: his universality. (As Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson points out, “his mime was understood in every part of the world,” but if the Tramp spoke in English, this advantage would be lost.) Instead he used the soundtrack to provide a variety of sound effects and music, both to punctuate the gags and to underscore the emotion. (He composed the scores for several of his own films, including City Lights, and even wrote the song “Smile” for the end of Modern Times. His musical taste, like the acting style, may be off-putting at first, but the exaggerated music – like the gestures, tics, and facial expressions – suit each other, somehow.) Eventually, of course, Chaplin gave in, and made a number of talkies himself before finally quitting the business. But these are exactly the films the people at Pixar should have been watching, because no matter how good Chaplin’s talkies are, they’ll never be as effective – or as moving – as his earlier, silent films.

Chaplin tramps it up in City Lights. Watch it, you fuckers.
If they’d really done their research, they would have found that the reason Chaplin became so famous – and let’s face it, rich – was that the film’s “message” was never more important than story or character. There’s simply no reason you need to slap an ill-conceived ecological message – deleted scenes from An Inconvenient Plot Device, if you will – on this film. Which is why I cannot understand the filmmakers’ decision, after giving us possibly an hour’s worth of genuinely moving near-silence, to let their film descend to the level of the most saccharine message-mongering you’ve ever seen. To go so far down the road of pantomime only to jettison it for the lamest of sugar-coated morality lessons is rather frustrating. The effect is rather off-putting. Imagine watching a version of 2001 where everyone starts singing and dancing in the middle. Or if, in the middle of the sweet little love story in City Lights, we suddenly jettisoned the storyline to do an analysis of the feminist movement. It just doesn’t compute.

There’s a reason this movie isn’t called Fat People From Space. Wall·E’s struggles are infinitely more moving than the self-actualization of the rather pallid humans who surround him – much in the same way the little Tramp’s sacrifices at the end of The Circus and other films are more genuinely affecting than the more conventional love story his sweetheart ends up going for. (Speaking of which, fat people are already up in arms – or as “up” as their fat, purulent flesh can manage – about the depiction of fat people in this movie. As Garfield, another desperately unfunny 80s icon [see Short Circuit] once put it: “I thought all fat people were jolly.” Fat people don’t like this movie, but we don’t like fat people. See, it all works out.)

Voicing an objection.
Still from City LightsLife is not a malfunction. Awwwwwwwwww.
But I have an even bigger gripe, if that’s possible. Recently I was reading an interview with a voice artist, who spent large chunks of the interview complaining about the quality of voice work in animated movies, which he blamed (surprise, surprise!) on the directors’ not hiring professional voice artists like himself to do the work. However, having since watched a number of animated movies (okay, this and Kung Fu Panda), I see what he means. For fuck’s sake, Jackie Chan has one line in that whole movie, and Lucy Lui sounds as generically Asian as Chinese take-aways. Peter Sellers they ain’t. (What’s Hank Azaria’s number, goddammit, and why don’t more studio bosses have it?) Apart from the inspired casting of Sigourney “Ripley vs. the Android” Weaver as the space ship’s robot co-pilot, none of the characters sound like real people. If you’re going to foist a bunch of annoying “human sandwich boards” on the audience, at least make them sound like actual people. (The one exception of course is WALL·E himself, who is voiced – remarkably well – by the guy who provided the beeps for R2D2. Given the rest of the film, it’s rather appropriate that the robot’s electronic blips are more lifelike than the droning of the self-actualizing humans.)

All in all, I can’t help feeling that this plucky little robot deserved better. Sorry, WALL·E.

P.S. Having written the outline for this review, I noticed that the reviewer for the M&G said pretty much the same thing I did about the last half of the film. Well fuck him. He can agree with me all he wants, but I’m not handing over a penny I earned from this article. So there.

[Originally posted on www.africans.co.za on Tuesday, July 15, 2008.]

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