Children everywhere, from the United States to China, have adopted Wall-E as their all-time favorite robot, replacing the famous R2-D2 of Star Wars fame for the new generation. Wall-E is the star of the 2008 animated film by the same name. He is a small robot trash compactor whose job it is to clean up a completely trashed out Earth. As he makes his way through the trash heap, he collects things that interest him, typically things that were once used directly by humans as forms of entertainment at the same time that it becomes clear he is the only moving thing on earth other than the small cockroach that acts as his pet. His loneliness is interrupted by the arrival of EVE, another robot sent to earth in search of plant-life. When Wall-E inadvertently presents her with the plant he found, she sends a beacon to return home, with Wall-E hitching a ride to be close to his love interest. The rest of the story takes on a Space Odyssey flavor as the human captain, aided by Wall-E and EVE, takes on the determined autopilot bot to return the surviving elements of the human race back to their home planet. With almost no dialogue and low action, it seems strange that children would adopt the character so completely into their hearts. However, the messages Wall-E has to impart to the newest generation are essential to the well-being of their future.
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The film begins with a heavy slant on the issues that must be faced today such as the problem of pollution. Wall-E is the last working unit of an earth-cleaning fleet of robots intended to sweep the planet clean of trash while the human population relaxed for five years aboard large starliners. His name stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class and he was once simply one of the small trash compactors that contributed to the overall effort. His journeys through the landscape depict an Earth so full of trash that no life can survive as the toxic levels caused by indiscriminate pollution force the humans to remain exiled from their planet indefinitely. This only becomes clear later, but automatic vid-screens of promotional materials for the starliner tours triggered by Wall-E’s passage hint at what happened to all the people. Piles of trash left on the planet grow higher than the tallest remaining skyscrapers and massive storms roll across the planet with no warning other than the tremendous build-up of clouds. This typically gives Wall-E just enough time to find cover from the winds and dust before he is overwhelmed by the storm.
Despite all the negative elements of how the Earth has survived the passage of time, there are indications that some environmentally-friendly activity might take place. This is hinted at the beginning of the film as Wall-E has already made close friends with a small cockroach, being careful not to squash the bug when rolling down his ramp and taking time to ensure it has been provided with a new Twinkie each night to feast upon. He is also very careful with the single green plant he has found in all his time working on Earth, making sure he scoops it up with enough dirt to keep it alive and re-planting it in an old shoe to keep an eye on it. It is this plant that inspires all the later excitement as the autopilot bot on the ship gives orders to keep it hidden from the humans and the human captain, enthralled with the idea of returning to care for a slowly regenerating Earth, attempts to prove its existence. Upon their return to Earth, the people immediately begin working on helping to clean things up and re-plant the planet.
In depicting the world of the future, it becomes clear to the adult viewer that the planet has fallen into such a state as a result of over-capitalization. As the large corporation Big n Large began taking over every element of life on Earth, restrictions on dumping, wasteful consumption and involvement in government eventually overwhelmed any attempt at moderation, eventually forcing the evacuation of the human population into the stars as the only means of survival. During the 700 years they are in space, the people have grown accustomed to living a life of complete idleness. Robots exist to provide them with all of their needs, including the junk food produced by Big n Large that seems to be their primary food source, the automated chairs that make any sort of physical exercise unnecessary and the vid-screens that keep them entertained throughout the day. As a result of their diet and lack of exercise, the population has become universally morbidly obese, requiring robot assistance to help them back into their chairs when they fall off and unfamiliar with the purpose of their own feet. They are so tuned in to their computer screens that they are unaware of their actual physical surroundings, evidenced when Wall-E accidentally turns off the vid-screen of one woman sitting near the pool. He introduces himself, politely indicates he’d like to pass and continues on his way leaving the woman to gasp in wonder at the fact that they have a pool, something she’d never noticed before. In addition, they have become largely unintelligent, struggling to learn their letters, unfamiliar with the idea of reading and unaware that they once had a beautiful blue and green planet to call home.
The people have become accustomed to their meaningless and empty lives aboard the starliner Axiom, introducing yet another important theme of the film which is questioning the status quo. The word axiom literally refers to “a self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2003). This concept perfectly matches the attitudes of the people on board the ship who never question why they are still there, what they are supposed to do with their lives or where they really came from. In fact, they never question anything despite their awareness of wanting something more fulfilling in their lives. Upon discovering the truth about their origins and the possibility that they might now return, the captain passionately tells his automatic pilot, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” However, at this point, it becomes clear that the robots have become supporters of the axiom, insisting that it is unsafe for the humans to return to their home-world. Based on a recording sent 700 years earlier, the robots have been actively working to prove EVE was not bearing a fresh plant from Earth and that there is no reason to return by hiding the proof she had brought. Despite having evidence that the Earth was again capable of sustaining life, the robots continued to insist that the principles they had been existing on for the past 700 years must remain valid forever based solely on the ravings of the earlier recording. The captain’s attempt to convince them otherwise is completely unaccepted, forcing the captain to finally shut down the auto-pilot in order to do what’s right.
Finally, Wall-E epitomizes the theme of breaking the axiom as he proves to be anything but the emotionless, thoughtless robot he is supposed to be. His curiosity and joy in life is illustrated almost immediately in his continued habit of collecting things from the junk he processes while his romantic nature inspires EVE to overcome her own robotic programming to express a more human-like personality. While her nature is to immediately blow up anything that moves in her vicinity, she can be seen to struggle with this from the first time she blasts a hole where the cockroach once was. Her joy at the tickly motions of the bug and her sorrow at the destruction of the ship both convey a sense that there is more to these robots than what lies beneath the metal plating. In her attempts to defend her pride in not being a defective robot, EVE discovers the joy of life found in the plant and within Wall-E himself, causing the two robots to perform a beautiful dance of love in the emptiness of space and further inspiring the people within the starship to new experiences.
While the film can be accurately described as a children’s film, it is clear from an analysis of the movie that there are many more things being conveyed on the screen than the bright colors and animated images of a couple of robots falling in love. In its early setup, the film adopts a pro-environment stance, encouraging more involvement in caring for the only planet we have and arguing against those corporations that would sacrifice the future for the greed of the present. At the same time, the film warns against the couch-potato mentality that has robbed too many young people of their youth, vitality, health and intelligence as they choose to sit in front of video screens instead of enjoy the outdoors or discover stimulating subjects of study. Finally, the film encourages exploration of ideas, discovering new approaches and breaking old assumptions to open the possibilities. In depicting the state of life on board the Axiom, the film indicates the danger of accepting the status quo without question or knowledge while the final happiness of robots and humans working together to rebuild Earth suggests the possibilities are endless.
- “Axiom.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
- Wall-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Perf. Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard and Kathy Najimy. Disney/Pixar Pictures, 2008.