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'Wall-E': A stealth Michael Moore-style attack on America?

Walle The great thing about broadly ambitious movies that strike a chord with mainstream audiences is that they often inspire equally ambitious critical theories about their message and themes--or, in some cases, about how the critical establishment has totally missed the boat about what's going on. One of my favorite bloggers, Bill Wyman at Hitsville, has now weighed in with a wonderfully provocative post, posing the question: What if Pixar released a ferocious charge attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn't notice?  Here's a snippet:

"If Michael Moore, or Oliver Stone, or, God forbid, some effete French director, had crafted a feature film that was a thinly disguised political broadside portraying Americans as recumbent tubbos who moved around on sliding barcaloungers with built-in video screens and soft drinks always at the ready, don't you think there'd be some sort of notice taken? But Pixar does it and the reviewers barely mention it.... I'm no film theorist, but I think what director Andrew Stanton is trying to tell us is that we humans eat so much and limit our movements to such a degree that we will soon become immobile whales unable to focus past the video screens permanently affixed in our field of vision."

I think Wyman is being a little too dismissive of the critical response, since even he has to acknowledge that some critics, notably the New York Times' A.O. Scott, managed to see the point quite clearly--and I'd argue that our Kenny Turan made note of it as well--but Wyman's larger argument is worth considering. Sometimes the most pointed cinematic social criticism goes unnoticed because it is disguised by the genre elements of a film or, in this case, perhaps because we view Pixar films (and animated films in general) as being triumphs of visual style and storytelling, not social commentary.

Want to see a classic example of the critics initially ignoring a film's underlying message? 


Go back and watch Don Siegel's 1956 classic B-movie thriller, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Made at the tail end of the Red Scare, it was initially viewed by critics as a cheap but effective horror film about a small town where residents are being secretly replaced by duplicate "people" hatched from alien pods. I saw it on TV one night as a kid and had to sleep with four lights on in my room for about a month afterward.

In recent years, the film has inspired heated critical debate. Everyone agrees it was a sly political allegory, but no one agrees on just what. Liberals see the pod invasion as an allusion to McCarthy-era paranoia and conformity; conservatives see the pods as a symbol for communism, where everyone would be forced to think alike. (Go here for an especially meaty essay on the subject by John Whitehead.)

I think Wyman will be proved right (that there's more going on in "Wall-E" than meets the eye) and proved wrong too. If "Wall-E'' keeps drawing crowds at the multiplex this summer, I'm betting that coverage of the film will migrate to the op-ed pages as critics, and a host of other commentators, head back for a second viewing. The good news: Unlike most summer movies, "Wall-E" is laced with a quietly disturbing message that offers plenty to ponder.

"Wall-E" photo from Disney/Pixar

Comments () | Archives (32)

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Missed the boat? Wonderfully provatative? What person, anywhere in the entire world, does not think most americans are overfed and addicted to labor saving devices?
Doesn't there have to be at least a wiff of original thought to extend an idea beyond simple satire?

Which reviewers did Wyman read? Both EW and Slate (which you've linked to previously) prominently mentioned the second half of Wall-E as "satirical" (the Slate reviewer specifically mentions them as caricatures of "Americans"). Adding to the LAT and NYT, the SF Chronicle reviewer mentions it as well.
The points made about an uncontrolled consumerist lifestyle were hardly subtle, and I suspect most audiences don't need a second viewing to get it. The audience I was with found it funny and I saw it in Lodi--not exactly a hotbed of anti-consumerist, leftist activity.
If anyone's going to complain, I predict it will be from "obesity rights" groups who object to negative or ridiculing portrayals of obese people in popular entertainment.

Is it ironic that this commentary is brought to us by the same company that provides so much of what is consumed in America?

How thin-skinned do you have to be to take the last half of "WALL-E" as an attack on America? Not all social criticism is unpatriotic.

As Scott points out, it's possible that "fat acceptance" groups could take offense at this film. But if they do, they're completely missing the point: The film attacks the society that compels people to be so dysfuntional, not so much the people themselves. "WALL-E" doesn't make fun of fat people any more than "Finding Nemo" makes fun of aquarium fish.

Wall-E is ultimately a conservative film: The single love affair between two individuals saves the entire planet and all of humankind (cross-reference here any Bruce Willis or Will Smith fantasy film); the human characters of the film pay no real lasting consequences; and the love story is invoked by and modelled after the incessant repetition of a old movie, representative of an idealistic bygone day.

Wall-E's supposedly edgy portrayal of Americans as over-fed idiots is a crass attempt to capitalize on the recent wave of superficial progressivism (and takes a cheap shot at an easy target, at the same time). After the welcome success of the Al Gore-led mainstreaming of progressive issues, media makers know which hot-button topics to name-check: environmentalism and anti-corporate concerns are two. Wall-E does not analyze these issues in any nuanced way, though, it merely uses them as a backdrop.

I'm not saying Wall-E must somehow put forth nuanced commentary, just that the critics who claim that the film is slyly subversive are delusional. Pixar is no doubt at the forefront of animation technologies, but they are also ultimately responsible for showing returns on investments -- a truly challenging film would be bad for future deals. Pixar and its associated entities resemble Buy N Large more than they'd like to admit.

It's useful to think of Wall-E as Lassie -- an extremely loyal dog. Why do we love Wall-E so much? Because we can look down on him as a trash collector and know him in half a second as loyal to the end (not to mention the tried-and-true animation technique of hang-dog eyes). He's treated as an inferior intellect, but lovable! Very safe.

If we consider Wall-E and Eve as examples (or even symbols) of "old" and "new" technology, the most interesting aspect of the film for me is trying to suss out the dynamics of their relationship. The motif of the hand-holding works of course to firm up the film's absolutely traditional love relationship but also it contains some neat suggestion of technological compatability which I haven't yet worked out.

The film is fascinating in many ways, to be sure, but I agree with the previous posters when they suggest that any critic who declares the film challenging is completely out of touch. Wall-E is simply more intelligently commercial than the rest; it's a better entertainment than most. It's not ground-breaking.

Is there a political allegory here? Yes. It's apparently on Earthlings 800 years from now. Are they Americans? How American to think so. It's an attack on humanity's tendency to not confront unpleasant truths, if "attack" is the right word at all for something so whimsical and beautiful. It's a satire. If that makes some people think it's an "attack on America," they've been swallowing too many self-important pills.

Just saw WALL E. This movie was perhaps the most stunning film I have seen in years. Perhaps the Decade. I left in AWE. What Pixar did with this film was to craft a tale that was poignant and alarming. This is the most amazing Pixar film I have ever seen. Oscar Nod anyone?

Too deep for a G rated movie. I mean the article is too deep for a G rated movie.
Chillax, it is just a movie. It was okay, but it will be forgotten by the time it comes out on DVD or online. I just watched Wanted from and streamed it Digitally, no more theatres for us.
Mike Dills
Sorry, I can't spell Theatre. Damn French words!

When has Michael Moore ever attacked America? John McCain and Bill O'Reilly may SAY he has, but they've never actually seen any of his movies. You have and should know better than to perpetuate this propaganda, especially in an article about hidden messages.

The thing I remember most about "Wall-E" is Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly."

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