The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Wall-E': A stealth Michael Moore-style attack on America?

July 1, 2008 |  2:33 pm

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