Art and Commerce Collide in Disney’s Outer Space
by Phil Boatwright

Wall•E is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, but it has a controversy attached.  No, it’s not inappropriate language or furtive sexual innuendo.  Nope, the filmmakers have made it family friendly as well as inventive and mesmerizing.  The problem doesn’t lie in our stars or with the production values, but rather in an eco message that seems hypocritical.

Opening with a dark, apocalyptic tableau, we discover a planet of buildings built out of compacted junk.  Mankind has exited Earth, leaving one last busy-beaver robot to clean up their mess.  It doesn’t take long, however, to sense that Wall•E has a tender Tin Man-like heart that yearns for companionship.  When it comes in the form of a determined lady robot, our mechanical hero falls head over treads.  At this point it becomes a romantic film, for it reminds us that one can have the whole world and all its charms, but without someone to share the experience, it’s a lonely existence.  In other words, relationships are more important than materialism.

But it’s an underlying message that seems out of place in a film by companies that add to their coffers via the exploitation of their very own creations.  The film bemoans our overindulgence of big store consumerism (Wall•E – Wal-Mart, hmmm) while at the same time blatantly showcasing one cute toy-like creature after another – the studios knowing full well that each will get its own trademarked replica for parents to buy, kids to enjoy, and the future to dispose of.  The studios responsible for WallE tells us we are bad for cluttering up the planet with unnecessary and un-dissolving excess, while continuing to create more themselves.  “Don’t buy non-biodegradable stuff.  Except ours.”

Hypocritical?  Certainly.  But surprising?  No.  For ever since Snow White and those seven cuddly dwarfs were first imagined, Walt and company have seen the value of creating movies filled with money-making miniatures.  And just as the gas companies won’t seriously address alternative fuel making until every last ounce of oil is drained from the earth, toy companies won’t give up future landfill until the last plastic tree has been chopped down.

In their defense, what are they supposed to do?  Would you turn your back on a fortune?  Why should a studio?  Let’s face it, we’re going to be a product-driven life form until the planet won’t spin due to the extra weight.

On a recent press junket the theme of our eco-predicament was brought up to each of the interviewees.  Now, either studio chieftains gave them the word to downplay that theme, or, and I believe this, the makers actually meant to tell a story of love, not send a directive.

Writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story) faced a cynical crowd with the enthusiasm of a high schooler who had just made his first touchdown.  Addressing this question, he responded with, “I don’t have a political bent and I don’t have an ecological message to push.  Everything I wanted to do was based on the love story.

“The theme has to do with irrational love defeating life’s programming.  I felt it was a perfect metaphor for real life.  We all fall into our habits and routines and they are used quite often consciously or unconsciously to avoid living.  To avoid having to do the messy part of having relationships or dealing with a person next to us.  That’s why we can all be in a room on our cell phones and not have to deal with one another.

“I was reminded of those dandelions that push through the sidewalk.  Reality is forcing its way through all this manmade material to exist.  That’s Wall•E.  He’s this manmade object that somehow has more of a desire to live than the rest of the universe.  I felt like he was meeting himself.  It ended up being a great symbol of hope.

“Everything I did was in reverse.  I had to go with trash because I loved what it did to my main character and it’s very clear.  Then I went backwards from that.  I asked myself, why would there be too much trash.  Well, we bought too much stuff.  It was easy to show that without having to explain it with dialogue.  It was fun being satirical.”

So, while we viewed the film’s consumerism smack with a smirk, the main maker explained that it was a love story.  And he wasn’t alone.

Ben Burtt, sound designer and voice of Wall•E, supported his boss’s position.  “It’s a romantic story, almost a Buster Keaton story, with a lonely character left alone on a desert island with an exotic female entering the scene and he falls in love with her and chases her back to the big city.  That was always the driving storyline.  The world that was set up, with the demise of civilization through commercialization and lack of exercise was the setting, the science fiction part of the story.  But the emphases was not put on that.”

And co-star of Curb You Enthusiasm and voice of Wall•E’s Captain, completed the alibi, “the message of the movie to me is love conquers all.  It’s really that simple.  Their love changes the world.  Concerning the conservation aspect, the thing that people love that destroys the world is money.  Everyone digs money.  Money’s great.  But the obsession with money and not worrying how you’re getting it, that’s the problem. Every day you have to ask, how am I contributing?  For some it’s how much money am I making?  That’s how they define themselves.  That to me leads to pollution.  Anyway, that’s my theory.”

The defense rests.  You the jury will decide if there is a cover message and/or if it is valid.

By the way, there’s this really cool Wall•E U-Command robot with infrared remote control I just gotta have…We’re doomed.