No, it wasn’t a nightmare. I was surrounded by jive-ass talking cartoon animals, and so were you.
The dictum of great animation is that it gives us something a straightforward film cannot. It can show us visions that would be impossible in reality, if not just ridiculous looking. Animation affords an instant degree of suspension of reality, that magical bit of stuff that allows us to empathize with photos projected in succession. It’s an unwritten pact between the maker of those images and the person who spent $10+ for the ticket — take me out of reality for an hour and a half. For many years that pact has been, if not broken, arguably fudged and cheated. It’s the only way I can explain 2005’s Madagascar, 2006’s The Wild and Over the Hedge, this summer’s Kung Fu Panda, and even the upcoming CG-tweaked horror of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. It’s as if the studios all gave up writing and just agreed to make animals yammer and yap for a couple decades.
Pixar, the little CG studio that could, wasn’t immune either. In their defense they were able to work the worlds of insects (1998’s A Bug’s Life), fish (2003’s Finding Nemo), and culinary rats (2007’s Ratatouille) with a lot more finesse and intelligence than their competitors, in both the visual sense and the sheer commitment to story. Fortunately I didn’t get railroaded by hippos, rhinos, roaches, cats, dogs, and amoeba spouting the latest catchphrase in pop culture, rapping, or other such unforgivable acts, and I didn’t have bovine herds congratulating one of their own with “You go, cow girl!” Pixar always seemed intent to keep the fauna among themselves. Regardless, there were still talking animals.
This year, however, they put a new wrinkle in the playbook. With WALL-E, Pixar has taken its position as the king of the mountain straight into the stratosphere. We’ve had cartoon robots before, though. We’ve had punk ‘bots in all manner of cinema. We’ve had Johnny 5, for crying out loud. But WALL-E, in absolute rebellion to the way things have been done for so long, hardly talks at all. Aside from his name, “Eee-vah,” and the occasional “Ohh!,” the character speaks only in beeps and whirs, yet there’s no room for miscommunication here. Pixar’s artists have found ways to imbue their characters with as much pantomime expression as any classic silent-film star, and the story department has made it possible for even tired old gags and plot turns to seem fresh and worth emotional investment. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has essentially made the movie of the summer, a potent commentary about our consumer society, a love-conquers-all parable, and a flat-out beautiful night at the movies.
It also choked up yours truly, just a little bit.
Now that I’ve said all that, I await the backlash. It’s real. It’s happening. Last week saw the debut of Will Smith’s summertime entry, Hancock, a story about an alcoholic superhero and his PR agent. The critics met the film with sharpened knives; go check Rotten Tomatoes for the synopsis. At a pitiful 36% combined rating, the film should’ve been dead in the water. But “should’ve been” isn’t “is,” because the movie blasted through all box office expectations, including those of the studio that released it, Sony/Columbia. Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that Hancock is entertaining for exactly what it is — a vehicle that allows Will Smith to do what he does best and for Charlize Theron to look hot. (Nobody confronts another person, as Theron does in the film, with that much cleavage happening. I’ve desperately longed for that world, but it simply doesn’t exist.) The other part of the reason is that opening weekends have become a fashion statement.
Think about it. There are sunglasses that signify us as cool, a clothing line that links us to a social ethic, a tune with a big, booty-shaking beat that rocks our ringtone, a new haircut, a waistline … and the newest movie at the multiplex. It explains how it’s become nearly impossible for a flick to stay in the number-one slot two weekends in a row. It is in some odd way terribly uncool to go see Prince Caspian this late in the game. Indiana Jones has expired. Maxwell Smart had his day in the sun and, I suppose, so has WALL-E, supplanted by this week’s style, and next week’s, and the week after that. In a climate where it’s as much about being in the picture with the winning horse as it’s about watching the horse race, criticism is virtually pointless. So what if you, dear sir or madam, hated Hancock, thought the Sanford and Son scene was crude and tasteless (those who saw the film know what I’m talking about), and warned America to avoid the thing like a mold-flecked sandwich? America avoided your opinion because opinions are like the crux of the Sanford and Son scene, and besides, we were told to go see Hancock and we do what we’re told, right?
Sort of. Again, while I enjoyed it for what it was, WALL-E is the film I can’t get out of my head and was the film I saw a second time, uncool as that may seem. It’s a big film with a global idea and a small film about love and companionship rolled into one. It’s incredible to look at. It’s possibly my number one for 2008; it deserves all the kudos it’s getting and ought to be considered for next February’s big prize (wouldn’t that be historic?). Lastly, there ain’t a furry talking nothin’ to be found during its run time, and for that I am extremely grateful.