Given that I have a 7 year old, my intake of kid movies has spiked in the last ½ dozen years. And while there are certainly some good family films coming out (I really liked Madagascar and Over the Hedge), I approach each new release with a certain amount of dread. There’s just a numbing sameness to them all. I had heard the hype on Wall-E, and though skeptical going in, I must say that for once the hype was well deserved. Wall-E was really awesome and what makes Wall-E stand out is, dare I say, the language of cinema. There is a sophistication at play not normally found in kid movies of the day. The first half of the film conjures up the ghost of great silent cinema and the slapstick of Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and the like. The first 20 minutes of the film take place on a post-apocalyptic earth and consists only of Wall-E and a cockroach. In other words, no dialogue. That alone is unbelievable for a kid’s film in this day and age. And Wall-E doesn’t fill this silence with contemporary pop schlock. The story is allowed to unfold through character observation, non-verbal communication, facial gestures, body language and the like. Nobody is burping the ABCs to get a laugh. This sort of quietude is rarely seen in kid’s films and is a welcome relief to a landscape that is normally cluttered with fast-talking, wisecracking animal buddies. The fact that the story works based on physical comedy and interaction between the characters is a true testament to how far animation has come in recent years.
Weeks before seeing Wall-E, I had the pleasure of seeing Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime on the big screen. I walked out of that screening thinking that Playtime was the greatest slapstick, silent movie ever made, which is a funny thought given that it’s not particularly slapstick, no is it silent. In fact, sound plays a crucial role in Playtime, but not in a conventional dialogue-driven way. The sound design of Playtime is an elaborate multi-language choreography, though for the most part, the content of the dialogue is superfluous. It’s enough to know that the characters are communicating, but it’s their gestures, actions, and the scenarios themselves, rather than the dialogue that drives the plot. The first half of Wall-E functions in the same way. When Wall-E and the space probe Eve first meet, they try to find a common language. They speak in tongues and can’t communicate, but the audience fully buys into the drama and comedy that result. No dialogue needed.
Though there are direct references to 2001 and Brazil, Playtime is perhaps a greater touchstone for Wall-E. And, given Playtime’s consumerist critique it’s not a far stretch to think of these films in a similar light given that Wall-E has a similar social conscience.
What’s most encouraging is that kids and adults both seemed to love this movie. Kids had no trouble following this more subtle type of film language. I’m not surprised because my kid has been watching silent films for years and Buster Keaton is his favorite film star. But it’s nice to see Pixar taking a chance on this kind of language and getting the critical and box office response that it did.
Like I say, there are a lot of good kid’s films out there, but I’m hoping that Wall-E shows you can break from the formula and still put the little butts in the seats.