[C]reativity and self-destruction are sides of the same coin. So A. O. Scott says in his review of Wall-E in the New York Times (27 June 2008), a statement that sums up the themes of a movie that I—most ashamedly—had never heard of until recently. My four-year-old granddaughter Irene, whom I sometimes call the Princess, brought it to my attention.
She and her nine-year-old brother Nathan came to visit for a few days to allow their parents a couple of nights away. Alone. A breather. As parents of four, they needed it, and we were happy to see these two children.
There isn’t much to do in Mississippi in July, especially when it’s either 100 degrees and the humidity tops out above 90%, or it’s raining—we had both kinds of days—so we had lots of inside activities: computer games (there are some great preschool games available for the iPad) and board games like Connect Four (Irene likes to “play herself”; that way she wins every time) and Candyland, reading, making “books” and frozen yogurt pops and writing songs with GarageBand (a Nathan thing, along with a game called Marble Blast; he bested his fifteen-year-old brother’s record score), and watching movies.
The highlight of their stay probably was an excursion to Target where each was allowed to choose a toy, Grandmother’s treat. The Princess chose a Rapunzel crown and necklace with magical lights and sounds—naturally. What else would a princess choose? Nathan went for a difficult LEGO set he put together in about an hour. The kid is a genius.
I didn’t give much thought to the fact that consumerism was at the heart of the grandchildren’s entertainment until we watched a movie that night. Wall-E brought me up short.
The Princess can be persistent. She is beautiful, loving, and precocious. She’s a flirt. She wants what she wants when she wants it. She kept nagging to watch this “Wally” movie, and finally, not knowing exactly what we were getting into, my husband and I gave in. I figured I’d keep a cursory eye on the movie and do something else while I snuggled with her, like catch up on email. The brother opted out of watching; he’d seen it many times, he said.
Irene described the movie as the story of a poor little robot left behind on earth after everybody else had been carried off on a huge spaceship but a nice robot named Eve comes and . . .
“Sh,” we said.
So we settled in with the four-year-old to watch. As it opened and we saw the bleak landscape and abandoned skyscrapers that seemed made of compacted garbage, my husband said, “Oh great. A dystopian movie for kids.” We prepared ourselves for a long hour and a half, but we quickly changed our minds. We were drawn in, stunned by the powerful animation and images of that silent, empty world.
Wall-E, done by Pixar in 2008 and winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2009, is a typical Pixar movie, exceptional for its animation and brilliant special effects. But this isn’t a kids’ movie. It transcends generations. Granted, four-year-old Irene followed and understood the basic plot (and gave us a running narration throughout; my husband tried to explain to her what a “spoiler” is). She understood the underlying emotion: the love that develops between rusty little Wall-E, the scrap-heap, left-behind, outdated-technology robot whose job it is to collect garbage, and Eve, the high-tech, powerful, sleek, oval beauty sent to earth by the surviving generation of human beings from their “home” aboard a massive spaceship. Eve seeks evidence that life is now sustainable on earth, after hundreds of years of no humans.
The two robots are an unlikely pair, and the subtleties of their communication, their gestures and expressions and mechanical sounds that morph occasionally into recognizable words, are touching, lovely, amazing.
Irene gets what’s happening to them. We get it. But we grownups quickly understood that Wall-E is more than a quirky love story set against a post-apocalyptic backdrop.
A Slip of Green
In Wall-E the earth is a ghostly, desolate place. Everything alive—all human life and vegetation—is gone except for a mere slip of a green growing thing Wall-E finds as he goes about his programmed duties, sifting through the remains. The twist is that the world hasn’t been destroyed by nuclear weapons or an alien invasion. Human beings haven’t been killed off. It’s the earth that has “died,” destroyed by laziness and greed and over-consumption of her resources.
The little robot Wall-E, whose name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class, wanders the garbage heaps and rummages through them like a bag lady. He keeps his own sad little collection of cultural artifacts—a Rubik’s cube, a videotape of “Hello Dolly,” a light bulb, a Zippo lighter—stored in his “house,” an abandoned, warehouse-like space packed from floor to ceiling with trash: relics of a lost civilization.
Until Eve shows up, Wall-E’s only companion is an indestructible cockroach that follows him around like a puppy. Once Eve is dropped off by the “mother ship,” though, everything changes for Wall-E. At first Eve terrifies him. She reacts to whatever threatens her by destroying it. But Wall-E manages to communicate with her, and the rest—well, I’ll leave that for you to discover.
The surviving earthlings’ forefathers abandoned the planet they had turned into a massive garbage heap. Now, several generations removed from the original escapees from the ruined earth, the current survivors have become useless, shapeless gluttons. They are infantile creatures with round bellies and foreshortened limbs (due to lack of use) who exist in power chairs and have their every need supplied. As the story progresses, they seem eager to find evidence that life is still possible on earth so they can return, but how will they summon the energy and, most importantly, ignite their imaginations to make it happen?
Wall-E is a cautionary tale, a moral fable. A. O. Scott calls it an “ecological parable.” It’s one of those remarkable “kid” movies that stuns adults—at least it stunned my husband and me—with its vision and wisdom. It’s a profound wake-up call for us to realize that we are ruining our earth, squandering our precious resources, and piling up garbage as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
This movie is also about art and creativity and storytelling. These things too are necessary to save us. When we lose our love of the arts, when we lose our creativity and our imaginative energy and our ability to communicate through words and music and dance and the brush on canvas and all the other products of the human imagination, we are indeed lost.
I won’t tell you how the movie ends because I hope you’ll watch it, if you haven’t already. And if you have any young persons handy, watch it with them. This earth will be theirs to care for soon enough, won’t it?
Thanks, little Princess, for introducing your grandparents to this film. I hope you’ll remember its message always. Maybe your generation will be wiser than mine.
If you’ve seen Wall-E—or even if you haven’t—please leave a comment.
Gerry Wilson is a native Mississippian who grew up in the red clay hills of the north—Faulkner country. As a child, she spent many hours watching life unfold through the plate-glass windows of her father’s NAPA store. Her yen for storytelling began there.
For twenty-plus years she taught English and creative writing to high school students. Now retired, she aims to write full-time and resists distractions as much as possible. Besides writing for her blog, she writes short fiction (and sends it out!), and she’s currently revising her second novel, Spirit Lamp, a work of literary historical fiction. Her pursuit of the writerly life includes workshops with Ron Hansen, Dorothy Allison, Connie May Fowler, and Jane Hamilton. The first chapter of Spirit Lamp won the “Best Of” award in Ms. Hamilton’s novel workshop at Writers in Paradise, Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida (2011).
She has published short fiction in Prime Number, Good Housekeeping, Halfway Down the Stairs, Blue Crow, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. The first chapter of Spirit Lamp was published in theWriters in Paradise conference anthology Sabal 2011: Best of the Conference Workshops.
Gerry lives in Jackson, Mississippi. She is married to a retired college prof who’s a poet, fiction writer, and her very best reader. She’s the mother of four grown sons, grandmother of six—three boys and three girls—and step-grandmom to three more little boys, including a set of fraternal twins.
Visit Gerry’s blog at Gerry Wilson: The Writerly Life.