This past weekend, The Gryphon and I saw WALL·E, the newest Pixar animated feature. I loved it, especially since it reminded me of one of my favorite comedians.
As others have mentioned, the film is practically silent, with minimal dialogue. It focuses on two robots: WALL·E, a garbage management robot, left behind to clean up earth; and a fancy new robot, EVE, sent to Earth on a classified mission.
As I watched it, I couldn't help thinking how much it reminded me of a Charlie Chaplin film. First of all, take WALL·E, the lovable tramp who's little, run-down and funny-looking but finds a whimsical beauty in the world around him. He falls for a taller, more graceful robot, the equivalent of, say, Edna Purviance in Chaplin's early films. At first, she seems completely unachievable, but much like Edna in all the Chaplin shorts, she appreciates beauty, as well, and soon is won over by his gentle charm.
Typical of a Chaplin film, whether it's a short or The Gold Rush, or the later classic, Modern Times, our little tramp must face challenges, going up against the societal forces that try to tear him apart from his newfound love. To achieve this goal, he must leave his comfortable environment and take risks, finding within himself a bravery that even larger robots might not possess. Think of Chaplin standing up to burly toughs in The Gold Rush, or Chaplin confronting injustice and taking a stand for the little man in Modern Times.
Counterpointing the romance and societal commentary, the movie makes great use of slapstick, which is impressive given that WALL·E is essentially a rolling trash compactor. WALL·E's face is remarkable expressive, due to the independent function of his two eye pieces, which can produce a variety of facial expressions. But his actions are both in keeping with his physical limitations and hilariously human. This shouldn't be a surprise: Pixar is a master of imbuing inanimate objects with human characteristics. Think of the classic early Pixar shorts featuring a desk lamp, which now serves as the company logo.
Just like Chaplin, at times WALL·E is fearful, and might hide in plain sight by standing still and putting something on top of his head (like Chaplin with a lampshade). At other times, he is mischievous, acting up in the face of authority, literally booting people with his tire treads in classic Chaplin form.
As any Chaplin fan knows, his comedy went beyond the artistry of his slapstick or even the expressiveness of his acting. His films, whether they were shorts or features, always focused on good storytelling. That's what Pixar does especially well and why they continue to be a force in the animated world. Even with characters whose vocabulary consists of a handful of words, said with different intonations for different meanings, we get a sense for the personalities of these characters. Through action and minimal dialogue, they create a richly textured world and tell a sweet, if cautionary, tale.
The best Chaplin films also contained a societal critique, whether it was an examination of homelessness and disability, as in City Lights, or international political commentary, as in The Great Dictator. His films always contained observations about who we were as a people, with the Little Tramp was an everyman, navigating those issues from an outsider's position.
In much the same way, WALL·E is at home in his junk-strewn world, but when he follows his beloved into space, he encounters a foreign world which evokes aspects of our modern culture: rampant consumerism, mindless conformity and a throwaway society. As he treads through this world, leaving his distinctive mark as he goes ("foreign contaminant," one robot grouses as it follows him, cleaning up his oily tracks), he shows us a path for finding the beauty around us and shaping a better world through cooperation and optimism.
WALL·E is destined to become a classic. No matter what happens in our society, this simple, well-told story, like the best works of Charlie Chaplin, will continue to move us, inspire us and make us smile.
Charlie Chaplin in City Lights
Beauty can come from the most surprising sources.