A movie like WALL-E serves as a reminder that "they don't make 'em like they used to" can be either wrong or misguided. Wrong because WALL-E is a triumph of straight-up storytelling - visual storytelling no less - with an emphasis on characters, the clever creation of an imaginative world, and a very human heart (despite its ostensibly inhuman characters, two robots engaged in a tentative romance alongside an attempt to save the hapless human race from its lethargy). And the statement may be misguided because WALL-E achieves these things, despite its multitude of references to Hollywood classics of about 30 years ago, by tying itself very firmly to contemporary social and aesthetic ideas: the iGleam of Eve, the perfectly-timed "green" message (which might have come off as preachy 10 years ago but now seems merely sensible), the amusing but resonant gender role reversal (it's Eve who's knowing, aggressive, and unsentimental, while WALL-E is a soft-hearted, shy sweetheart).
So then, WALL-E is proof that modern-day classics can be made without twisting narrative into a pretzel or abandoning the pleasing conventions of entertainment for glib pyrotechnics - yet it's also perfectly relevant for today's world, topical in a way that does not seem to impact its timelessness. Either they do make 'em like they used to, or they don't need to, right? Problem solved? Not quite. The problem is twofold: that the WALL-Es of the movie world are so rare (and most of them are released by Pixar), and that so few movies correctly strike the balance between modern relevance and a mooring in the well-founded traditions of storytelling and artistic expression. There are moments in this film which approach sublimity, an iconic status rarely achieved since the heyday of Lucas and Spielberg, much-maligned auteurs who nonetheless tapped into a universality of Hollywood expressionism that has rarely been accessed since. The shots of WALL-E's binocular googly eyes as he longingly regards Eve belong in the pantheon with the great, humanizing close-ups stretching from Griffith to Garbo to the creature who seems most directly related to WALL-E in both physical shape and vocal intonation - E.T.
Alongside that extraterrestrial's influence, the impact of 2001 (musically quoted at a key moment) and Star Wars is indelible. And no wonder, as legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (who created R2D2's beeps and the flourishs of a thousand lightsabers) lent his talents to Pixar for this adventure. Yet all the comparisons and influences are misleading: WALL-E stands on its own two treads by soaking up the legends of the past and then subsuming them to its own directive. In so many ways, WALL-E shines like a beacon in our own trashy, small-minded, often nihilistic cinematic landscape. There's the sweet (and ironic) humanism - even the sludgy, dumpy people are presented as kind hearted. Also the reliance on visual storytelling as opposed to comedic talkiness, hip indie gimmickry, or blockbuster one-off set pieces (the film's computer animation feels organic and its narrative unfolds fluidly). Finally, there's an overarching, contagious love of creativity, imagination for its own sake. A freshness suffuses the proceedings, particularly manifested in the end credits, which chronicle the rebirth of human/robotic civilization with a progression through various artistic styles, from cave drawings through Egyptian hieroglyphs all the way to impressionism and finally a breathtaking Van Gogh landscape. The optimism and heady aestheticism of this passage are intoxicating - an ear-to-ear grin being the only possible outcome. I wouldn't say WALL-E is the best film of the decade, but it's certainly the best popular entertainment, and at this uncertain moment in movie history that may be most important.