In the hands of any other studio, WALL-E would be unwatchable. The eco-tale would have been way too heavy-handed -- just another manifestation of our cultures' current passion for pretending to do things to save the planet. But, as it happens, this is a Pixar film, where story-telling is the number one mission, and the writers know that a mere moral is not the engine of compelling narrative. While WALL-E presents one of the most repulsive of dystopias I've ever come across, it doesn't seem to have any particular ax to grind. It tells the story, and lets the political and philosophical chips fall where they may. It is that innocence, that willingness to let the story lead us where it will, that charms me.
Had DreamWorks done this film, it would be stuffed with sly digs at current cultural figures -- we would be watching WALL-E doing impressions of George W. that he picked up from salvaged videotape. But WALL-E does not have an ironic circuit in his chassis. He doesn't despise the consumerist culture that has buried the planet in trash; rather, he marvels at the artifacts he finds, celebrating the mysteries of a Rubic's Cube, or the delight of popping bubble wrap. WALL-E loves this junk, because he senses the purpose and passions of the humanity that brought it about.
Nor does the movie vilify technology. (How could it, when its protagonists are technological wonders?) Robots are not the dehumanized, thoughtless powers of destruction, as two and a half decades of Terminator movies have taught us, but rather the builders and helpers we always wanted, as ingenious and limited as their creators. The robots, at least, have the virtues of diligence and faithfulness, a passion for the Directive. It's the humans who seem mindlessly mechanical, trapped in an endless cycle of virtual pseudo-pleasures. But even the people (always the villains of the eco-fable) are treated with gentleness and respect. For all of their ignorance and big-fat-slobdom, all the people are basically decent, sometimes even heroic, and instead of hating them for losing their humanity we find ourselves loving them for regaining it.
Having read several books about minds and machines lately (Pinker, Dennett, Hofstadter, etc.) I couldn't help but ponder over the lives of the robots. Pinker suggested that a truly intelligent robot would have to have something like emotions -- high-level, diffuse motivations -- to be able to function independently without direction. WALL-E seems to capture that vision of artificial intelligence quite well. The cleaning droid Mo doesn't just clean, he has a passion for cleaning, and the sight of WALL-E's dirty tracks excite such a furious need in him that he overcomes the other directives that usually keep confined to the flight deck. Eve doesn't just seek out life -- she is frustrated when she can't find it, overjoyed when she does find it, bitterly disappointed when she loses it. In the emotional lives of machines, we see the reflection of our own needs. People long for purpose, to strive for a goal, because without striving we are merely existing. I loved how the Captain of the Axiom saw the bleak cityscape of earth, and in spite of it said, "We have to go back." Life isn't living without struggle. To work is human.