Yes, yes, just as other critics have told you, the robot Wall*E is Chaplinesque: a tramp, rusted, scruffy and lovable, all wide eyes and pratfalls and unchecked sentiment. Every gesture is equally funny and heartbreakingly sad: his earnest mimickry of human behavior, learned from a treasured, studied VHS copy of a long forgotten bit of cultural detritus, Gene Kelly’s film adaptation of Hello, Dolly! Sitting on a bench, he earnestly swings his wheel-tracks and pats the space next to him trying to coax the comely iPod-reminiscent robot Eve (voice of Elissa Knight) to his side. He charmingly dances to “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” using a trash lid as a porkpie hat. When frightened, he collapses into a little box like a turtle. He collects the most curious and ornamental remnants of human civilization, like the little mermaid Ariel before him. He is an immaculately executed character, a necessarily endearing emcee to what is at times the grimmest American comedy in years.
Because as much as Wall*E is Chaplinesque, he is also the Chaplin of the 1930s, the one who, awash in cultural and financial capital, decided to expend it on a pair of politically engaged problem films, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. How one feels about those two will likely correlate with how one appreciates Wall*E, which I don’t need to tell you is the latest film from computer-animation standard bearers Pixar, a sci-fi allegory of a future earth abandoned and ravaged by the excesses of late capitalism and a robot whose malfunctioned tendency toward human curiosity is the engine for a sea change in humanity’s regard for their home planet. Like its forebears, it is preachy, sanctimonious, and, coming from parent company Disney, more than a bit hypocritical in its targets: an overly consumptive and blithely complacent culture created by convenience technology and multinational corporations. It is nevertheless a blisteringly intelligent and necessary satire of American attitudes, a moving love story, and Pixar’s most unique film to date. As much as I would love to equivocate about the film’s reification of gender (yes, the robots have genders, even though the closest they desire to sexual contact is hand-holding) or its satirical barbs at the overstimulated, grotesquely obese humans who lazily populate the spaceship Axiom, a Guy Debord hell of flashing screens and corporate fascism, I find it hard to do so. Its successes are simply too overwhelming.