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Finding the Middle Ground: Pixar’s Wall-E

Wall-E and Eve
More than a year of Ekostories and not a single mention of Wall-E? You must think I hold some sort of vindictive grudge against cute robots. The truth is that I love Wall-E. It is a lovingly crafted tale that hits all the right notes, a rare gem that effortlessly exudes charm to audiences young and old, and represents Pixar at the height of their craft as storytellers.

But Wall-E’s broad appeal makes an analysis tricky. It’s easy to see the film as simply “a kid’s movie” and to dismiss any merits its narrative may contain. It’s also easy to view it as just an “issues movie”, a pointed critique of the obesity epidemic or of consumerist culture. Such a superficial examination reduces the movie to bite-size messages: Don’t trash the world. Technology is bad. People are lazy.

If that was a fair assessment of Wall-E, there would be no point in exploring it. I am not interested in narratives with such shallow roots that they can be summarized into tidy little statements; these types of parables preach to the choir and are dismissed by others. I believe Wall-E is deeper and deserves better. In this entry, I’ll explain how for me, Wall-E is also about fulfilling one’s potential and of finding the middle ground in all things.

Work and Play: Finding the Balance of the Good Life

WALL-E Working to Dig you out

When we are first introduced to Wall-E, he has been going about his routine of compressing and stacking trash day after day for over seven centuries. He is the last of his kind; all the other robots of his make have broken down, having worked themselves into oblivion. These other units knew nothing but work, did not change, did not grow, did not adapt.  As a result, they wore themselves out and became scrap.

At the other extreme, the humans aboard the Axiom in the second half of the movie knew nothing but leisure. With their every whim catered to, they became blissfully ignorant of the greater world around them. Like the generic Wall-E’s, there is a gross imbalance in their lives. All work and all play resulted in neither being challenged in their everyday existence; neither group realized their full potential.

Wall-E Hoverchairs Technology

Wall-E stands as a stark contrast to both his counterparts and the humans. Unlike his fellow trash compactors, Wall-E grew curious, creative, and resourceful over the centuries. These traits enabled him to not only survive by adapting and cannibalizing parts from other units, but also to thrive in his own way in a bleak world. His job provides him with some meaning and purpose, but while he finds tremendous satisfaction in it, he is not only his work. Growing beyond his programming and his routines, he has also cultivated a sort of home life, forging sentimental attachments to his collected treasures and to an indestructible cockroach companion. His job has not eroded his ability for wonder, and the balance he achieves between the two spheres of his life has presumably kept him operational (and relatively sane) over the centuries.
Wall-E's Home and Treasures

To me, the film seems to suggest that the good life lies in finding the middle ground between meaningful work and stimulating play. Even before being whisked away by Eve on an adventure, Wall-E seemed to have figured things out. By the end of the movie, helps others discover that balance for themselves.

Question:

  • Where do you stand on the work/play spectrum? Are you comfortable with that balance in your life?

On Human Potential

Wall-E Captain vs Auto

I found the depiction of Wall-E’s human characters fascinating. Far from an indictment of humanity’s frailty and laziness, Wall-E portrays the people aboard the Axiom in an inherently optimistic fashion. Even after centuries of what is essentially domestication, humans are shown to simply need a nudge in order to embark on a journey of self-actualization and personal growth. When Wall-E’s escapades aboard the Axiom introduce chaos and unpredictability into John and Mary’s lives, they awaken quickly to discover the beauty of their world and each other’s companionship. The captain is understandably wary and initially fearful of the news that Eve has discovered life on Earth, but his curiosity drives him to explore, learn, and grow in knowledge and character. Once there was awareness of something new and challenging, the status quo was no longer sufficient for him. During the final confrontation with Auto, the captain displays ingenuity, creativity, and courage to trick and oppose the AI in hopes of a new future, exclaiming  that he doesn’t simply want to survive, but also wants to live.

I find the film’s portrayal of humanity to be a tremendously hopeful one. Each life we are born anew along with the possibility for change. Given the opportunity, we all have within us the irrepressible ability to grow and fulfill our potential.

Technologies of Oppression and Liberation

Of course, one of the major themes of Wall-E revolves around the use of technology. What is refreshing about the film is that it recognizes that technology itself is not inherently evil or oppressive. Even Auto, the chief antagonist, is not a typical evil villain; it was simply attempting to accomplish the objectives left behind by its creators.

The problem aboard the Axiom is one of overreliance. Over the centuries, humans came to rely on the ship’s technology for every facet of their lives; this multi-generational dependence was built into the very fabric of society. Unfortunately, this dependency hindered their ability to fulfill their own potential; it kept them placid and oblivious to the world around them. It was literally all they knew until Wall-E jolted them out of their routines. The movie seems to hint at the dangers of allowing anything to rob one of the opportunity to discover new challenges and seek out ways to grow, whether that be an overly protective nanny state or succumbing wholly to the lures of technology (both of which are portrayed in the film). I see this call for moderation in all things as an idea that can resonate with people from both the left and the right.

Then there is the conclusion:

The sequence is far from a simple credit scroll; it actually rounds out the movie with a stunning series of illustrations of different artstyles that depict humans slowly rebuilding civilization on earth. As the scenes unfold, we see human beings relearning how to live in balance with the world. But Wall-E does not reject the advantages of life afforded by the technologies of the Axiom, nor does it espouse the virtues of a pre-technological subsistence lifestyle. (Unlike some popular science fiction stories). Instead, each scene has humans working side by side with robots, starting fires, drilling for water, planting crops, hauling fish, and constructing buildings.

Wall-E Fishing Ending

The ending of Wall-E emphasizes integration rather than exclusion; it seeks to find the middle ground, a third path, instead of choosing between nature or technology. The people of Wall-E seemed to have learned from the mistakes of the past to not mindlessly exploit and pollute their environment. At the same time,  the end scenes show people utilizing technology in thoughtful ways to make life easier and more productive. With robots play a pivotal role in the work of rebuilding civilization, humanity’s relationship with technology transforms from one of  benign oppression aboard the Axiom to a balanced partnership.  Through this depiction, Wall-E provides a balanced vision of hope for our own future interaction with technology.

Conclusion

Finally, I see Wall-E as a story of how an outsider, removed from convention and tradition, can disrupt and challenge the status quo and bring about needed change on a personal and societal level. An everyman who finds himself in way over his head, Wall-E simply acts out of love, doing what he can. He did not seek out to enact change, but his actions and sacrifices move and inspire others around him to act and grow in ways that ultimately make themselves better. It is yet another powerful form of invisible leadership I wrote of in a previous post.

Potential and growth. Balance and integration. Love and inspiration.  These are some of the ideas I took away from Wall-E. A kid’s movie? A green flick? Perhaps, but it is not only those things. For me, it is also a nuanced, meaningful, and boundlessly optimistic Ekostory.

Wall-E stargazing

Next Up: A journey outward and inward.

Related Ekostories:

Images from Wall-E © 2008 Disney Pixar. All rights reserved.

14 Comments

  1. Well, that’s the power of a well-made film. You don’t have to beat people over the head with a message if a theme is already obvious. I appreciate your assessment of this film. I also enjoyed it. I hope people did not dismiss it as merely a “film for kids” as if that designation made it a lesser life form than say a movie for adults. The folks at Pixar seem to make their movies for all ages and seem to consider all ages worthy of stellar content.

    • I think the “that’s a kid’s story” is used far too often to dismiss the quality of a narrative far too often. I mentioned this in my last essay that writing for children is not easy; a good children’s story endures and has a surprising shelf life.

    • I’m actually not fan of their reliance on sequels nowadays though. I think they were at their best when exploring new stories with fresh characters.

  2. The very best art for children, whether books or film or whatever, is every bit as good for an adult audience as for its target audience. For me the books of William Steig (especially Dominic and Abel’s Island) are another great example of this, although there are so many great examples.

    I love this exploration of Wall-E’s meaning and love the nuances that you have teased out in this piece. I think you helped explain for me why I love Wall-E so much.

    • It’s such an easy movie to love, isn’t it? Thanks for reading.

      I just looked up Abel’s Island; It sounds excellent and I will definitely check it out.

  3. It was a pleasure reading your thoughts on this movie, I definitely see the movie in a different light. I especially enjoy the part about the end credits (I really enjoy the song) telling a story of humans and robots working together to achieve a life that allows humans to live with nature, while still utilizing the benefits of technology, it’s a future that has become so distant and almost inconceivable thanks to current trends in media, it’s hard to imagine such a world.

    • Glad to hear that you enjoyed the piece, Ethan. I’m all for trying to find the third option, one that is not going about the status quo (going along with the use of technology without forethought) or reverting to the past in hopes of a simpler time (through outright rejection of anything technological), but rather taking the best ideas of both worlds to use technology appropriately to forge an engaging and hopeful path forward. Understanding the past is crucial for helping us understand the future, but we need not dwell there.

  4. Issac, this is an exquisite review of a movie that my daughter and I love. You also pointed-out a few things which initially evaded my perceptions. So glad I had a look at Freshly Pressed, today, and found you. I’m very much enjoying everything I’ve read here. Congratulations! on being Freshly Pressed, and my personal “Thanks” to the editors!

    • The best thing about the attention is that I get to engage in dialogue with new people. Thank you for your readership, and I hope you come back.

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  6. Technology is not bad & does not necessarily lead to obesity, purposelessness & the destruction of our environment. In fact, I hope that technology (with enough advancement) solves our scarcity problem one day so we don’t have to fight over resources or work to live, but instead focus on creative endeavours, further technological progress & achieve higher purposes in our existence.

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