Animation as an art form has always seemed purest when it’s wordless. Not exactly its best, or most popular, or most deep, but the most quintessential examples rely exclusively on the images and motion to tell their story, without any speech or text to assist.
Different animators have taken various inspirations from the rest of the art world with their wordless animations: Walt Disney’s early work took inspiration from newspaper comics and kids’ pantomimes, while Looney Tunes hit its stride when its style turned from contemporary musical to classical opera (this is mostly metaphorical, though there’s a reason “What’s Opera, Doc?” consistently tops best-of-the-best lists).
Pixar, the closest an animation studio has ever really gotten to becoming a prestige filmmaker, takes their language from modern cinema. Their most powerful wordless sequences – Remy’s tiny, acrobatic perspective on cooking, Mr. Incredible’s super-strong midlife crisis, the immortal opening of Up – are more cinematic than a lot of animation, with relatively little exaggerated motion, a blend of timescales and locations within the same chronological sequence, and the emotion being driven by the lighting and sound.
It’s worth mentioning this before we get to Wall-E, which isn’t only my favorite Pixar movie, but by far their most wordless. Of the seven or so major characters in the story, only three can speak more than a couple words at a time, and this is never really a bad thing: It’s a movie about humans who can talk and robots who can’t, but this state is never painted as a problem by the story. We don’t get usual hallmarks of robot stories like existential angst or remixes of Frankenstein, since Pixar built its empire on empathizing with the inhuman and the subhuman (playthings, vermin, creatures, and so forth), so the interplay between humanity and its wordless creations tends toward the awed or the amused.
Luckily, awe and amusement are two of the things Pixar’s cinematic brand of wordless storytelling is best at. Wall-E starts with a slow, quiet montage of the title character’s life, a sanitation robot on a lifeless Earth choked by garbage. We’re constantly seeing wide views of the environment, showing just how alone, how insignificant the titular robot is, and how incalculably vast his task to clean the world up must be. Even closer shots are framed in piles of trash – subconsciously, we know it’s permeated everything.
This driven, purposeful solitude, with Wall-E going about his trash-compacting business every day, allows a baseline that can turn things from bleak to poignant to silly in a moment – the music here is very string-heavy, and there’s a big contrast between the same instrument plucked and bowed (Hey, such different tones from the same equipment, get it?). We get a lot of bowing whenever we see Wall-E’s living situation: A rusty, boxy truck on a long-fallen highway bridge, filled with hundreds of impersonal cubbyholes, each of them used for another robot like him. Since he’s the only one left, we see he’s put all the extra space to use amassing quite the collection of salvage: Each kind of item neatly sorted like the wall of a candy store, particularly useful or interesting things assembled into a cozy little room for Wall-E to relax before he powers off for the night, retreating into the little cube part of his body like the slow, lonely turtle of a machine he is.
Wall-E’s life isn’t routine – no life is, really – but it is predictable, and since this is a movie it turns unpredictable straight away. Quite out of nowhere a spaceship lands, carrying a mysterious visitor. Now, the Pixar formula gets almost as much discussion these days as The Pixar Theory,1 but there’s a reason that the idea of two contrasting figures who are forced together is such a reliable idea for a visual-forward story, especially in terms of character design. The visitor isn’t an alien, but EVE, another robot, who’s consciously designed to be the exact opposite of Wall-E in every respect: Curves to his sharp angles, subtle cool lights to his peeling, rusted hazard markers, and such a contrast to the utilitarian, obviously mechanical Wall-E that she was designed by the same guy who thought up the iPod.
EVE is even more obscure of a character than Wall-E – she’s very deliberately an enigma to him for a long time – but she’s both more hardened and more naive than him. She’s been programmed for a specific purpose, and didn’t have untold centuries to find other things to do, so she’s alternately callously focused on her mysterious directives and fascinated by the world Wall-E takes for granted. Her penchant for destruction – toppling towers, exploding piles – sums up this dichotomy, because it’s her main way of interacting with the world, but she always does it out of a sense of duty.
EVE brings a change to look of the world around her, not just Wall-E himself: Scenes with her tend toward the colorful, shadowy magic hour, where before Wall-E always worked in the baking, smog-choked sun or storming, lonely night. It renews how beautiful but lifeless this world is, how the focal point of EVE means there’s nothing left to keep Wall-E there, not even the job he was programmed for. When Wall-E’s collection turns out to have just what EVE was looking for, she goes back to space. So that’s how the naive, white-shelled product of a strictly controlled spaceborne order ends up going back to the stars, thanks to their new friend, the dirty, lonely, begoggled scavenger with an unrequited need for both purpose and companionship.
Oh, wait, was I talking about The Force Awakens there, or Wall-E? Yes, yes I was.
At any rate, Wall-E and EVE find their way from his world to hers – The Axiom, a luxury cruise ship that’s turned relatively seamlessly into being a generation ship, although that’s about the only kind of generation that happens here. Neither the humans or the robots have any room in their lives to find the same kind of variety in their life that Wall-E has, since the latter spend all their time carefully sculpting the lives of the babied, childlike former. The shipbound robots are all somewhere between Wall-E and EVE in their design style: Too heavily used to have EVE’s stylishness, to expensive and high-tech to have Wall-E’s rusty charm.
Internet writer and Star Trek guru Chuck Sonnenburg once observed that the Borg Collective are “Both communism and capitalism taken to the intersection of their worst extremes” – each individual doesn’t just become another tooth in a great gear, but another tooth in a voracious, all-consuming mouth. That particular fusion of man and machine in outer space forms an interesting contrast to the mixed society of the Axiom, especially visually: Borg ships are designed with an emphasis on complexity, with the flat gray detailing going to deep that the first few ships were built by gluing on every tiny piece of plastic they had in the workshop. Everything on this ship is much smoother: Monochrome or in neutrally inoffensive colors, simple and contoured, easy to read, easy to identify…just easy.
This isn’t a Mad Max kind of bad future; there is no angry cry of “Who killed the world?” As Wall-E would have it, the answer here is just “an understandable, regrettable, but complete abdication of responsibility” – laziness on both a physical and intellectual level, in other words. The ship’s captain serves as a microcosm of this struggle, wanting to do everything he can to help Wall-E and EVE from the moment he learns of their existence, but stifled by the fact that there’s so little he’s able to do, because it was easier that way. The pivotal moment of his character isn’t him rising up dramatically to take command of the ship, it’s him going on a Wiki-binge, surrounded by all the trinkets from his captain’s office we can tell he’s noticing in a way he never had, reconstructing humanity’s long struggle and its accomplishments from his position where he’s never known struggle or accomplishment.
Since the rest of the actual plot takes place on the spaceship, there’s not a huge amount to discuss visually – the famous dancing in space sequence and the less-well-remembered “pit of Hades” sequence are perfect summations of the movie’s philosophy, both thematically and visually. Note how having escaped his world of trash, Wall-E’s vision of hell is just a boundless, lightless garbage dump, something that both iterated on a more metaphorical sequence in Toy Story 2, and laid the groundwork for the famous incinerator sequence, in the third movie of the same series
Wall-E escapes back to the ship, though, and eventually finds the perfect way to bring life back to both worlds: Bring them together. Both humans and their robots to work, reclaiming the work they left behind, bringing two whole classes of beings together doing the same work that Wall-E tried to do all on his own. It’s a new beginning for understanding and comprehension, and that journey i illustrated through one of the greatest end credit sequences of all time: A reconstruction of the history of visual art itself. Wall-E isn’t just a sublime visual story, it uses the art itself as the yardstick for the totality of the world’s development.