June 27, 2008


I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

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Comments:
Animation has such an adult-oriented history too, which movie reviewers aren't aware of. Betty Boop, Tex Avery's burlesque obsession, Ralph Bakshi... you know...

This film sounds like a wonderful change of pace from what's been coming out lately. I'll have to see it ASAP.
I think I know why journalist-reviewers continue to mention how much kids will like animated films.

Public Service.

Media-types and their editors still consider themselves to be consumer information vehicles, when they review movies. Their readers will be bringing their kids to see the NEW G-RATED PIXAR/DISNEY FILM, and they want to know WILL THEIR KIDS LIKE IT.

That question usually gets dismissed within 50 words of an adult animated film review (Ghost in the Shell; NOT FOR KIDS... Animation Show 3; NOT NOT NOT FOR KIDS. Aquad Teen Hunger Force movie; NOT FOR ADULTS!)

But yeah, the Animation Secular Media Strikes Again.

BTW, thanks for letting us know that The Maxx is coming out on DVD! Even if you didn't mean to advertise an annoying marketing trick.
Actually, I forgot to mention that that's why the Maxx teaser is kind of annoying -- there hasn't been any kind of DVD announcement.
Perhaps some of it can be chalked up to a journalist's oversaturation of animation fan propoganda... If a particular journalist is beaten over the head with the notion that "animation isn't just for kids" then they may feel obligated to, primarily, relate an animated film to adults; while secondarily, perhaps even as an afterthought, toss in an "and the kids will like it too."


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