Pixar’s Catholic Masterpiece: A Review of WALL*E

Pixar Animation Studio was founded in the 1980s by media moguls George Lucas and Steve Jobs, but whether they knew it or not, the guys who made their latest film release WALL*E (in theatres tomorrow) were working for God. So says this reviewer, anyway.

It’s not heresy. Catholics have been saying since at least the 2nd Century that God sometimes uses secular voices to speak to the world, especially when it comes to unreached peoples or neglected truths. Writing about the poets and mythmakers of ancient Greece, St. Justin Martyr put it this way, c. 155 AD: “Even unwillingly, these men were on your account forced to say many things by God’s compassion for mankind…For all these writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them.” Well, storytelling techniques have certainly come a long way since the days of Pindar and Sophocles — WALL*E pushes the high-tech art of computer generated graphics to hitherto undreamed of heights — but God’s willingness to communicate vital realities via the mediums of myth and fable has apparently continued unabated. WALL*E (directed by Finding Nemo‘s Andrew Stanton) is funny, touching, beautiful, clever, and wildly entertaining — but it may also be the most powerful warning against consumerism, idolatry, and addiction to luxury ever to be offered in a mainstream film.

Wall*ESet in the year 2815, the film opens with a chilling image — especially shocking, perhaps, for those who might expect nothing but sweetness and light from the gang who brought us Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. WALL*E opens on the Earth seen from space, but an Earth abandoned, used up, lifeless, and nearly forgotten. Her oceans are evaporated, her skies befouled, towers of trash rival the skyscrapers in her empty cities. WALL*E himself (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is nothing but a sentient garbage-masher, a humble little robot, perhaps the last operating unit of what was once an army of such machines left behind to try and clean up the mess. Man himself has been gone for 700 years, whiling away the centuries on a space-going cruise ship, having ceased to care about, ceased even to remember, the tremendous reclamation project his ancestors left to the mechanical servants back home.

The humans have left their humanity back home, too — along with WALL*E, who acts, we realize, as a kind of rolling Shangri-La, a repository for all of Man’s lost freedom and individuality. While the pampered, babyish human couch potatoes of the future spend their entire lives growing fat and watching their TV/Picture-phones/3D Holographic Blackberries, WALL*E is back on the old homeworld caring, interested, engaged with life, and falling in love. It’s a tremendously powerful symbol, worthy of Pope John Paul II himself (who was, recall, a playwright before becoming pontiff). It brings to my mind, at any rate, some of the Pope’s most important words:

In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these attitudes cause. Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few…It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself…In their desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, people consume the resources of the earth and their own lives in an excessive and disordered way — (Centesimus Annus).

However it happened, these thoughts are certainly echoed in the words of director Stanton himself, who said, in a recent interview, that he wanted to illustrate what happens when people lose track of what’s important in life. “I thought, ‘Well that’s the question that Wall-E is trying to figure out: What is the point of living? It’s to love one another. It’s to further a relationship.”

How the arrival of a sleek girl robot changes everything, how WALL*E eventually helps his foundering human creators to escape from their suffocating “paradise” is the plot of the film. And though WALL*E definitely speaks to important issues (as even the lightest entertainment should, in one way or another) I’d hate to leave my readers with the impression that this movie is in any way preachy or polemic. WALL*E is no whit less comical, exciting, and heart-warming than any of its predecessors — A Bug’s Life, Cars, The Incredibles, and the rest. Our little hero’s adventures in space are some of the freshest and most exhilarating since the original Star Wars back in the Seventies, and the hilarious cast of characters that tags along for the ride includes a pet cockroach and a heroic team of misfit robots. The social or political points in WALL*E aren’t “tacked on”; they’re part and parcel of the theme being explored and are consistently presented with a light, satiric touch (one of the writers, I’ve been told, was a regular scribe on The Simpsons TV show). And any political subtext should be equally offensive (in Pixar’s own gentle way, of course) to both Right and Left; the gargantuan, moronic government of the future world, for instance, is a perfect blend of Communism and Capitalism — a “utopia of usurers”, as Chesterton once predicted, where Big Business and Big Government have merged for their own common good and the enslavement of humanity.

In an address for the 1995 World Dayof Prayer for Vocations, Pope John Paul II made a hopeful prediction: “In many young people,” he said, “disoriented by consumerism and by the crisis in ideals, the search for an authentic lifestyle can mature, if it is sustained by a coherent and joyful witness of the Christian community in its openness to listen to the cry of a world thirsting for truth and justice.” That cry is heard loud and clear in Pixar’s WALL*E-with a spoonful of high-tech sugar which makes the medicine go down like a raspberry cordial. I encourage everyone from six to sixty to see it, love it, and then thank the Creative Mind who inspired this amazing production — when you get home afterward, that is, and speak to Him in your prayers.

Rod Bennett

By

Rod Bennett was, for many years, the editor of Wonder Magazine, a popular Christian media journal. His writings have appeared in other national publications as well, ranging from Rutherford and Gadfly to Catholic Exchange and Our Sunday Visitor. Rod has appeared on many well-known radio and television programs such as The Journey Home and Bookmark. His first book, Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words, is a best seller from Ignatius Press. He also edited Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger with apologist Gary Michuta and compiled Chesterton’s America. A convert from the Southern Baptist faith, Rod joined the Catholic Church in 1996. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Dorothy and their two children.

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  • candeo

    I have not seen the movie but would like to. Glenn Beck seems to think this is an “evil humans wrecking the planet” environmentalist agenda movie.

  • steve p

    My grown daughter saw it this evening with friends, loved it and told my wife and me that we have to see it.

  • ziggyb

    While i wouldn’t say it’s a “evil humans wrecking the planet” movie, it definitely does have a pro-environment message. Being a conservative as far as it reflects my faith life, I would have to say that having a pro-environment message is a film is not necessarily a bad thing. While I do not agree with animal rights groups that go to extremes like PETA, or terrorist action groups like ELF, the current declining state of our environment is very real.

    What is brilliant about this approach is that Pixar is luring viewers in with a cute cast of characters and the more populist environmental angle. Then, they pull out the rug from under everybody and point to the real source of our problems, be those in the environment, our home lives, our jobs, or our communities. Pollution and unnecessary waste have been fueled by a lifestyle focused on instant gratification and consumerism fueled by a combination of greed and fear. I genuinely hope this film impacts as many people as possible regarding the way they are living their lives.

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  • M.E.

    This movie — which is indeed a masterpiece, I agree — is not about saving the earth, nor is it an anti-consumerism film. The massive piles of trash on earth? A red herring. The trash is symbolic; it’s obviously so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s not supposed to be taken literally, as in, “we’ve trashed the planet.”

    It’s not about saving the earth, it’s about saving humanity.

    Mr. Stanton has left us many hints about the story that he tells very successfully.

    First: Where are the human beings in this film? What is their giant space craft called? What does Eve (and yes, the name is supposed to resonate!) look like? What does her color and shape represent? How does she move from one place to another? What does that remind you of? And what is she sent out from the huge shape shape to find and bring back to the ship?

    Does that remind you of anything?

    Second hint: What is a recurring theme / image in “Wall-E”? Hint: Wall-E sees this happen in “Hello Dolly” on the Beta tape he watches, and becomes fascinated with it. His quest is to make this wonderful thing happen with Eve. And when does he finally succeed? And what happens to him then, at that moment?

    Third hint: Who (or really, what?) is that antagonist in this film? What is he called? What does that tell us about how the human beings have been living?

    Fourth hint: Describe the qualities of Wall-E. He is so lovable, so adorable — why? What does he do that endears us to him? And how is he different from the humans on the space ship?

    Don’t believe me? Then read this interview (http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/interviews/andrewstanton.html) in Christianity Today, in which Andrew Stanton says the following:

    Q: “It seemed like a story about fat, lazy, American consumers who don’t care about the environment and …

    A: Stanton: That’s your interpretation, but that’s not where I was coming from.”

    My view: This is a love story, as Mr. Stanton says, and it’s also a story in praise of what used to be called a “low tech, high touch” life. It’s a story of the beauty of love, the transformative value of work, and of the danger of going on auto-pilot, with the consequence being that you miss out on what’s really important in life.

    So what do the towering stacks of trash represent? Well, God made a rainbow once upon a time and promised never to cover the earth with water again. But He didn’t promise not to cover it with anything else….

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