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.

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Rod Bennett is the author of Four Witnesses; The Early Church in Her Own Words widely considered to be a modern classic of Catholic apologetics. His other works include: The Apostasy that Wasn't; The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church and Chesterton's America; A Distributist History of the United States. His articles have appeared in Our Sunday Visitor, Rutherford Magazine, and Catholic Exchange; and he has been a frequent guest on EWTN television and Catholic Answers radio. Rod lives with his wife and two children on the 200-year old family homeplace in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.

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