Movement is near to nature—as a bird flying—and it is the spoken word which is embarrassing. The voice is so revealing, it becomes an artificial thing, reducing everybody to a certain glibness, to an unreality. Pantomime to me is an expression of poetry, comic poetry. I knew that in talking pictures I would lose a lot of eloquence.—Charlie Chaplin
I love that line. I don’t entirely agree with Charlie Chaplin (I’m a word person, after all), but it is truer than I would like that words—even the right words—often are inadequate. An image, a gesture, a silence often means more than words ever could.
To demonstrate the point, I give you Wall-E, Pixar’s latest animated gem and, according to many, the studio’s masterpiece. It is, indeed, a gorgeous movie, one destined for a cherished spot in my DVD collection, but I don’t think it’s as perfect as its most passionate fans believe, and I’d even guess (with unforgivable arrogance) that Chaplin would agree with me. The wordless passages—the opening act, the zero-gravity robot ballet, the poignant history-of-art epilogue over the closing credits—are just as profoundly beautiful as everyone says, but whenever dialogue enters the picture, the movie dips from greatness to goodness. The words aren’t bad (though they do veer toward the heavy-handed), but they simply can’t compete with the poetry of pantomime and suffer by comparison. In this instance, at least, Chaplin was right.
The titular star of Wall-E is an heir to both Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Short Circuit’s Johnny-5 (the latter comparison is Sean’s, as he is determined to remedy my ignorance of 1980s pop culture trivia). A solitary robot, seemingly the sole remnant of an effort to rehabilitate a long-since-abandoned Earth, Wall-E spends his days compacting trash and his nights enjoying the trinkets he has collected from the garbage.
That magpie behavior, incidentally, is just one of Wall-E’s many nonrobotic traits, which is why I feel comfortable using he rather than it to refer to him. He’s an interesting character—not human and unable to perceive the humanity of the people he eventually encounters, but not cold either. The easiest way for me to make sense of him is to think of him as a simpler, more focused human being. He has no awareness of the big picture or other complexities. His world is pared down to the basics, and he experiences emotion with a concentrated purity—concentrated loneliness, hope, joy, sadness, even love—and that love is what drives the story. Everything else is fallout from Wall-E’s unadorned devotion.
The object of his affection is Eve, a more technologically advanced robot who lands on Earth with a classified directive and an itchy trigger finger. Besotted, Wall-E tries to replicate the doting behavior he’s seen on an old VHS tape of Hello, Dolly!, of all things. At first Eve is too focused on her mission to notice, but when Wall-E has the opportunity to prove his mettle, she begins to shift direction.
The movie’s depiction of the robots’ awkward romance owes much to silent film. Each robot has an extremely limited vocabulary, only a handful of words, so we follow their relationship through gesture and movement and pantomime. It’s amazing how endearing a rolling trash compacter and a twitchy flying iPod can be, but Wall-E and Eve are, in fact, enormously loveable. I’m still not sure what, exactly, robot love would entail (Wall-E’s aspirations seem to be limited to clutching Eve’s hand), but never mind: I bought into the movie. I wanted the pair to be happy.
The thing is, Wall-E and Eve comprise only one half of the movie. The other half, the backdrop to their romance, is no less than the possible restoration of Earth and redemption of humanity, but the two threads are uneven in quality. The broader story depends on dialogue, which sometimes seems clunky next to the wordless grace of the robots. There are exceptions—John and Mary’s gleeful discovery of a world beyond their personal computer screens and the Captain’s wonder as he explores an encyclopedia of Earth-That-Was are both charmingly and poignantly depicted—but I think it’s telling that the most effective Earth-centric sequence is the wordless epilogue over the closing credits. That brought tears to my eyes; the Captain’s final confrontation with his adversary did not.
I feel like a killjoy here, so let me emphasize that my misgivings about immediately inducting Wall-E into the highest canon of American cinema do not mean that I didn’t enjoy the movie. I loved it. It is a work of art. But Chaplin knew of what he spoke: when Wall-E starts talking, it loses some of its eloquence. Fortunately, though, the exquisite oratory of its silences is more than enough compensation. In the end, Wall-E is magnificent and beautiful and truly unforgettable.