Wall-E and Challenging the Preconceived Notions of what Constitutes Children’s Entertainment

An essay analyzing the film Wall-E from the perspective of a children’s drama practitioner

In 2008, Pixar Animation Studios released a labor of love film that had been working in the mind of the director Andrew Stanton for nearly ten whole years.  The idea started with the simple question of “What would happen if a robot programmed to do one job kept working even after the end of the world?” Ten years later, the question was answered by giving that robot a personality and a love story in Wall-E.  Without ever addressing the fact that this is an animated feature film and simply going by the premise alone, it sounds almost like some form of art film, but as soon as one addresses the fact that it’s animated by Pixar of all studios, many automatically assume it is a piece intended for children.  While it is true that Pixar gears its films to family-oriented stories, to say that Wall-E is purely a children’s film is a misguided perception.  Rather, it should be argued that it satisfies all of the qualifications of being a children’s film in order to be identified as a satisfying feature on its own merits.

According to David Wood’s Theatre for Children, children are the most difficult audiences to please, and if it can succeed before them, it can succeed on its own.  He addresses in the first chapter of his book how critical it is to recognize that a child audience is very different from an adult audience and to make the assumption that children will respond in the same way that adults do is a terribly foolish thing to do.  He explains this by describing the different ways children in a classroom react to a simple greeting versus the way teenagers and adults react to the same situation.  One major argument he makes is the difference in how active an audience of children can be, not just because they tend to make noise and have trouble sitting still, but also their willing suspension of disbelief and the fact that they respond viscerally to the action.  While adults are more resigned to passively watch a performance, children engage with it, readily cheering, laughing, gasping, and sometimes even responding to questions directly proposed to them.  While film differs greatly from theatre in its ability to interact with its audience, it still manages to allow children to give the same responses they would to a play.  Because entertainment directed at children requires a different kind of approach, it opens up the need to appease its demographic through meeting several obligations, and because those obligations cover a wide variety of ways to engage a general audience, if the right requirements are met and achieved well, the piece is able to stand on its own merits.

For example, the Pixar film that succeeded Wall-E was entitled Up, and it told the story of a cantankerous old man named Carl whose wife passed away and a young Wilderness Explorer by the name of Russell looking to achieve a badge for helping the elderly.  After beating a construction worker with his cane, Carl finds himself being forced out of his home to be sent to a nursing home.  Instead of losing what’s left of his independence in his old age, he lifts his house off the ground to fly away to South America via millions of balloons.  However, Russell accidentally comes along for the ride, having been on Carl’s porch prior to lift-off.  The two are then taken to Paradise Falls, the dream vacation of Carl and his late-wife, where they attempt to survive the harsh environment while carrying Carl’s home and being hunted by his childhood hero.

The film is widely regarded as one of Pixar’s greatest features, not only as a children’s film but as a stand-alone piece because of its subject material and method of story-telling.  In the first ten minutes, the audience is treated to the introduction of Carl and his future wife Ellie as children, and their first meeting is then followed by a montage showing their marriage.  The montage features scenes of the two lovingly building their home, their dream to have children and the discovery that they are unable to do so, then their dream to save money to vacation to Paradise Falls, the various instances where that dream is put off, the two reaching old age, and finally, the passing of Ellie.  When discussing the success of this film, it often comes back to the emotional weight that the montage carries without having any dialogue and being accompanied by a very powerful soundtrack, and it is often forgotten that the film preceding it really opened up the possibilities of beginning a film with so little dialogue.  Pixar as an animation studio has constantly challenged the way in which animation and films intended for children are viewed, and Wall-E is one often overlooked but prime example.

For almost the entire first act, Wall-E lacks any sort of dialogue, and even when it is introduced, it is sparse and limited to only four other characters.  This requires the audience to play close attention to the subtleties of the way characters interact with one another and their environment.  Many of the characters in Wall-E experience their environment through the means of discovery, having never witnessed the world around them.  Because of this, the audience interacts with the film by discovering alongside its cast.  Children in particular relate to the childlike wonder that Wall-E finds in everything around him, sharing his curiosity, awe, and innocence.  As the audience witnesses his collection of odds and ends from his daily excursions at work and then his observations of the Axiom upon boarding the spaceship, they not only learn about Wall-E as a character but get to discover the world with him.

Children also engage directly with the human characters that have to relearn the lesson of taking a stand and walking on their own two feet.  This automatically activates their natural sense of justice.  As an audience, children do not just want the good guys to win, they expect them to, and if their expectations are not met, they demand justice.  When the Captain manages to stand up on his own, children expect him to triumph over AUTO, and when they see Wall-E and EVE retrieve the plant, they anticipate the return to Earth.  Whether these situations take time or not no longer matters, and in fact, the more time it takes for these goals to be accomplished, the more engaged the audience becomes due to the increasing life-or-death conflict.

Wood also takes the time to mention that the more life-threatening the situation, the more invested children become, and it’s because of their inherent sense of justice that they are able to endow so much into the conflict.  Children, perhaps even more than adults, do not enjoy sitting idly by and watching mediocre threats be conquered by mediocre heroes, but they also don’t enjoy being lied to or fooled.  The expectations they hold for good to triumph over evil lets them engage as though they themselves are taking the bad guys head on, and so the hero must fight valiantly and truthfully against the villain.  Even though adults recognize that true justice is unrealistic, there is no denying that the ideals still resonate and that the battle between two opposing forces is engaging to audiences of all ages.

Finally, Wood also argues that children do not like being patronized and talked down to, likening it to the way adults often talk with pets and infants.  By effectively “dumbing down” the language of a story, children become offended as an audience and turn off.  There are plenty of films, particularly for children, where the goal is to teach more than engage their audience because the intended demographic is in a period of impressionable development.  This causes a misconception in entertainment that children can only learn by being told what to do and how to feel and not through experiencing things themselves first hand.  Wall-E manages to challenge that misconception by saying that the audience can be an active participant in the story by reading the behavior of its two protagonists without ever speaking any dialogue, all while learning a message that is not harped about through the entirety of the movie.  In fact, the only instance of the film where the characters actively engage with the environmental message comes from the captain’s speech in the third act:

CAPTAIN: But life is sustainable now. Look at this plant. Green and growing. It’s living proof he was wrong. … Out there is our home. Home, AUTO. And it’s in trouble. I can’t just sit here and- and- do nothing. That’s all I’ve ever done! That’s all anyone on this blasted ship has ever done. Nothing!

AUTO: On the Axiom, you will survive.

CAPTAIN: I don’t want to survive. I want to live.

Other films like Pocahontas and Ferngully dedicate time to argue their environmental themes in the film whereas Wall-E leaves its message in the hands of the Captain who has to learn this lesson by his own means and so, too, must the audience come to make the same discovery.

Even beyond the Captain’s need to learn the lesson of Earth’s co-dependent need of humanity to survive, there is no blame directly put onto humanity for being ignorant and irresponsible, unlike many other films that take on an environmentalist point of view.  Instead, Earth’s current state is seen more as a very large mistake, much like the many mistakes children make and must learn from in order to make things right again.  Instead of preaching about responsibility and awareness, Wall-E suggests pro-activism.  There is no need or time to play the blame game and stand on a pedestal to preach about what’s gone wrong; the human characters simply must do what is necessary to overcome their situation.

The entire metaphor for the human characters to have regressed back to childhood is reflected in both the design of the characters and their behavior.  After 700 years in deep space, osteoporosis has set in on the human race and their bone mass has deteriorated.  Their inactivity caused by their falling into a lifestyle of comfort where they have no need to do anything for themselves has also accelerated this process, and so they have become infant-like in their round shape.  The animators detailed this even further when the humans step out of their chairs and learn to walk on their own again, making the parallel to the adults learning to walk to the way a toddler takes his or her first few steps.  Also, the discoveries made by the other human characters, in particular John and Mary, as they take a look at the spaceship they’ve been living on all their life for the very first time are very much like the same wide-eyed wonder at a child taking in the world outside for the very first time.  When the Captain begins to research Earth via the Axiom’s computer, his own curiosity is the same as a child learning language and asking questions along the lines of “What’s this?  What’s that?” insistently.

All the while, the overarching story of Wall-E treats its audience maturely, recognizing that through its visual medium and the detail put into the characters of Wall-E and EVE, dialogue is not necessary to follow their romance.  Children are able to draw their own conclusions about the story and characters through observation and this is a film that respects them for it.  The environments in which these two robots live, both Wall-E’s rusty garbage landscape and EVE’s clean technological spacecraft, are set up and show just how these two characters are shaped and come to interact with one another.  Their conflict isn’t one of the regression of mankind or the impending deterioration of the Earth but their own two worlds coming together and their need to bridge the gap of communication to survive.  In all essence, the story of Wall-E is one of star-crossed lovers.

EVE, though intelligent and independent, finds herself caught in the harsh mechanical grips of her programming, or her “directive,” while Wall-E, after the lengthy time to himself and observation of human life through an old copy of Hello, Dolly finds himself humanized, seeking for an organic, romantic connection with other life.  Just when the gap between the two seems to be crossed as Wall-E begins teaching EVE about the human trinkets he had discovered, engaging her curiosity, an organic experience, he accidentally provides her with the object of her directive: a tiny green plant.  He follows EVE in the return to the Axiom and the two must once again work past EVE’s directive and Wall-E’s constant attempts to hold her hand, as these two opposing objectives cause the story’s main conflict and continue to get in the way of the other’s desire.  Each new life threatening situation is caused by the two characters not being able to see eye to eye until finally Wall-E is severely damaged in his attempt to help EVE complete her directive.  It is when EVE realizes the error of her ways that the plant and the need to return to Earth come back into play, but it is again not with the intention to rebuild life for humanity but to rebuild Wall-E.

Children and adults are able to empathize with Wall-E not because of the love story but because of his desire for human connection and his childlike wonder.  Because of this, the romance has a way of resonating deeper with the audience because it doesn’t involve things often seen in romances like lust or “lovey-dovey goop.” It is the organic desires that bring Wall-E and EVE together rather than mutual attraction or romantic happenstance, and that very organic connection is something nearly every human being is able to recognize.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs recognizes the natural need for love and belonging, and although it is placed in the middle of the pyramid, some argue that it is truly the base requirement for a person’s ability to achieve happiness.  After all, impoverished children that have the love of their families still manage to survive because they have a place to belong.  This is why Wall-E and EVE’s romance works in the dynamic that it does, because everyone can relate to the need to find someone that loves them unconditionally.

In a world where technology is becoming ingrained into culture and the way children experience the world around them, it becomes even more important to engage them viscerally and intellectually.  Wall-E not only asks for its audience to be intelligent enough to follow its story with little dialogue but also to read the characters through their behavior and the way they interact with the world around them.  By personifying the robots, children make the connection between Wall-E’s sadness, EVE’s elation, and their relationship as well as the experiences they as children have and witness around them.  Generations now are losing this ability, and so films and theatre, as well as literature, that manage to engage the audience in the same way that Wall-E engages its viewers become integral in the struggle to achieve that ability that should be inherent to humans.  In conclusion, the film not only serves as a way of teaching children how to read behavior and the importance of being pro-active instead of passive but also as a reminder to the adult viewer of these lessons; all while proving that films directed at children can be intellectually stimulating and engaging for the general audience.

Works Cited

Wall-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2008. DVD.

Wood, David, and Janet Grant. Theatre for Children: Guide to Writing, Adapting, Directing, and Acting. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999. Print.

Up. Dir. Pete Docter. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.

(c) Morgan Lea Davis 2012

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