Breaking down the magical first 35 minutes of Wall-E on its 10th anniversary
This is the IMDb plot description of Wall-E: "In the distant future, a small waste-collecting robot inadvertently embarks on a space journey that will ultimately decide the fate of mankind.” Technically, this is an accurate summary of the plot. But it’s not really what the movie is about.
For the final hour of Wall-E, the beloved title robot finds himself on a spaceship, full of creatures he’s never seen before: humans. Due to environmental negligence, humans have rendered Earth uninhabitable, and for 700 years they have instead lived on a cruise ship in space. The ship caters to their every need, and over time they have become immobile and infantile; they are whisked around in automated chairs, eliminating the need to walk, and they are brought ‘meals in a cup’ on command. After Wall-E and EVE, his fellow automaton, discover a plant on Earth, though, it becomes clear that the planet is once again inhabitable. The two robots, along with the ship’s captain (Jeff Garland), square off against the ship’s autopilot system in an effort to direct the ship back home.
This is the bulk of the plot; it’s also the least interesting part about Wall-E. The best of the film lies in its much celebrated opening 35 minutes, back on Earth. The plot is much simpler there: Wall-E is tasked with cleaning up the garbage the humans left behind. A spaceship lands on Earth, dropping off EVE, another robot whose job is to scan Earth for signs of life. Wall-E falls in love with EVE.
Without the need to concern itself with too much plot, these opening scenes of Wall-E are free to explore a greater depth of emotion than they might have otherwise. The film begins with shots of outer space, zooming in to introduce us to the garbage-laden state of Earth and Wall-E’s cleanup effort. “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from the musical Hello, Dolly! plays in the background, a jolt of romanticism set against this desolate landscape.
Wall-E is devoted to his custodial task, but it quickly becomes clear this robot has a heart, too. This characterization is primarily achieved through sound: Wall-E may not be able to speak English, but he can audibly emote all the same. Ben Burtt, who voices Wall-E, recorded 2500 different sounds for the role, and every single one is crucial. Wall-E gasps in surprise, screams in terror, and sighs in heartache. It’s telling that for many fans, what they remember most from Wall-E is not a single scene or shot, but a sound: Wall-E’s wavering, prideful pronunciation of his own name.
The opening half hour really picks up in the moment above, when Wall-E and EVE meet. Like Wall-E, EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight) is humanized through sound: when scanning for plant life, she gives off a determined hum; when witnessing Wall-E’s antics, she releases an infectious giggle. EVE is clean, tough, smart, and determined; Wall-E is dirty and clumsy, but absolutely loving. They make a great pair. These opening scenes are often remembered for their artistry and for the risk Pixar took in neglecting dialogue for so long, but they also showcase one of cinema’s great love stories.
When a dust storm grows on the horizon, Wall-E whisks EVE back to his makeshift home in a scene that encapsulates the best Pixar has to offer. The scene is rich in visual detail: filled with random objects Wall-E has found on the job and adorned with Christmas lights, his shelter is somewhere between a hoarder’s den and a college dorm room. The scene is hilarious: in a scatterbrained attempt to impress EVE, Wall-E decides to hand her random objects, and EVE either inadvertently destroys them or brings to light uses for these objects that Wall-E had never considered. And the scene is also heartfelt: Wall-E pops on his copy of Hello, Dolly! and tries to teach EVE how to dance as he mimics the film.
Wall-E wraps up this parade of objects by showing EVE a plant he found, which turns out to be a mistake. Finding signs of life was EVE’s lone directive; once she sees the plant, she takes it and shuts down. Wall-E is confused, then heartbroken. What follows is a charming and emotionally devastating sequence, in which Wall-E tries desperately to revive EVE. Unlike EVE, Wall-E has no problem letting his task go to, ahem, waste. The fate of the world may depend on him cleaning up the trash, but Wall-E is in love.
From there, Wall-E and EVE get shot into space, kicking off the plot on the human spaceship. It’s necessary, I suppose; something has to, you know, happen. But after the glorious romance we get in the first half hour, everything with the humans just feels a little more stale. And even though the stakes are astronomically higher, it feels much less important. I really didn’t care if the humans made it back to Earth. I just wanted Wall-E and EVE to hold hands.
Wall-E takes place in the distant future, but in this way the film reminds me of a cinematic relic of the past: Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, City Lights. Again, the IMDb description: “With the aid of a wealthy erratic tippler, a dewy-eyed tramp who has fallen in love with a sightless flower girl accumulates money to be able to help her medically.”
Sure. But in between all the hijinks lies the scene I’ll always remember from City Lights: Chaplin buying a flower from the woman he loves, hoping for a fleeting moment of recognition. It’s the same tender nervousness that befalls EVE at the conclusion of Wall-E, as she waits to see if her own little tramp will be ok.
Wall-E and City Lights share a common manner in which they show the world on screen. There is human folly, and corporate failing, and slapstick insanity, and these flourishes are what fill most of the screen time. And yet, somehow, they all still feel like background noise. All that matters at the center of each film is the love between two people (or robots).
This is why the first 35 minutes of Wall-E are transcendent: they concern themselves with nothing but an unabashed embrace of cinematic romance. In an interview, director Andrew Stanton described what Wall-E finding the plant said about his character: “He’s this man-made object, but somehow he’s got more of a desire to live than the rest of the universe.” Wisely, Stanton ditched the rest of the universe in those opening scenes. Forget the perpetuation of humanity; forget bringing humans back to Earth. In a desolate planet without any living creatures save a cockroach, Wall-E captures what it feels like to live, and to love.