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The End of the Line

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Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks Animation's summer offering (directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson), works very hard to set itself apart from that studio's other computer-animated features. It often seems about to indulge in the usual DreamWorks schtick—the transparently cynical displays of emotion, the broad, crude comedy, the topical gags—but then pulls back, almost with a slight bow to the audience. I don't remember much hugging in this movie, and if any of the characters passed gas, I missed it. Po, the panda protagonist, gets knocked around a lot, but there's usually the suggestion that the knocking around has some larger purpose, so that the panda isn't being treated like a fuzzy soccer ball just for the sake of a yuk.

Kung Fu Panda posterDespite all the camouflage—Kung Fu Panda is, among other things, very nice-looking, with gorgeous backgrounds—the film ultimately reveals itself as just another of the many dud movies, animated and otherwise, in which by virtue of believing in himself some pitiful slacker overcomes a much more intelligent, skilled, and highly motivated opponent. In this case the opponent is Tai Lung, a beautifully designed snow leopard (he richly deserves a place among the stuffed animals at FAO Schwartz next Christmas). We're shown the panda going through kung fu training, of course, but there's no way that his abbreviated training could make him the equal of the leopard; and we're shown the panda struggling to win, but win he does, and not through some accident that might make his victory believable if not entirely admirable.

As so often in DreamWorks features, the dialogue carries much of the load, sometimes way too much, even though none of the star voices, even Jack Black's, is particularly offensive. In a few spots when characters are in extended conversation the screen goes dead, but what really came to bother me was the insistent presence throughout the film of the characters' teeth, a byproduct of their gabbiness.

The dialogue in many computer-animated films reminds me of the voice-overs in the Disney features of the sixties with animal actors, like The Legend of Lobo—absent the chatter on the soundtrack, it would be much harder to figure out what the characters are supposed to be thinking. Many of today's animators profess themselves to be admirers of Chuck Jones, in particular, but pantomime of the Wile E. Coyote kind is apparently beyond their capabilities.

There is, as everyone knows, almost no dialogue in the first forty minutes of WALL•E, the Pixar feature that followed Kung Fu Panda into theaters at the end of June. So, at first glance, it might seem that by eliminating dialogue as a crutch, Andrew Stanton, the director, has accepted a challenge that Pixar avoided in the past. That studio has always recoiled from serious character animation, except in Brad Bird's two features. Pixar has relied instead, at its most ambitious, on the animation of insects, fish, and monsters. In WALL•E, though, it has returned to the even more easily managed animation of the inanimate, which brought it such great success in the two Toy Story films (and somewhat less success in Cars). WALL•E's starring characters are robots—machines—and they communicate through what amount to sound effects. There's no dialogue because in this case the inanimate is also the inarticulate.

The animation of machines is effects animation, and that's really all we see in the first part of WALL•E. The human characters who turn up later in supporting roles do speak intelligibly, but their design, so bulbous as to be beyond "cartoony," is consistent with the film's sly evasion of character animation's fundamental demands. So is the totally unnecessary use of live action for a couple of cameos by Fred Willard as the CEO of "Buy N Large," the Wal-Mart stand-in that has despoiled the Earth by encouraging heedless consumerism.

Wall-E poster To bridge the yawning gap between the film's inhuman cast and its human audience, Stanton relies almost entirely on the sentimentality that surfaced so often in his first Pixar feature, Finding Nemo (2003). There are flickers of comedy in WALL•E, but Stanton wants his audience to accept wholeheartedly the romance of his two robot stars. Thomas Newman's lush, yearning score in particular seems intended to shame us into suppressing the urge to dismiss the whole thing as ridiculous.

But ridiculous it is. I can't think of another film that throws up so many obstacles to the willing suspension of disbelief. The two leading characters, WALL•E and EVE, are not just robots, but robots, as their acronym names tell us, that were built for distinct and very limited purposes. And yet they have become something like sentient beings. How can a viewer accept that, except with the help of a temporary lobotomy? And the robots are not just sentient beings but male and female sentient beings, identified as such through what could be, but haven't been, criticized as sexist tags (EVE, the female robot, giggles mechanically in between emitting lethal blasts). "Fantasy," the usual excuse for such disregard for plausibility, can't be a license when a film insists on being taken seriously in so many other ways.

Stanton's two mechanical lovers are barely imaginable as supporting characters in a lighthearted film—the Star Wars robots, one of WALL•E's many inspirations, are far more ingratiating—but here they must carry almost all of a serious film's dramatic weight. The results are, to say the least, awkward, especially in the last half of WALL•E, after the action has moved onto a huge spaceship carrying the remnants of humanity, and the robots' romance has accidentally set into motion the climactic events in the overarching ecological parable.

WALL•E is clumsy and preposterous in large and small ways. A trash-covered Earth would be acceptable as comic hyperbole, but Stanton depicts it as a grimly realistic possibility (Blade Runner offers a much more subtle and persuasive vision of a dystopian future). On the other end of the scale, the idea that WALL•E itself—I refuse to acknowledge that the silly thing has a gender—might be watching the same old videotape every day, after seven hundred years, is laughable. Would that today's electronic media were anything like that durable.

But in purely technical terms, WALL•E is, like every other Pixar film before it, a state-of-the-art marvel. I have to believe that's one reason the film has received such rapturous reviews from almost every major media outlet. That, along with the solemnity that makes it so annoying to me; reviewers who have found earlier Pixar features to be oases in wastelands of bad movies may have felt obliged to take Stanton's preachy film as seriously as it takes itself. WALL•E may be one of our era's equivalents of Mrs.Miniver, just another film greeted warmly for reasons that future audiences will find difficult to fathom. I won't be surprised if it also turns out to be Pixar's equivalent of Disney's Pocahontas, a film whose large but disappointed audience will approach the studio's releases more gingerly from now on.

What's clear from WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda , as never before, is that computer animation is a dead end, a form of puppetry even more limited than stop motion. There's no reason to believe that its characters will ever live on the screen as the characters do in the best hand-drawn films; given the way that computer-animated films must be made, the vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough. I wouldn't expect Brad Bird to say so, but perhaps an awareness of the medium's limitations lay behind his decision to move into live action for his next film, 1906.

Andrew Stanton has been talking about live action, too, with notable enthusiasm. In an interview with Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe, he said:

I had to do a little of live action on this film. And I loved it, I loved it! It was so spontaneous. We got together. We put the lights up. The actor came in. The makeup went on. We shot it. We were done in the same day. I'm like, oh my gosh, what a concept! Because for us it takes weeks to months to do a shot. So I definitely got a little of the bug.

Stanton's next project is supposed be an animated version of Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars—a film difficult to envision except as a strenuous exercise in the kind of character animation Pixar has always shied away from. So, I won't be in the least surprised if John Carter winds up as a live-action film. What a concept!

[Posted July 23, 2008; revised March 4, 2009]