As movie theater experiences go, children's movies are the worst. Kids are not polite film patrons, and 90% of children's movies are absolute garbage. I'm sorry, but cross-dressing lemurs who like to move it, move it, are not entertaining. At all. Seriously. And even if the film turns out to be a gem, you'll be subjected to a deluge of previews for the most god-awful tripe ever conceived. Of the shite I endured last night, Beverly Hills Chihuahua had the most profound effect on my gag reflex.
Yet, amongst the din, Pixar shines through, setting themselves apart from the rest of the animation world by actually making, you know, real movies.
We've watched them grow up over the years. Toy Story was a simple, enjoyable tale that had fake-looking characters in a fairly stark environment, but it worked because they played to their strengths and based the film on quality voice-acting (if not necessarily the biggest-name actors, yes Tom Hanks is a star, but there's not a Cameron Diaz in the cast), and a compelling, smart story. A Bug's Life elaborated on the technical side, giving us more complicated environments and complex character designs. Even more so, Monsters, Inc (although, full disclosure, I don't care for M,I all that much). Then it's like a contest: what's hard? Water's hard. Very well, Finding Nemo. What else is hard? Humans are tough, let's do a cast with nothing but humans. The Incredibles, it is. Hair is tricky. Ratatouille, then. Owen Wilson and Larry-the-Cable-Guy as believable leading men? Impossible you say?
But as technical achievements go, Wall-E is a freaking event. Not only have they created characters and environments that are able to seamlessly integrate with live-action photography (yes, I know Happy Feet did that too, but it looked fake and the movie was crap), not only were they able to convey a complex story about courage, devotion, and loneliness through a character whose vocabulary is limited to "Wall-E", "Eve", "Mo", "Directive", and "Ta-da!", not only did they infuse a story with an environmental message that doesn't brow beat an adult audience, but they do it all with such style and flair that it's worth seeing in big-screen grandeur in spite of the kids that watch it and the kid-tailored putrescence that precedes it.
The highlights: The first twenty minutes are remarkable, they convey an imminent sense of emptiness and solitude, and introduce and endear us to our hero: a little mobile trash compactor who could be the love child of Johnny 5 and a toaster oven. The characters walk a fine line: acting enough like machines to be believable as robots, but acting enough like humans to be sympathetic and interesting characters. Wall-E is brimming-over with personality (no surprise--have you seen the short film Pixar did with the lamp?). The environments are rich and detailed and there are subtle tips of the hat to sci-fi masterpieces (2001: A Space Odyssey gets a few well-earned nods). The Thomas Newman score is delectable, and it's just a damned fun ride from start to finish. Even the ending, though somewhat predictable, is a bit wrenching. But more than anything else, it's smart and thought-provoking.
The lowlights: After the emotional and visual powerhouses of Acts 1 and 2 of the film, Act 3 is a little bit of a let-down. It's a sublime and fast-paced let-down, and it beats the pants off of anything in, oh, say, Madagascar, but it just doesn't quite measure up to the first two-thirds. It's still incredibly fun, though.
Overall: Wall-E is a near-perfect master stroke. Rather than the pleasant surprise of an unexpected gem (Shrek 2 comes to mind), this is an expected gem, another brilliant film from a company that has established itself as a maker of brilliant films. It may, in fact, the be only bright feather left in Disney's filmic cap.
Of course, I just saw the trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua, so I'm a bit jaded.