Wall-E (2008) is one of the strongest films to come out of the big US feature animation studios. I would argue that it might be one of if not the most important animated feature to come out that decade, including internationally. Princess Mononoke (1997) might be the most important in the decade preceding Wall-E, but also just one of the most important films full-stop. But we’ll discuss that in the second half of this essay.
Even with the leaps and bounds we’ve made with animation in the last decade, I still feel like if an animated feature at a major US studio with no dialog and a slow, meditative pace for the first 30-ish minutes was pitched it would get turned down immediately or green lit until it drowned in notes and was averaged out to look more like the gag or dialogue driven, quick paced snappy visuals we’re used to. While those are not inherently bad things, their complete takeover of the medium at large just makes Wall-E stand out that much more. (Honestly I’d love to go back to opening weekend now and watch people watch this film in theaters. Did kids get impatient? Or were they fixated on the screen? Were parents confused? Who knows!)
There are so many factors that are out of a director’s control, especially at a big studio, that it’s a miracle when any film gets made, full stop. That Andrew Stanton’s film seems to have come out relatively unscathed and different from any film before (or after) it is a testament to how unique and thematically strong it is.
This post will contain full spoilers for Wall-E and Princess Mononoke.
It will contain slight spoilers for Nausicaa.
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Wall-E: Thematically Undeniable
I have found, that when I don’t like a film or am dissatisfied with one, most of the time it is because I feel like the theme is too weak or vague. This definitely correlates to a film possibly having a weak main character and/or world–it’s all connected of course. But I’ll put aside a character I might not personally like if I feel like a film really had something to say. Wall-E‘s themes are strongly woven into the story, and the characters and world-building strengthen the themes and story that much more. It has one larger theme that can be broken down into many smaller ones and that’s where I find a lot of films are lacking. They’ll have a broad theme of ‘believe in yourself’ or ‘teamwork makes the dream work’ and it’s like, ok, cool, that all you got?
These smaller…sub-themes, if you will, add a little more nuance, some extra layers of complexity to a world, and often are more understated. Some times it feels like easter eggs for the audience to realize only after they’ve thought about the film for a while. Wall-E for me has that depth, and has connections, symbols/metaphors, and themes that I only pick up as I get older.
The broadest theme of Wall-E is environmentalism, and has a direct focus on the environmental impact of consumerism. Love is also absolutely a strong theme of this film and has many swatches to explore, but today we’ll focus on the environmental themes.
The broadest theme of Wall-E is environmentalism, and has a direct focus on the environmental impact of consumerism. Love is also absolutely a strong theme of this film and has many swatches to explore, but today we’ll focus on the environmental themes.
While we aren’t told what happened to titular Wall-E’s earth in a prologue or anything, we can see what happened. Maybe as a kid watching this, they don’t even understand this is supposed to be our earth, but some sad, ravaged planet somewhere else, only to re-watch it later in life and understand it on a deeper level.
Because this is not our earth. This is some misguided other group’s planet.
Wall-E is a warning.
All we see is waste everywhere. Piles and piles of junk that the first generation of humans who fled earth had probably valued and then had to leave behind for the sake of surviving. Maybe they were each given a two suitcase limit. All of that stuff has no value anymore, and completely eviscerated the fertility of the earth for hundreds of years until the events of the film unfold.
And of course, we can’t mention consumerism in this film without mentioning the heavy handed commentary of the humans on the ship, now so overweight that they all use hovering wheelchairs originally designed for the elderly. They’re all addicted to screens, and blindly listen to ads blasted at them constantly. They’ve become mindless robots while the robots in the film are the only ones with humanity left. There’s also, of course a critique of our screen time, tied to implied laziness, which I can only agree with so much.
The company, called Buy-N-Large, is very on the nose, and can serve as a warning to mega corporations like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, that (arguably) started out innocently enough as an online bookstore, college networking site, and search engine respectively, that have grown to control many aspects of our lives and wield our personal information. Buy-N-Large, which exists in other Pixar films, seems like a Costco-type shop, but we see that by the time we get to Wall-E, it’s become an inseparable part of everyone’s lives., wanted or not.
Ironically, without that consumerism, without people in this world getting lazier and wanting more but to do less, we would not have our protagonist, Wall-E, who is a waste compactor robot. Your Roomba is Wall-E’s great great great grandparent. WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifer – Earth class. Wall-E units were a capitalist-created response to a capitalist-created problem.
We could also get a bit meta here and pull that curtain back another layer and lay into Wall-E as a product of large corporation that probably doesn’t have a very enviable carbon footprint, or look at the resources that go into making an animated film, the merchandising around such a film, and the film industry at large’s attempts to move towards more green filmmaking, but that’s for another time.
Progress Without Accountability
Wall-E, EVE (short for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, the deuteragonist of the film), and the autopilot (a HAL-inspired, late-in-the-film antagonist) are also symbols themselves, representing humanity’s technological progress–to a fault–as made clear by the autopilot trying to…autopilot a little too hard at the end there.
Technology–industrialization overall–has been the key to humanity’s survival in so many ways. But it’s also our fallacy.
That applies doubly so in the film, for the humans’ spaceship. Again, we can look at the hovering wheelchairs, pitched in an ad that plays on the ship as a fantastic technological development meant to aid the elderly and those needing assistance walking, as a way to give them their autonomy and keep them connected with their families. Well-intended until we see what their overuse has led to. See also: the Internet.
With technology often comes comparisons and analogies to religion. I’m not going to get into that, but those undertones are also absolutely in Wall-E, with the spaceship alone serving as a modern day–well, future day–Noah’s Ark.
Individual vs Group
Something else that I don’t think was as intentionally woven into the fabric of Wall-E’s narrative and themes is the idea of the individual vs the group in relation to environmentalism.
Personally, I’ve been happy to see in the last several years, a shifting of the blame. For so long, the narrative has been placed on individuals to do their part: recycle plastic bottles, buy second hand clothing, condemn plastic straws. And while that all is still important, there was never an active conversation about the companies and their poor waste management or the inability for materials they use to be recycled in most towns, and from there, more accountability in governments and communities for recycling as a public service vs a privatized industry seeking profit.
In Wall-E, we still see a lone person. Day in and day out, Wall-E works to clean up his area. It will never make a difference. His actions, noble as they are, as noble as you using your metal straw to keep just one more plastic one out of the ocean, will not impact the overarching climate crisis.
He also is a great stand-in for a working class person, going as far as to tote around a cooler lunchbox, a synonymous symbol of the working class bringing their homemade lunches. He’s an indication that no matter how diligently you do your job, your standing doesn’t seem to change. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to mind (or know any better), and things do change when he finds the plant and EVE arrives.
It’s not until he joins up with others (the captain, a stand-in for us, the humans who would make the right decisions!), and robots he liberates, who are open minded, and willing to be educated, make sacrifices, and work together that we see actual change begin (albeit in the credits, but we’ll take it!).
Also, who doesn’t love the hopefulness (and art history lesson) of the credits:
You have to believe that this time around, we’ll get it right, working hand-in-hand with technology.
There is No Planet B
It’s not like the humans who managed to flee earth settled into a new, permanent planet, colonizing Mars or someplace outside the Milky Way. They’re just in orbit. In limbo. They goofed and are now literally going in circles. To escape their dystopic earth, they were advertised a utopia that become a dystopia. Going in circles.
Moving Forward, Breaking the Cycle
Again, that end credit scene is short, but it serves as a nice epilogue for the film. We get our happy ending with Wall-E and EVE, but make no mistake, the future will be hard work. It will be starting from scratch. It will be manual labor, trial and error. As the end-credit song to Wall-E goes:
Do you feel you were tricked
By the future you picked?
We’re gonna find new priorities
Now then. If I had to pick the most important animated feature from the decade before Wall-E, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would be Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997).
Princess Mononoke, as I said, is one of the most important films, period. Director Hayao Miyazaki and fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder and director Isao Takahata are known for films with strong environmental themes, pacifism and/or anti-war sentiment, as well as dimensioned female leads. The studio’s collective filmography checks most of these off in each film, none so magnificently as this film.
Environmentalist themes run strong through films like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988), but none compare to Mononoke‘s depth.
Miyazaki is an incredibly political, outspoken person, and most of his films reflect his opinions, which were heavily shaped by his experiences as a boy during WWII.
I’ve come to the point where I just can’t make a movie without addressing the problem of humanity as part of an ecosystem.Hayao Miyazaki
Mononoke, while a period piece (set in a mythical version of Japan’s Muromachi period, 1333-1568AD), holds a dangerously sharp mirror up to the present day, and does so with more urgency as the film ages. When the film first came out (1997 in Japan, 1999 in the US), we were approaching a new millennium and were advancing technologically faster than ever before. I suppose that’s true of every moment of progress, but that was a particular paradigm shift–the dawn of a more widely accessible internet and personal computers.
We are introduced to a similar world on the cusp of a major change in Mononoke, for man can now forge metal. Men have steel swords, men have guns and gunpowder. Men have tipped the scales in a seemingly unnatural way.
As Bambi’s mother warned, “Man is in the forest.”
Humans as Separate from Nature
Both Wall-E and Mononoke do a great job of separating humanity from nature, of making them seem like separate entities rather than connected.
Wall-E‘s humans live in a sterile, eerily clean and cold future city devoid of the greenery of every urban designer’s dream. The humans have lost their humanity, as detailed earlier, but that goes beyond their disconnect from each other, but even their disconnect from their bodies in not seeing with their eyes, but with screens and not being as generally mobile. They all wear the same outfits (granted that was probably more for production’s sake, but still), eat the same food, live the same. There don’t seem to be people who use their hands, have skills or trades.
Mononoke’s main human group–excluding the titular monster princess herself, San–live physically distanced from the forest, in a barren area stripped of its natural resources. It’s a fortress with tall walls made of cut down trees–a warning to nature itself. The village where protagonist Ashitaka is from (and is banished from) lives more connected to nature, and it is because of their recognition that the gods of the forest are displeased that they send Ashitaka away. I do think it’s a bit much to exile him forever considering he saved the village, but, sure, his village has their beliefs I suppose.
Ashitaka is us. He goes into the world (again due to being banished) knowing nothing. He stumbles naively through situations even before arriving at Irontown and the forest. He angers the residents of both places due to his simple outlook, his seeing the world in black and white. His goal throughout this journey is to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.Hayao Miyazaki
Life is not black and white; it’s a series of grey zones.
Everything is political. Animation included. Even if a film itself, the actual stories and narrative seem apolitical, there’s always things to draw upon, and on top of that there’s always politics (be it the company making it, tax breaks, worker standards) that make its very existence part of the politics underneath our day to day. Animation cannot divorce itself from the context of its creation. Messaging and statements can be extrapolated from even the most seemingly un-messaged film, even if it goes against the creators intentions. This idea, that everything is political, sounds unpleasant and negative as it is a very loaded word. But it impacts and is connected to everything–education, where and how a person lives, wages, health, freedoms, the environment, media and censorship and copyright, information, etc.–because everything has rules and guidelines of varying benefits to varying people. This is one of the things I’ve had to slowly learn as I age, as my perspective shifts, as I grow and learn, building upon simpler lessons from the years before.
Similarly, Mononoke was a film that was an important milestone in my film journey. One reason being Mononoke was the first film I clearly remember seeing that didn’t have a villain. And I don’t mean a complex or understandable villain; there just isn’t a villain in this film like we’re used to with, say Disney films. Lady Eboshi, the matriarch of Irontown, is indeed at odds with the wolves (lead by matriarch Moro) of the forest and San, who Moro raised like a daughter. Ashitaka is thrown between these ferocious women as they clash trying to protect their homes, families, and resources.
If we were being reductive, Lady Eboshi would be classified as the antagonist of the film. But we’re NOT gonna do that! Not even the local government–shown through the samurai–are true antagonists, and all parties involved hate them. Their actions too are out of self-interest/preservation, in that they are threatened by the wolves because…they are gigantic wolves, and are threatened by the advances (and resulting wealth) of Irontown, which they want for themselves.
Eboshi, we learn as the film progresses, deforests in order to produce iron, which they produce guns and other goods to protect and sell for themselves. Eboshi employs women, many who were prostitutes, and lepers who otherwise would be homeless or dead in the street. All of her decisions are to protect and serve her community. That’s all anyone is trying to do. Even Jigo, focused on his self-preservation.
Mononoke is a story that uses Ashitaka a bit more like an avatar for the audience–that’s not to say I think he’s underdeveloped or lacks flaws or anything. Just that we learn things as he does, things are revealed in layers and our perspective shifts.
Morality often depends on point of view. That’s why things get messy.
There Are Limited Resources
…And everyone is fighting over them.
Ashitaka tries to remain neutral. He understands both sides, but also literally cannot handle their hatred for one another (hate fuels his curse). He can’t fully agree with either party enough to join them, but empathizes with their struggles and needs. There’s no way to live in this world without taking away from others.
And for many of us, we live in that reality. There’s an extraordinary range of pluralities we must live with as people in the 21st century, in an industrialized and largely capitalist world. We live with contradictions, owning and needing smartphones but decrying the treatment of miners who harvested the copper and quartz inside them. We want clothing inexpensive but become only briefly upset when a fast fashion factory in Bangladesh collapses, killing hundreds of workers who were earning pennies a day.
There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but we must participate in capitalism to survive. We are not powerful enough to alone to subsist without it, nor is our collective action making as big and quick a change as we need.
To live is to live with contradictions, and no film makes me understand that more than Mononoke.
Nature as Character
Nature in this film takes the physical form of a deer-like creature, known as the Forest Spirit. At night, its form shifts into a kaiju-like being, ethereal and see-through, almost liquid-like. It can take life and give life. It is literally a force of nature, indifferent to human affairs unless humans mess with it.
There’s definitely a parallel in there for climate change (again, whether authorial intent was present or not, doesn’t matter). We can connect the direct actions of the humans with the Forest Spirit’s and other larger gods (i.e. the boar gods at the beginning and middle of the film) demonic rampages and the increase in catastrophic weather patterns (record flooding/rain, forest fires, ocean temperatures/levels, etc) as a result of human action.
But that is also something I balk at. Blaming humanity overall for the actions of a few (relatively speaking) people who run the companies that do the most damage. Studies indicate that 1/3 of all human-generated carbon emissions are by twenty companies. While this is all of our problem, our actions were largely not the cause, and our individual actions sadly will not be enough without changes at a much larger level. Our individual actions collectively (i.e. driving a car) certainly add up though, as do our collective responses (petitions, voting, lobbying, etc.).
Wall-E avoids this altogether by starting with an already abandoned planet, and a spaceship of people who were never even on earth (as far as I know, the film doesn’t specify how much time has passed, but I’ve read that it takes place in the 29th century) and therefore are unknowingly complacent in what they lost.
I think we can boil Mononoke down to those broader factors we face today. Eboshi would be and very much is the fossil fuel industry (again, reducing her humanity here for the sake of mapping these out), as all of those twenty companies are. The boars and the wolves can be the other 2/3. Ashitaka is an activist leader trying to find a middle ground that doesn’t exist without losses on at least one side, and no one wants to give up their share of the resources. The samurai can be government (which for the Muromachi period were, listening to local daimyos), who are doing nothing to help at a larger scale or for the long term, and are in fact, sort of just making things worse and accelerating things for the sake of profit. The Forest Spirit is climate change. The kodama (little tree spirits) can be animals, going extinct as they disappear with the forest’s destruction. I know this allegory probably wouldn’t really work rewatching the film and tracing the story beats with this in mind, but the concepts and issues are still relevant.
One thing that I think makes Mononoke slightly outshine even a film like Nausicaa (Miyazaki’s second strongest environmentalist film) is their endings. Nausicaa‘s eponymous protagonist ends up being The One at the end who saves the day. Her actions alone make a difference and show the fighting parties that there’s another option. That sentiment is good, but just not as realistic anymore, unfortunately. We do still have leaders and activists who seem to stand alone, but we also know that those people are propped up by their support systems. Greta Thurnberg for example can’t save the planet alone. She can lead the charge, but she needs support. Her voice is strong because others echo it.
Ashitaka would be The Chosen One in this film, like Nausicaa, but Miyazaki’s stance had clearly evolved because comparatively Ashitaka is often powerless to make big changes. It’s only with the help of others, be it humans, San specifically, wolves, boars, or Yakul (his highly intelligent transport, a red elk) that changes happen. He knows that and that’s good. He’s only able to help at a micro level, such as breaking up the fight between San and Eboshi, but cannot make lasting changes at a macro level without others’ support.
At the climax of Mononoke, there’s no one heroic moment that saves the day. Ashitaka and San return the god’s head, sure, and it disappears. Eboshi shot it because she heard its blood could cure anything (and she has a town with lepers) having teamed with the samurai for a promise of her town’s protection. The head is stolen out of fear of its power and leverage for a better life. Like Wall-E, Mononoke does not offer a nice, clear cut ending. It’s the equivalent of a forest fire: the slate is wiped clean and new plants can and begin to grow over the ashen waste. Once the Forest Spirit dies, it heals the land and a young greenery appears where desolated ashen earth was. It will take a long time for a proper forest to grow back–decades–so it won’t be the same for Irontown, who would have to learn forest resource management in the future. San and Ashitaka, who at this point have fallen in love, find their lives are too different, but they still live next to each other. Ashitaka knows Eboshi will need his help rebuilding a new and better Irontown, and San remains in the adjacent forest with the wolves, and agree to still visit one another. A last bit of hope even is the returning of the kodama.
There’s a whole other essay in here surrounding ecofeminism. I am not going to go into it, but I just wanted to acknowledge that. Especially when we look at how environmentalism and feminism play out thematically in Miyazaki’s filmography. I don’t mean it to be a cop-out. I’m not concerned about discussing these topics on the site, but know they just need a lot more context and deserve full exploration rather than a hasty summation in an already too-long entry.
Core of a Story
One of the 400 ways you can break down a story is to ask if it is one of these three types:
- person vs self
- person vs person
- person vs nature
As mentioned, I’ve found that when I’m dissatisfied with a film, it’s usually because it has a theme that’s too simple. In the case of topics typically in environmental films, we get pollution = bad, factory = bad, corporation = bad, CEO = bad, and we get nothing more. No justifications or glimpse into the needs of the workers at those places or where that pollution is from and how and if it can be managed or offset. Because most of those things tend to be bad or in the case of pollution are inherently bad. But what bad means here needs context. Again, everything we need generates waste. Some of that waste is manageable, or seemingly manageable and then isn’t. Not every company exploits workers. Not every CEO is a villain by default. We need narratives and characters as complex and nuanced as our world, that don’t have to even look anything like our world like both of these films show us.
Wall-E as Person vs Nature
Or rather, robot vs broken system.
Earlier in this post, I made a comment about how Wall-E changed the then-common narrative of blaming a failing conservation effort from individual people to groups, be it corporations or more cooperative efforts from many individuals organizing together.
Wall-E we can argue to is person vs self, as Wall-E literally goes against his programming for love. He transcends his intended purpose. But I personally feel the environmental themes outshine the love (platonic or otherwise) story. But also, there’s not really a struggle or character arc Wall-E goes through to “defeat” himself, and that’s why I wouldn’t count it. He starts the film already his unique and quirky self, and remains that way throughout it. He was infatuated with EVE at first sight and that love only grows through the film. EVE has more of a person vs self growth in the film, with her warming up to Wall-E and thwarting her programming and orders and making decisions for him and herself.
Princess Mononoke is 4) All of the Above
Ashitaka’s iconic quest to see with eyes unclouded by hate (thanks, Neil Gaiman!) sends him on a quest to cure his curse before it kills him. He is literally battling an inner demon throughout the film, and the film is about his quest. But this never feels like his story. Like I mentioned, he’s a bit more of a avatar for the audience, starting off naive and understanding the complex social structure he’s stumbled on. And despite that, he is constantly still trying–desperately so–to save himself and change his fate while evolving as a person and trying to find his place in this contemptuous environment.
It feels like San’s story–San’s battle with Eboshi (person vs person). And from there is splinters further into factions. Eboshi vs San and the wolves, Eboshi vs the daimyo/samurai, Eboshi vs the boars. The wolves vs the boars vs the monkeys (surprise, there are also monkeys!). The animals (and San) vs humans. Ashitaka sort of vs all of them because he won’t side with anyone and for most of them because he isn’t with them he’s against them until he proves himself to them (i.e. Ashitaka warning Irontown of an impending attack; Ashitaka saving San from a boar demon).
One of the reasons this story goes beyond a typical human vs nature story is because those stories are often a bit one-sided, with the natural phenomenon depicted as inherently “bad,” especially from the human POV. But in Mononoke, nature is as much a character and an active presence in the story as any human or animal. The Forest Spirit makes actual choices that impact the story, such as healing Ashitaka’s gunshot wound but not his curse, or killing Moro and the boar leader. The Forest Spirit giveth and the Forest Spirit taketh away.
Any time we have an environmental film–Pocahontas (1995), FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Avatar (2009), etc.–we get a thematically oversimplified film. I get that these films are a product of the time they were made, when environmental conversations were considerably more simple, and that as much as Walt Disney himself assured us that his films were for everyone, that they were still made for the majority of the story to be accessible to kids. But the relationship between humankind and nature layered. We are not automatically at odds with nature by simply being humans. Humans are not a virus upon the earth. That kind of language has to stop–we have to have more nuanced conversations.
We are just like any other species using the tools and resources at our disposal for increased survival rates. As these films–all of them mentioned–show, there is a balance humans must achieve. A give and take, a balancing of sourcing and using and disposing of and replacing and allocating resources.
Additionally, in the case of all three films above, we also have the added danger of tropes like the noble savage and white savior. Wall-E and Mononoke both avoid this issue. And despite being from the future (I’ve seen claims that Wall-E takes place in the 29th century) and past (again ~1300-1500AD) respectively, we get incredibly poignant looks at the end of the 20th century when they were made (2008 and 1997 respectively). Sadly, as they’ve aged they’ve become even more relevant.
Utopia and Dystopia are Not Opposites
Both films had groups that destroyed their natural world in order to attempt to create a better society. In both of these cases, individuals probably set out with good intentions, to provide goods, services, security to their family and communities, and things grew unchecked and out of control, morphing into dangerous entities individuals were powerless against unless they came together.
Both films end with us knowing the characters have a lot of work ahead of them. That the level of destruction they have overcome was largely not their fault, but is their burden to bear. These films have “happy” endings, but ones that are far more complicated and bleak for the characters for the short term while they rebuild their respective societies and navigate mass change in an environment not totally suitable for living in yet. Again, life is a series of grey zones.
Those are lessons we must take away if we want to avoid our lives playing out like these films.
Thank you for reading.