Wall-E and the (Non)Intuitive Second Act

I’m a big fan of animation, technology, and especially of great storytelling. So obviously I’m a huge fan of Pixar. Pixar’s stories feel “primal.” They feel like they weren’t written at all, like they just magically emerged in one piece. Organic. Nothing was “tacked on” later, nothing was picked over by a committee, these stories were just… there. Complete. You have the characters, you have the conflict, and from there the story seems to go the only possible way it ever could have gone. Simple as that. These guys work hard to make it look so easy.

I’ve read a lot of bedtime stories over the last 8 years and a big thing I’ve learned about kids’ stories – and stories in general – is that these kinds of “primal” stories make the deepest and strongest connections to us. Kids tune out when a story gets too convoluted for its own good – and guess what? Adults do too. I enjoy complicated stories and “puzzle movies,” but these are different. These “intellectual” stories can be great and rewarding, but they don’t have the same emotional connection – or power – that primal stories do. Give us a character we care about. Put him in conflict so that we instinctively know what will happen – what HAS TO happen. For my money, that’s what the goal of structure is – making the viewer intuitively aware of what HAS TO happen for the story to resolve itself, for the character to get to where he belongs. If the writer can communicate that intuition, he has made a deep connection and has a huge head start with everything else. There is a bullet train headed straight for the climax and we are all driving it. We recognize the ride instinctively even though we have never taken it before. There will be surprises along the way, but these delight us because they still “feel right,” they feel integral to the whole. This “making us intuitively know” is the territory of these primal stories. This is my idea of The Line which I have discussed before. This is “classic” territory. This is Pixar territory.

Wall-E gives us a surprisingly endearing character with a heartbreakingly graceful conflict, masterfully communicated. The comparisons to Chaplin are not a stretch. There are moments of purely visual and emotional beauty in this film which are startling in their power. We have the character and his conflict, and when Wall-E grabs on to Eve’s spaceship and blasts off for adventure and his destiny, the emotional connection is perfect.

But then there is the second act.

Some have complained about the social commentary that comes from the events of the second act. What bothered me was how these events felt so… disconnected from the first act. Some of this is unavoidable – we are in a different world now, literally. We have to go out and find out what external force has “turned Eve off” so we can fix it and live happily ever after. And the events of the second act do just this. But the movie became cluttered with characters and events that felt unrelated. It felt the opposite of intuitive: it felt arbitrary. The M-O robot was funny and my kids laughed at the “island of misfit toys” robots, but it felt merely like one of an infinite number of ways the story could have gone. These didn’t feel like pleasant surprises or discoveries along the ride, they didn’t seem intuitively familiar, they felt like stalling tactics – characters I didn’t care about doing busy, random things that didn’t seem to matter while Wall-E faded into the background.

There are (repeated) moments in the second act where Wall-E sees the re-awakened Eve and simply wants to hold her hand and let the happy ending begin. But she has to keep him quiet while she takes care of the plant in the boot because the movie isn’t over yet, there is a bigger problem to be solved. Wall-E doesn’t follow this bigger story, he doesn’t care about the plant or the humans or the future of mankind, he just wants Eve. He’s just focused on the story about the little robot who fell in love. Him and me both. You know, the story from the first act. The story that is not about the future of mankind, or about humans learning their lesson, but actually about Wall-E.

And why are the humans the ones learning a lesson anyway? They’re not the protagonists of this story. And then there is the whole issue of the double ending, where the movie is over but Wall-E has to break down again so his story – the real story – can have a climax…

Let me be clear: I liked the movie. It is miles above Kung Fu Panda (which we also took the kids to see) and the work of the other animation studios out there. The first act is breathtaking. Really. The visuals and animation are Pixar’s best yet – except for the humans the entire universe is rendered in a live-action reality that is utterly amazing. But then it gets too convoluted for its own good, and I emotionally tuned out. It becomes more “intellectual” than “primal,” unlike the Pixar classics. It’s a good movie, but it just doesn’t live up to its (pure? perfect?) first act.

Yes, that first act sure felt perfect. Perhaps it was – perhaps it was too good because it was so complete and intimate and insular… and therefore inadvertently gave us nowhere specific to go, nowhere inevitable the story HAD TO go. Maybe any external complications would have felt forced or arbitrary. Maybe it was a perfect short film that they padded into a feature-length story. Or maybe the movie’s perfect second act is still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered whole, complete, to magically emerge. Maybe. But if Wall-E has a primal, intuitive, perfect second act (like Toy Story 2 or Ratatouille or even, yes, Cars), I haven’t seen it.

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3 Responses to Wall-E and the (Non)Intuitive Second Act

  1. AlexM says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. AlexM says:

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Robb says:

    Thanks for the kind words Alex! Thanks for reading.

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