“Wall-E” Pushes The Right Buttons

andybeta | August 1, 2008 10:00 am

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the music that serves as the backdrop to Wall-E‘s scorched earth:

Not that my eyes are the most discerning sensory organs, but after watching the computer animated sequences of Walt Disney’s uneven Fantasia 2000, I found myself wholly unable to sit through more than ten minutes of a Pixar or any similarly computer-animated film. Try as I might to get into Toy Story, Osmosis Jones, The Iron Giant, or Shrek, the surface sheen of them–for whatever intangible aesthetic reason–repulsed my optic nerves. For years, I simply couldn’t take the look of them, firmly resolved to never find Nemo.

That all changed with 2004’s The Incredibles, though I still can’t pinpoint what exactly catapulted me over that visual block. Perhaps the lifelike recreation of that superhero family struck me as more marionette-like than machine-made. (In my mind’s eye, I can still see every strand of Dash Parr’s hair.) Maybe the Brad Bird-directed film pushed all the (correctly sequenced) emotional buttons and drew me deeply into the story. Regardless, I found myself hooked, and I was subsequently drawn to the metroplex itself for Ratatouille and Pixar’s most recent entry, WALL-E. Call it Magic Eye Syndrome or something; once stuck on the surface, I now readily plunge into such computer-generated realms, drawn in by the human-like poignancy that directors like Bird and WALL-E‘s Andrew Stanton elicit from rats, cars, cockroaches, and rusty trash-compacting robots.

WALL-E opens with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!–more on that particular musical later–and it’s light and buoyant, a prelude to WALL-E‘s grim reality of a junkyard earth and our hero, the Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class ‘bot, left behind to routinely stack up the trash. In the wordless opening half of the film, the soundtrack mixes robotic whirrs, bleeps, start-up dings, and rrrrrrs (courtesy of the man who voiced R2-D2, sound designer Ben Burtt) with the harps, horns, and tympanum composed by Randy Newman’s cousin, Thomas Newman. (The Newman clan basically has Pixar soundtracks on lock, to say nothing of ZZ Top videos directed by cousin Tim Newman.)

After starting his career crafting electronic-based scores for ’80s fare like Desperately Seeking Susan, Revenge of the Nerds, and Real Genius, Newman shaded toward more classical orchestrations in the ’90s. And while he has lost in each of his past eight Academy Award nominations (though cousin Randy lost plenty more before winning with Monsters, Inc. in 2001), Newman did win an Emmy for composing the theme to Six Feet Under. Since the film tacks on a Peter Gabriel-assisted “feel good about the environment” single (“Down to Earth”) at the end, there’s hope that Newman might finally garner an Oscar of his own this year. For his efforts in the earliest parts of the film, he seems a lock.

Aside from deftly carrying the action of the film without any dialogue for the first half, the sound design here effectively inserts musical jokes amid its music (extra points go to somehow shoehorning in that annoying mounted fish that sings “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”). Once inside the compound of WALL-E, we realize that in addition to his robotic recycling routine, he basically has the tastes of your shiny and kitschy geegaw-collecting gay uncle. WALL-E’s most prized possession is a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly!, which he watches obsessively (cue “It Only Takes a Moment”) so as to learn how to dance, dress like a dandy, wag his straw hat (in this case, a trash can lid), and, most crucially, learn the subtle art of hand-holding. Now if he only had a life-partner–er, girl robot.

Elsewhere, the soundtrack effectively deploys Louis Armstrong’s rasp on “La Vie en Rose” and pays homage to yet another mostly silent space movie, Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey, by scoring the cold void of space via the lilting “The Blue Danube” and momentous “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Much like the trash heap that Wall-E calls home, the soundtrack mashes together the disparate elements of musicals, computer noise, Bobby McFerrin, and Strauss effectively.

As other reviews have noted, Disney has basically leveled a charge at the fat and consumptive zombies that make up its target audience (itself a curious move) with WALL-E, but that it somehow manages to also twist the very real and chilling prospect of a lifeless earth into something heart-warming and affirmative is the real trick. As is the fact that this reviewer was made misty-eyed by a robot that looks an awful lot like Johnny 5.