Although WALL*E ends with a very apt and moving nod to City Lights, it is in fact Pixar’s answer to Modern Times...
For a film as fundamentally simple as WALL*E, there are myriad ways to begin discussing it. Perhaps one entry point, and a key distinguishing feature from other Pixar films, is the fact that it actually integrates live-action material. The taped messages from Fred Willard's Shelby Forthright, president / chairman of Buy 'n Large not only provide a filmic texture distinct from the rest of the film; they represent a critical "outside" to the post-apocalyptic robot world and the flabby parahumanity supported by it.
- Chaplin's second movie with sound is Modern Times, but it's often referred to as his last silent film because it was shot without sound and the characters' voices are never heard. But it features an orchestral score, several of its jokes require sound effects (such as a sequence involving a radio advertisement), and two of the characters' voices actually are heard, including Chaplin's as the Tramp. Late in the film, the Tramp sings a song of nonsense syllables that sound vaguely French, but the film's larger and more imposing voice belongs to the factory boss who appears on a giant screen above his workers and seems to be able to watch them from on high. The boss barks orders: "More speed." He doesn't need to call himself the great-and-powerful anything, because he controls the machines. (Chaplin made the film five years before the Wizard of Oz and almost two decades before George Orwell wrote 1984.)
- Modern Times is a hybrid. So is Chaplin's previous film, City Lights, which also has an orchestral score and a joke about audible speech (Chaplin voiced the characters in the opening scene with a kazoo). But Modern Times, which was made well after the advent of talkies, was conceived from the start as an anachronism. Its outdatedness is built into the theme. The Little Tramp is moving into the mechanical age, the mindless age of industry. The machine to which he's a slave, the machine that swallows him past its conveyor-belted tongue, looks from the side like a giant film projector that jams when the Tramp is threaded like film itself onto its sprockets.
- In several scenes, WALL*E, somewhat startlingly, features live actors. They appear briefly on dilapidated screens that are projecting 700-year-old videos to a dead earth, and their appearance is jarring even in the middle of a photo-realistically rendered junk pile. We don't expect them, real humans. We expect stylized humans in a Pixar film, if we expect any at all. But this movie is a hybrid, and in some ways, embedding real humans into a digitally animated world is the inverse of Modern Times. What appears on these screens is old technology -- simple video -- wedded with a new and ever improving rendered universe. But the purpose is the same; the screens bridge a gap between the past and future, but from a different vantage point. If Chaplin stood in the silent world and looked forward, the little trash compactor, WALL*E, stands in the year 2700 and looks back. Among the detritus, we recognize our Rubik's Cubes and our iPods, but more strikingly we recognize Fred Willard. And in him, we recognize ourselves, more so than in the blubbery, electronically stimulated humans rendered by Pixar. The difference between the two is the core of writer-director Andrew Stanton's cautionary tale, and this future, rather than being inevitable like Chaplin's, is preventable. Stanton's goal is to make us see the value in preventing it. Come to think of it, maybe that was Chaplin's goal, too.
- When WALL*E pines for a hand to hold, he's hearkening back to a time he knows only through video. Hello Dolly. Dancing. Humans reaching toward other humans. The final scene of City Lights -- I've watched it a hundred times, or a thousand -- shows two characters standing on opposite sides of a plate glass window. They look at each other, and the woman doesn't recognize the man because, for the entire film, she's been blind. Now she can see, but only literally. Through a shift in the mise-en-scene, the glass is removed and the camera comes in close. A flower changes hands. A coin. But it's the fingers, hands, and arms that finally make the connection. The realization dawns on the woman's face. The gap is bridged. But then the gap is larger than ever, obvious to anyone who can... see. And there the movie ends.
- WALL*E plays Hello Dolly on his video iPod, but he doesn't watch it directly. It's too small. He watches it through a magnifying rectangle that looks about a foot-long on a side. That is, he watches the past through a plate of glass.
- But the video iPod is just a conduit; his movies are stored on VHS video tapes. I know the movie's last act is all about suspense, but I get more nervous when EVE, early in the film, carelessly tugs the magnetic video tape out of WALL*E's cartridge like it's a roll of streamers. He emits a mechanical gasp and carefully, quickly re-spools the thin, black strip, then nervously tap tap taps his graspers until he verifies that the tape is still playable. How many did he lose before he figured out how delicate they are?
- Andrew Stanton: "So we watched a Chaplin film and a Keaton film and sometimes a Harold Lloyd film every day at lunch for almost a year and a half, the story crew and the animation crew. And became pretty much familiar with their entire bodies of work. You walk away from that thinking, 'What can't you tell completely visually?' These guys were just… everything seemed possible to convey. And you realized how much of that staging and legwork was actually lost when sound came in. People got lazy and just sort of relied on the dialogue to get stuff across."
- "There's a great scene in Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., where he tries on different hats, and his face never changes -- it's just different hats -- and yet it's hysterical," [Stanton] said. "You go through all these different gags and laugh about it, watching the different hats.... I think the one that made me cry the most is Chaplin's The Kid, which just kills me."
- Also this: The captain of the space ship in WALL*E brings his vessel back to earth and explains the concept of plants to his fellow humans. He learned about them just moments before, on the futuristic equivalent of Wikipedia. Even in the future, anyone can be an instant expert, easily possessing all of the knowledge that instant expertise can convey through sludgy synapses. Cautionary, indeed.