I’m a conservative, and I just love the movie “Wall-E.” That makes me an outcast among many of my fellow conservatives who have judged Pixar’s post-apocalyptic cartoon about a trash-compacting robot to be a carbon-phobic, Al Gore-worshiping, global-warming panic-mongering assault on capitalism, President Bush and U.S. prosperity.
The movie is set 700 years in the future, when humans have befouled their planet with so much litter that they have fled in a spaceship, leaving behind Wall-E to compress the junk and pile it into skyscrapers. Then he meets Eve, a technologically advanced robot sent to Earth to scope out signs of its habitability.
Sounds innocent enough. But at Pajamas Media, the Internet news site whose motto is “Sending the [Liberal Mainstream Media] Down the River,” film critic Kyle Smith deplored “Wall-E” as an exercise in class betrayal by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, which earns billions of dollars serving its theme-park visitors the same slurpy food and slothful fantasies that characterize life on the spaceship in which the obese, shop-aholic Earthlings live. On National Review Online’s blog, Shannen Coffin decried “Wall-E” as “Godforsaken dreck,” while syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg faulted the movie’s “hypocrisy” and “Malthusian fear-mongering.”
But the worst blow for me came from my favorite Web film critic, Dirty Harry, who championed such earlier Pixar offerings as “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” for their celebration of the conservative values of heroic individualism and democracy that rewards talent no matter where it comes from. To Harry, “Wall-E” was a betrayal, not least because it included a single line of gentle Dubya parody: A videotaped president of the mega-corporation whose robots run the spaceship advises his bloated subjects to “stay the course.” That was too much for Harry, who lamented, “Have we lost Pixar ... to Bush Derangement Syndrome?”
I can understand where the conservatives are coming from, because liberal critics and pundits are treating “Wall-E” as a piece of G-rated schoolroom propaganda designed to drill into childish heads the duty to climb aboard the climate-alarmist, capitalist-bashing bandwagon. The most blatant example of this came from Frank Rich of the New York Times, who wrote, “At the end, [the kids in the audience] clapped their small hands. What they applauded was ... a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out.” Gaagh -- give me Dirty Harry any day.
“Wall-E” doesn’t mark the first time that critics on the right have unloaded inexplicably on a piece of popular entertainment that you would think would appeal to their conservative ideals (such as, in “Wall-E,” romantic devotion and monogamy rather than the sexual fulfillment that ranks high on the ziggurat of liberal goods). Steven Spielberg’s World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan,” with its theme of a unit of Army Rangers dispatched behind enemy lines after D-day to protect a young soldier whose three brothers have already given their lives for the Allied cause, seemed a sure bet. And many conservative Americans did love the movie, so much so that in 2006, the Rangers made its star, Tom Hanks, an honorary member of their hall of fame. But for some reason -- perhaps because Spielberg was a Bill Clinton man, or perhaps because “Saving Private Ryan” didn’t prettify the carnage of D-day and its aftermath -- critics at National Review, the Weekly Standard and other conservative publications hammered the movie as a piece of blatant “anti-Americanism,” to quote Richard Grenier of the Washington Times.
The irony of all this is that if “Wall-E” is didactic, what it has to teach is profoundly conservative. For starters, the film never even goes near the climate-crusading vocabulary of “global warming,” “carbon footprints” or even “green,” which used to mean “verdant and lovely” but now means “twisty fluorescent lightbulbs.” The crime of the humans who vacate Earth isn’t failure to drive a Prius but strewing detritus. Conservatives detest litterbugs and other parasites who expect others to clean up after them. “Wall-E” champions hard work, faithfulness to duty and the fact that even a dreary job like garbage-collecting can be meaningful and fulfilling.
In its portrayal of the overweight slobs on the spaceship, “Wall-E” isn’t denigrating consumerism but passive dependency. Junk-food-fueled obesity correlates inversely with socioeconomic status, and it’s those on the low end who the liberal welfare state tries to scoop up as permanent clients. “Wall-E” is also pro-life. When Eve shuts down after retrieving a green plant from Earth (she’s literally in a “persistent vegetative state”), Wall-E doesn’t decide she has a “right to die” so he can get rid of her; he carts her around tenderly and decks her with some still-functioning Christmas lights he has retrieved from a pile of human disposables.
Finally, “Wall-E” celebrates Western civilization. That means specifically Western civilization, not trendy mult-culti. The credit crawl, never to be missed in a Pixar film, makes this clear, employing a progression of Western artistic styles that proceed from cave-painting to Roman mosaics to Impressionistic brushwork. This confidence in the West and its capacity for rejuvenation dovetails with the film’s other message -- a belief in free will, denigrated by most leftists who believe that we are all victims of economics or “society” or bad families. “Wall-E” makes it clear that anyone, whether robot or human, can transcend what we are supposedly programmed by our culture to be or do.
All of this, however, is beside the point because the point of art, whether movies or books or paintings or television shows, is exactly not to preach anything. Art can make social points, or poke fun satirically, as “Wall-E” does, at societal weaknesses. But to the extent that art becomes mere ideological drum-beating, it fails. “Wall-E” tells a good story and, as an animated feature, does it via a cornucopia of visual images. It’s simply too accomplished a work of art to be reduced to mere propaganda by either the left or the right. It’s fair to criticize the message of a film -- but only if it actually tries to send that message, which “Wall-E” doesn’t.
Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.