Does WALL-E Arc?
I got an email from two writers last week asking me to settle an argument.
They had both seen the hit summer Pixar movie WALL-E and wondered if the hero, the lead, the namesake of the movie, does something we screenwriters try our darndest to make happen for all our heroes:
Does Wall-E arc?
The story of WALL-E finds its tin hero alone until he falls for a slinky fembot he goes to the ends of the universe to win. But the question is a good one, and speaks to the qualifiers of both heroes and arcs.
It’s not about being metallic. Another animated feature, Robots, starring the voice of Robin Williams among others, gave its clanky characters personalities, and a full-on saga of an underdog (under robot?) sent to the big city to make good. Haley Joel Osmond in the Spielberg/Kubrick collaboration, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, starred as a human playing a robot, but faced similar WALL-E -like questions from audiences who wondered why we followed Haley to the end of time to see if he would be reunited with his “mother.” If a hero is by definition not alive, can we still root for him? Artificial emotions can be as relevant as real ones — a topic explored in Philip K. Dick novel-to-films like Blade Runner, and to a lesser degree, Minority Report. But we are not as interested in the philosophical debate as we are in what this means for the rules of storytelling.
What makes us root for someone — what makes us want to see him win?
For animators trying to bring life to inanimate objects, it’s all in the eyes. Emotion is found in the window to the soul; it’s The Margaret Keane Effect (the kitschy artist known for little ragamuffins with big ocular orbs). In the movie Cars, the Pixar hit from two summers ago, the entire windshield of each character was devoted to the eyes, and each cars’ grillwork was elasticized to enhance their expressions and further anthropomorphize the cast. And there was rooting interest a plenty for star voice Owen Wilson in what is essentially “Doc Hollywood with automobiles.”
“Arc” is another matter. It’s a term that basically means change. If the whole point of a story is to show transformation in a hero, if the only reason we get it is if something happens, then it would seem to be a must.
We have seen human characters who by design aren’t allowed to arc, do so. In Being There, Peter Sellers as cipher Chauncy Gardener does not cry at the start of the movie when his benefactor dies, but does shed a tear when Melvyn Douglas passes away at the end. Does Chauncy arc? Catalyst figure Rain Man (Dustin Hoffman) has a similar moment at the end of that film when he rests his head on Tom Cruise’s shoulder, but is that a character change or an involuntary reaction? And the “save the stag!” moment Helen Mirren experiences toward the end of The Queen humanizes and affects the real life character depicted as “cold” until that moment in the woods, a fortuitous urging that leads to a third act change in Royal policy — and maybe a personal change in the title character.
This is not a small debate. As big a success as WALL-E is, it isn’t generating the kind of buzz as last year’s Ratatoullie. And as funny and wonderful an entertainment as it is, we have to wonder if we write inanimate characters, is making them capable of change — as well as root-able — a prerequisite?
Does WALL-E arc? is a question I’d prefer to let the brilliant minds on this site chime in on. It’s a puzzle we need to solve. The mystery of how to create, enhance and exploit rooting interest in our heroes is not only an exacting science, it’s essential to the discussion about any story we write.
And one only we humans can decide!
Hi Blake, I’m one of the writers mentioned above. I was of the opinion that Wall-E does arc (Erik, you’re wrong). It’s a much smaller arc than Eve but at the beginning he’s not courageous enough to hold her hand and at the end he does. Even though she’s the one who initiates the hand-holding, his sacrifices to save her and humanity are what creates the intimacy and love to make this possible. If that’s not an arc than I don’t know what is. But that’s just my opinion…
One question I do have, what does “it isn’t generating the kind of buzz as last year’s Ratatoullie” mean? Seems rather subjective, especially when compared with how much more critics and audiences embrace the writing in Wall-E over the other movies you mention above (Did anyone actually like Robots, Cars, or AI?). While buzz is different than success, we’re talking about a movie that has ALREADY matched Ratatoullie domestically and hasn’t even been released worldwide yet.
Thanks for getting back to us.
Gosh Sam, no slight at all intended at WALL E, a great success, and as I point out a “funny and wonderful” film (though Kung Fu Panda is so far the #1 animated film of the summer). I am not recommending any movie — Dark Knight, Wanted, Get Smart or any other — except as a guide for writers. This isn’t about like or dislike, it’s about discovering and discussing storytelling patterns to use in our own work! But thanks for the comment and for a great blog topic!
- Elizabeth Ditty
I’d have to see it again to really examine whether or not Wall-E arcs. However, I think the film works because Wall-E is the catalyst for every other character in the film to arc: Eve, other misfit robots, humans, etc. More than rooting for Wall-E, I think the audience gets to root for life in general, for the survival of hope. Wall-E serves as a medium through which other characters get to become the heroes for which we root.
I agree that Wall-E is the catalyst. The humans in the movie and the captain of the ship do the most “arcing” in this film. They transform as a result of Wall-E and his quest.
Wall-E the robot does not arc, but Wall-E the movie has a major arc. Wall-E uses a slightly obscure structure which can be called the mentor protagonist.
At the beginning of the film, Wall-E is the only human or robot in the universe with an individual personality. Everyone else is living an inauthentic, boxed in, robotic existance, with no purpose, etc. Humans are listless and complacent and robots blindly follow orders. Society is orderly and comfortable, but without any charm, beauty, or reason to live.
Wall-E is the only one who knows how to be a human, as we today know it. He has a personality. He has his own likes and dislikes. He teaches everyone else how to be human. His arc (or in technical terms, his moment of self-awareness) happened in the past. And now he will cause everyone else to arc.
I saw it twice and cried all the way through each time. It’s simply so beautiful. From his solitary and brutal existance on earth, to the way he teaches so many to be human (he waves at them, or shakes their hand, and they repeat it). He doesn’t intend to teach them, but a personality is so tempting that the all do, often because of disorderly accidents.
Another film that used this structure is Beverly Hills Cop. Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is already a great cop. But the entire force of Beverly Hills plays way too much by the books and lets bad guys get away as a result. Axel Foley either teaches them to bend the rules (particularly Judge Reinhold), or he gets them fired. All three movies are just like this. It’s rebellion versus authority, the Apollonian vs the Dionysian.
- Mike Perri
I believe Wall-E the character does arc because he could of stayed on Earth and not jumped on the ship… He took a chance. Found love and helped man kind resettle Earth. If he would of stayed on Earth and not gone after Eve, he would of not found love. He answered the call… and he went on a journey light years in the making ;)
- Scott W
The creators of Wall-E would have had a very definable arc if they had shown Wall-E duty-bound to clean up the earth; then he defies his own programming to go off an adventure he might have been curious about from old films he watched.
And “Wall-Ah” — you have an arc.
I think i agree that the character od Wall-e doesn’t really have much of an arc. He knows what he wants at the start and has nothing to lose. There is no reason for him not to follow his dreams and chase the girl/robot he loves. It’s true that his emotional arc has already happened, the moment he stops doing what he was programmed for.
However, Wall-e as a film obviously has a lot of arcs in it and Wall-e is always the catalyst for them to happen my favourite being ‘Mo’s’, the cleaning robot, i just found him hilarious.
Finally i must say that i am completely torn between The Dark Knight and Wall-e for which is my favourite film of the summer. Batman was dark and brilliant but Wall-e was so emotional, epic and beautiful. Too tough to choose but i do think that Wall-e has become my favourite Pixar film. Regardless of if he arcs or not i think Wall-e is one of the most loveable characters to ever be computer generated, and for me thats enough!
- Michael Bryan
Sam, I really like how you view story. The longer I write and the more scripts I write I have come to the realization how silly it is always ascribe the word ‘success’ to ‘box office dollars.’ In the big Hollywood system, more money means the film is more successful, which is untrue, something I know we all feel inside but a sentiment not echoed by many in the screenwriting trade. I think you must think that way to make a lot of money.
As for the little guy having a change from beginning to end, of course he does. This is a silly question. I think the real question is to what degree does he change? The change is there on the screen, as you described Sam. I think the Rainman change is the head on the shoulder (for me, it was when he met his eyes for a flash at the very end, if I remember right) and perhaps the tear at the end of Being There. Not sure if I agree there.
The thing worth examining is what degree of change is needed for what kind of story. How subtle? How bold? How faint? I think the change at the end of Fight Club and Wanted were great for those movies, but they are not subtle movies, they are in love with the form and not very meditative.
But ending and the way the guy at the end of Sideways changes is subtle and fits the tone of the movie.
Many movies out of the commercial studio system push the big change so much it’s embarrassing to watch. I am one to push for subtle changes shown in a final gesture or word or glance.
The writers at Pixar are much too smart to not map out the story in their films. I’m sure they find this dialogue humorous. The change is there in all of their films. Weather we like the movie or not is subjective, but as writers studying other forms, the degree of change and how it’s achieved while staying true to the tone of the movie is the real discussion.
- Stephen Hall
It doesn’t really arc if you try to match your explanation of the arc in your great book Save The Cat. More to the point, the movie is just not that interesting. It makes great life changing points, but by the time we grasp that we’ve fallen asleep or left the theatre. If we did stay we’re too young and missed the major points anyway.
Just saw Wall-E, and I think in this Buddy Love film it’s Eve who has the arc. Even though Wall-E is the star of the film, it’s Eve that turns from a serious, by-the-books robotic servant (she has her directive) to falling in love with Wall-E by the end. She has changed from having met another, much like Danny Glover in “Lethal Weapon” or even Harry in “When Harry Met Sally”. Wall-e is pretty much in love with her right from first sight, and his devotion is unwavering. Who knows if he would have had the courage to take Eve’s hand at the end. Even he was surprised (and delighted, no doubt)! Eve has changed, and I’m sure if it came down to choosing between the plant and Wall-e, by the end she would choose Wall-e.
So Wall-e the character may not have an arc (although he has quite an adventure), but Wall-e the movie definitely does. Of course the biggest and most dramatic one (the sub-plot in my opinion) is humanity’s, but just having Wall-e and Eve together would have satisfied most audiences I think.
- Chris Henry
Well, the little guy does have a pretty well defined arc as does Eve. Both characters change significantly. But it might be helpful to look at the film as more of a pure science fiction film. Perhaps even a sort of high-art science fiction film like FORBIDDEN PLANET. Eve seems to reflect the values and the overwhelming, if benign, power of the drones in Iain M. Bank’s Culture series of novels. For all intents and purposes she is a Special Circumstances Agent working for, the Cultures, Contact section. Diziet Sma if you will. Even the luminous, and feminine, nature of her carapace reflects this character as written by Banks. An astounding film with tips of the hat to everyone from Chris Foss to Phillip K. Dick.
I love robots, eco-friendly themes and sci-fi. I was set to love this movie from jump. However, I have spent hours trying to figure out why this movie leaves me cold. First half, I love it, but once WALL*E goes up the elevator to meet the captain, I’m out.
WALL*E is a catalyst hero. He is like the titular character in Babe. He doesn’t change, but his plucky nature changes every human and robot he encounters.
WALL*E would be better named “All About E.V.E.” E.V.E is the one who chooses between her programming (her job) and love. (I’d say this movie is about balancing between your work and living.) When WALL*E risks all for the umpteenth time (read: character is unchanging) to help E.V.E. and is critically injured, E.V.E arcs. E.V.E. is the protagonist, WALL*E is only trying to help her reach her goals, yet he is acting heroically. It’s all very confusing.
The flaw in this film is that the Captain’s arc is not related to WALL*E, but the promise of Earth. Had the Captain, or the humans, been the ones reluctant to give up their comfortable lifestyle (instead of the ship’s computer), it would have been a better film. WALL*E with his misfit robots and a few human allies would have to get the ship to Earth. Or convince the others to go. Instead, everyone’s just okay with doing hard labor. So the movie’s goal was “stick this plant in a hole”.
But I LOVED the first 40 minutes of the film and all the scenes with just WALL*E and E.V.E. The rest is human error.
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I’ve yet to see this one but I think that animation, in general, get’s a wee bit of a free pass when it comes to character arc due to the target audience it’s going for.