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!