Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is "Wall-E" Overrated?

Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman celebrate the 'Kung Fu Panda' DVD release

Last night the 36th annual Annie Awards took place recognizing achievement in animation. There were a lot of great animated films this year, so choosing the winners was I'm sure was no easy task. Well, to some I suppose. If you had checked with the film critics of the world I think they would've chosen Pixar's "Wall-E" to take the top prize. The film appeared on 162 critics top ten films of the year lists according to Wikipedia. But last night at the Annie Awards the cute little robot got the Color Purple treatment and was completely shut out of awards. Who reigned supreme, you ask? Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda."

Now geekdoms king of the nerds Harry Knowles (of says he got several messages crying conspiracy. See Dreamworks Animation is a Gold sponsor of the Annie Awards whereas Disney and Pixar are only Silver sponsors. I don't buy that for a second, not even if Oliver Stone decided to make it the subject of his next film. Knowles theorises that "Wall-E" was not as "traditionally expressive" as the animation in "Kung Fu Panda," and there is something to be said for that. But I think there are some deeper issues with "Wall-E" that I felt from the moment I left the theater.

I was really looking forward to the release of "Wall-E." You can't go wrong with Pixar films, and this film is no exception. It is a wonderful movie, funny and brilliantly animated. I actually saw the film with both of my kids and every one of my nieces and nephews on my side of the family. Eight kids total. While they enjoyed themselves, they weren't bubbling over with excitement over what they had seen. They were much more excited about the big stand up advertisement for "High School Musical 3" we passed on the way out.

So what happened? I actually think that Roger Ebert sums it up pretty well in his brief review for his 20 best of the year list...

"Hugely entertaining, wonderfully well-drawn, and, if you think about it, merciless in its critique of a global consumer culture that obsesses on intake and disregards the consequences of output."

Perhaps the first time that the word "merciless" has been used to describe a Disney film. Is the problem that for the first time in it's illustrious history, Pixar put more effort into making a point than they did simply entertaining people. "Kung Fu Panda," on the other hand was one of the most entertaining films of the year. I was expecting a goofy gimmick of a movie. Jack Black as a portly panda in a film that sounded like it had a title before it had a script. It sounded dumb. But it turned out to be a fantastic surprise. It was funny, it had a message (though that wasn't the primary focus), and it was a creative and respectful salute to the martial arts movie genre. Call me shallow, but when I take my kids to the movies I have zero interest in them bearing witness to a "critique of global consumer culture." I think the makers of "Wall-E" may have forgotten the folks who made them the success story they are...the kids. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for sometimes. Could kids tell that they were being talked down to in "Wall-E?" I sure could, and I didn't like it. But...a Panda in a kung-fu battle with a leopard, now that I liked.

I still enjoyed "Wall-E" a lot. It is a great movie. But if I were an Academy Award voter where would my vote go? While right now I'm still picking "Wall-E" to win the award in the office Oscar contest, were I someone who's vote mattered, I think I'd go with the Panda.

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