Not only is Pixar’s WALL-E an extraordinary movie – it’s also, in its strange way, a paean to musical theater.
You just don’t head into a computer-animated film set in the 2100s to feature tunes by the great Jerry Herman, but that’s exactly what you get. WALL-E is about a soulful little robot, one of the last moving creatures on Earth (save for his faithful and resilient cockroach friend), whose duty is to compact the mounds of garbage humans left on the planet into stackable little cubes.
How WALL-E the robot got his soul is left for us to ponder, but this adorable little guy – a cross between E.T., the robot from Short Circuit and a little bit of V.I.N.C.E.N.T from Disney’s The Black Hole – is fascinated by the detritus of humanity. When he comes across items that intrigue him, he throws them into a little cooler and takes them home to the Dumpster he lives in (and has festooned with Christmas lights). One of his favorite items is an old VHS tape copy of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Using an old VCR, an iPod and some sort of magnifying lens, WALL-E watches two scenes over and over again: “Before the Parade Passes By” with Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl strutting down the street and the ballad “It Only Takes a Moment” with Crawford crooning sweetly with Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy.
There’s no Streisand or Matthau in sight (which is probably for the best – Hello, Dolly!, though directed by Gene Kelly, is not a great movie musical). Rather, WALL-E is attracted to the high stepping of “Sunday Clothes” and the song’s naively romantic message about joining the human race to discover wonderful things and the heart-fluttering, hand-holding romance of “It Only Takes a Moment.” The fact that the movie and the original 1964 Broadway musical are based on a Thornton Wilder play (The Matchmaker) all play into the movie’s core message about the vital importance of connection and consciousness.
WALL-E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) understands the potent romance of musical theater – the same thing that people who hate musicals deride as silly and unrealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting, Herman’s sweet music represents an idealistic side of humanity not visible for all the junk and rubble. That’s what little WALL-E responds to – he wants to dance and be in love like Cornelius Hackl.
There’s a scene of WALL-E trying to dance with a hubcap for a hat that is priceless. But that’s just a prelude to the robot’s actual chance to fall in love with EVE, a slick droid sent down from the mother ship (where all the too-fat humans are carried on floating chairs, eyes glued to the screens in front of their faces). Neither of the ‘bots really speaks, so the true expression of their feelings (again, why these robots have developed feelings is mysterious, but intriguing) is by touching, or holding hands, just like Irene and Cornelius do in Hello, Dolly!
Is it corny? Yes. Is it effective? Undeniably.
Stanton comes by his affection for musical theater naturally. Apparently he was in a high school production of Hello, Dolly! See what we risk losing when we cut arts programs from our schools?
And Herman, whose music is so integral to one of the best movies of the year (animated or otherwise), is getting the kind of exposure he deserves. He told the Associated Press: “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning of the movie.”
Herman sold Pixar the rights to use the songs, but he was unaware of just how they’d be used in the final product. He said the movie brought tears to his eyes. He told the Hartford Courant: “It really blew me away. You’re talking to someone still in a haze. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the songs expressed the entire intent of the film.”
Now it’s time for those geniuses at Pixar, who haven’t made a bad movie yet, to create a full-bore musical of their very own. Maybe they’ll get Jerry Herman to help them out.
Here are clips of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!: