When someone makes an animated kids movie they should hope that the end product pleases three different perspectives: animation lovers, kids and parents. Meaning: there should be something artistically compelling for general filmgoers, most of it should be accessible and entertaining for younger viewers, and whatever message it’s ultimately trying to convey should be one that a parent approves of. Wall-E might be of the strangest kids movies I’ve ever seen because it’s the movie with the widest discrepancy between those three camps.
The problem is that Wall-E is set in a dystopian future where Earth has been reduced to a lifeless scrap heap where only a solar powered robot could survive. The darkness of the setting is great for animation lovers, because it gives the filmmakers a chance to create sights that have never been seen in an animated movie before. Wall-E is rendered beautifully, with the perfect amount of haze overlying the images to give them a lovely texture even though we’re looking at huge clumps of garbage. No matter what other complaints someone might have about the movie, the fact that the parts of the movie that are set on Earth are designed with just the right balance between open space and clutter is undeniable.
I’m less sure of how well this film does at entertaining children. The problem is that the film isn't quite sure if it wants to be a magical fantasy movie (where such a dark premise would just be a back drop for slapstick) or as a practical exploration of a specific world (which would be much, much darker, but also a lot more interesting.) A good example of this is the titular Wall-E's cute animal sidekick - a roach. Picking a roach as his companion is a logical extension of setting the movie on a world overtaken by junk, but the roach also seems to have loyalty to Wall-E, which is something a real insect couldn't do. Furthermore, the roach exists both as a cute pet and as something that's always in danger of being crushed to death, making it a perfect encapsulation of why this kid's movie isn't exactly a perfect movie for a kid.
As far as the adult perspective goes – well, that’s the part where this movie struggles the most. Wall-E is a lonely character who lives in a really unstable world and I'm not sure that I'd want my hypothetical kids to be bummed out by him. Yes, sometimes he cheers himself up with old VHS tapes of cheery musicals, but he always has to fear his parts breaking or the weather destroying him. Yes, Wall-E does find love in the end, but his crush goes unrequited for most of the movie and he spends a big chunk of the middle of the movie looking forlorn, a touch that really serves to underline how bleak his world is. Yes, it’s good for kids to begin to understand that we need to be good stewards of the environment, but I’m not sure that I would want to teach a child that by using a worst case scenario.
So does Wall-E Work? It's definitely uneven, but the fact that it’s at unconventional in a genre that rewards conformity is definitely a plus for an adult viewer. It feels more like a cult movie than a lowest common denominator four quadrant pleaser, which is a nice change of pace. But then again, that's coming from me, a full grown man who likes animation but doesn't have any kids. You might get a completely different perspective if you asked the other two thirds of it's audience.