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Wall-E: The Silent Film Star from the Stars

From, WALL-E's large expressive eyes communicate all his emotions clearly.

In this week’s #FilmFriday we will be looking into WALL-E (2008) a modern classic, beloved by children and adults alike. Unlike many animated movies, WALL-E is unique and profound on several levels. Written by Andrew Stanton (writer of Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life) the movie has all the heart we’ve come to expect from Disney/Pixar productions. At the same time this futuristic movie takes inspiration from one of comedy’s oldest and most prolific stars; Charlie Chaplin. In addition, we cannot deny the strong ecological messages present throughout the movie. So, let’s look at all these dimensions in WALL-E.


The adorable robot WALL-E begins his journey with us in the movie without any kind of dialogue. In fact the first 22 minuets of movie has no dialogue. We watch the little robot go about his daily routines, interacting with his environment, and his pet cockroach. This is a purely physical performance. As viewers we are drawn to his crystal-clear eyes, the motions of his hands, and the simple tilt of his binocular-like head. We get enough information from these physical expressions, we don’t even miss the dialogue. This of course harkens us back to the early beginnings of movies. Sound technologies did not exist for the entire early lifespan of cinema. Silent film stars like Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, and of course Charlie Chaplin, used their powers of expression and physical movements to communicate plot and emotions. This is exactly what WALL-E is doing.

If you look at how the creators designed WALL-E, we can also see subtle references to Chaplin. WALL-E’s large binocular eyes are too large for his thin neck and arms, his body is boxy, the wheels are clunky. He is also dirty. Some of you might know Chaplin’s character’s nickname is The Tramp; implying he is dirty. Chaplin designed his Tramp character to be funny to look at. His hat is too small, jacket too tight, pants loose, and shoes much too large. Visual comedy is a built-in component to both characters.

A.O Scott from The New York Times also commented on WALL-E’s similarities to Chaplin; “It is, undoubtedly, an earnest (though far from simplistic) ecological parable, but it is also a disarmingly sweet and simple love story, Chaplinesque in its emotional purity.[…] Wall-E is a boxy machine of the old school, with creaks and clanks and visible rivets, his surface pocked with dents and patches of rust. He is steadfast, but not always clever or cool. Eve, shaped like an elongated egg, is as cool as the next iPhone and whisper quiet, unless she’s excited, in which case she has a tendency to blow things up. She and Wall-E communicate in chirps and beeps that occasionally coalesce into words. Somehow their expressions of desire, irritation, indifference, devotion and anxiety, all arranged in delicate counterpoint, achieve an otherworldly eloquence” (TheNewYorkTimes, A.O. Scott, WALL-E Review, June 27, 2008,

Speaking of Eve, we see she serves as a representation of the shiny and new of the future. She is the well-spoken creature of the future, while WALL-E is the old, quiet, and rusty machine of the past. This opposites-attract factor is also present in a lot of old Chaplin movies, especially when a romance is involved. The story of WALL-E at its core is a romance after all.

From, A tiny robot in a big world. We see evidence of human's reliance on big corporations all over the abandoned Earth.

Another visual similarity to Chaplin involves the reliance on screens and artificial means of communication; “There's actually a nice parallel between this largely silent film and Chaplin's first sound film, Modern Times. In that one, the silent clown used the soundtrack mostly for music and effects, not for speech, just as Pixar does here. Chaplin only let you hear a human voice a couple of times, and only on some sort of mechanical contraption — say a closed-circuit TV screen — to emphasize its artificiality. It was his way of saying to the sound world, "OK, everybody's doing this talking thing now, but look how much more expressive our silent world is" (NPR, Bob Mondello, June 27, 2008, 'Wall-E,' Speaking Volumes with Stillness and Stars Heard on All Things Considered). This point proves to be even more relevant when you consider the heavy reliance on holographic screens and video chats that we see the humans constantly using on the space cruise. Only when the human couple stops looking at their screens do they have meaningful communication, eventually falling in love. The humans on the cruise are, in a sense, enslaved by this technology, the only cure is old-fashion face-to-face communication.

Behind the Scenes of WALL-E:

From, WALL-E and Eve. The old and the new falling in love.

Of course, we can’t ignore the ecological message in the movie. From the beginning we see how inundated the Earth is with trash and debris, we even see heavy smog in the sky, and space garbage floating around our planet. The WALL-E robots were created to clean up the planet, it took them all so long that they simply died off. Leaving this WALL-E alone with his pet cockroach. All that garbage was a mess made by the humans; us.

The processes of littering, pollution, de-forestation, lack of resource conservation, and overdevelopment had turned the planet into a dirty, garbage filled, wasteland. It’s a pretty difficult message to ignore. All of these points are lost on WALL-E as he happily goes about his day-to-day routine, saving unique knickknacks to add to his elaborate collection. He is innocent of it all. This is his normal, he hasn’t seen Earth look any other way.

From, WALL-E discovers a sign of life on Earth, a plant.

When WALL-E finds the plant, he knows instantly that it is something special. He has never seen something green like it before. The plant is also the thing that ultimately brings Eve to him. As viewers we understand that the tiny plant is also symbolic of the resilience of nature. Despite all the odds against it, it still grew. The plant gives the cruise captain hope to break the oppression forced upon him by his evil robot assistant (eerily similar in design to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) ). It also serves as a source of motivation for the humans. They eventually return to Earth and learn that they must care and nurture the planet. A simple message for a family movie in many respects, but it’s an extremely poignant and important one. The movie also does an excellent job of not making its message political, it’s a relevant and wholesome message. By not forcing any kind of political angle on the viewer, the narrative is made pure, and ultimately, it’s more easily accepted by the audience.

There are many reasons I love WALL-E; its message, its love story, its visual humor. It’s still one of my favorite animated movies of all time, and it has held a special place in my heart since I first saw it at a drive-in movie theater (yes, you heard me) with my family. I don’t often go back and watch animated movies, so if you know me you know that if I do, that movie is really special to me, and WALL-E is definitely very special.


Written by Emily E Laird.


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