By Julian Ong
Set in the far future, Pixar’s WALL-E (2008) tells the story of the titular trash-compacting robot’s adventure as he leaves planet Earth to pursue his romantic interest, Eve, and eventually helps humanity return to Earth. Like other productions from Pixar, WALL-E boasts cutesy graphics and a happy ending. Yet interspersed through the film are allusions to a far darker world than the adorable animations show – one where humans are completely dependent on technology and the Earth is overflowing with trash.
This dark backdrop – the world where WALL-E resides in, has been deemed by some critics to be social commentary (Wilkinson), adumbrating the world to come. Despite this, WALL-E is not a disturbing film – throughout the entirety of the film, I have felt emotions such as excitement, joy, sorrow, and shock – but never horror. How is it then, that WALL-E manages to subvert the apocalyptic setting that it exists in and transform the tone of the film from a depressing portent of the excesses of capitalism to a funny, family-friendly movie?
The answer is the film’s use of the cute aesthetic, which allows it to mask the ugliness of the apocalypse and package it into a comedy fit for families. This concerted mix of cute audio-visual and performative images creates the overall light-hearted tone of the film and allows it to be read as humorous instead of dismal, despite the apocalyptic backdrop.
Articulating the Importance of Cuteness and Humour
With the central issue being the concealment of the truth – the terror of the apocalypse – by the cute aesthetic and its counterpart humour, it is imperative to understand what these terms mean. I will be using Simon May’s The Power of Cute (2019), to cement my discussion. May describes cuteness as ‘above all a teasing expression of the unclarity, the uncertainty, the uncanniness, the continuous flux or “becoming’ that our era detects at the heart of all existence, living and non-living’(6). Supplementing this vague definition with a more formal theory — the ‘Kindchenschema’, which proposes that being baby-like creates the cute experience (Kis) — it becomes elucidated why I find WALL-E cute. Though he is a trash-compacting, rusting robot, he has childlike eyes that suggest innocence and wonder. Further, he is distinctly not human, but his behaviour suggests an anthropomorphic agency – this uncertainty in being gives rise to the phenomenon of cute.
The Benign Violation Theory (BVT) is the framework I will be using to understand humour – though others exist (“Philosophy”). It proposes that humour is created when an event is simultaneously unthreatening and a violation – that is, subverting expectation (“Benign”). The apocalyptic backdrop of WALL-E is rendered benign because of its cuteness, an aesthetic which suggests powerlessness (Brown). WALL-E is a violation of the expected, it is uncanny – not only in the design and setting of the film – but also in the actions of its characters: The inversion of agency between humans and robots, where the robots perform human-like actions like courtship, and experience human emotions such as wonder.
Because WALL-E’s world is so different from our own, the film relies on a third method – other than aesthetics and performance – to create this cutesy humour: Intertextual references. For example, the dynamics between WALL-E and the cleaning robot MO are reminiscent of Tom and Jerry, and seeing MO chasing around WALL-E (because he leaves behind trails of dirt wherever he goes) is humorous because it conjures the trope of the cat-and-mouse chase. Noticeably, they allude to a trope that is cartoonish in nature and thus helps to set up the heuristic for the viewer to interpret this scene through the lens of cutesy humour, rather than of a predatory hunt which would be darker in nature.
WALL-E is covered with such intertextualities that create resonance, dissonance and confusion in its configurations and latticework of cultural references. By parodying, hybridising, and rewriting these cultural archetypes and myths, WALL-E successfully allows the robot characters to become more easily understood by the audience. This understanding is key in the benign violation. Though the robots are rendered benign by the innate aesthetics of the film – the violations (in relation to the story-world) are not as clear because of the completely different society that the characters live in. This informed understanding of the world cues the viewer to interpret the scenes as funny, compared to sad or exciting.
All this occurs in tandem with the bombardment of adorable graphics. In WALL-E, we see cuteness manifest throughout the movie – from the cherubic humans on the Axiom to the childlike eyes of WALL-E – turning the apocalyptic world turns benign and placid. Cuteness is not only expressed through the visual but the performative as well (May), there are many scenes that show the playfulness of the characters such as WALL-E’s interactions with the cockroach. Coupled with the animation style that smooths out the ugly (consider the unblemished faces of the humans) and renders it to become – at worst – dull (the dirt and rust on WALL-E), WALL-E has successfully transformed the post-apocalyptic world into an imaginative world fit for a child.
Similarly, cuteness in the film negates the disconcerting and disturbing future that it paints – such as the grotesquely overweight (albeit adorable still) humans on the Axiom (the spaceship that humanity used to flee the post-apocalypse Earth), who are so immersed in the media that they are incognisant of the material reality around them. This can be read as a critique of contemporary society being inundated by media – where the media becomes reality. Thus the psychic, the sum of our knowledge and our sense of self, becomes a product of the media. This is evidenced by an Axiom inhabitant’s comment that she ‘didn’t know we had a pool’, despite having travelled pass the pool on their transportation-chairs multiple times as they circulate around the ship. Ostensibly, this lack of awareness is because people living on the Axiom are glued to the screen and live in completely mediatised worlds. The juxtaposition emphasises the continuation of humanity as consumers of the material and immaterial, even after the collapse of their home planet; a collapse caused by that very ideology of inexorable consumption. Though WALL-E has many of such criticisms of contemporary society such as the exhaustion and desecration of the planet to the rise of sentience in robots, the use of the cute manages to mask these criticisms into a more imaginative fantasy.
What does the cute and funny do?
Although both cuteness and humour ameliorate the sharpness of the critique and the horror of the apocalypse, they serve different roles. Cuteness distracts our attention from the disturbing and makes the disconcerting palatable. In the opening scenes of the film, we are introduced to a trash-covered world, where garbage piles tower over skyscrapers, instead of focusing on that, the film privileges WALL-E, the cute, trash-compacting robot who performs his duty. This act, carried out by the adorable protagonist, transforms the landscape – from a ravaged world – into a site where WALL-E labours, and thus is a place of work, a part of his life. This aids in making us accept this terrible reality, instead of asking what caused the ecological catastrophe and who was responsible, because we instead focus on WALL-E’s home: After all, how can the adorable robot not have an adorable home?
The impact of cuteness on the viewer transforms the object into an infantile and powerless form (May). This metamorphosises the entirety of WALL-E as benign. Simultaneously, because of its distance from our present reality, its totality is an absurd incongruity to our daily life, the cute animation renders it even further from the realm of the possible and deeper into the metathetical, impossible and phantasmagorial.
Contrastingly, humour dissolves the need for critical reading. WALL-E is described as comedy (“WALL-E Genre”) and this comical description is grounded in the numerous funny scenes in the film. The combined effect of these scenes transforms the overall experience of watching WALL-E into a pleasurable one, washing away the disquiet of the apocalypse. The humans in the film are overweight to the point that they struggle to coordinate themselves. However, their movements are funny to the viewer because they look clumsy, and we focus on the silliness of the movements instead of pondering on the genesis of this bodily transformation – which could easily be read as reproval of the rising obesity rates in developed places. The pleasure we get from humour, disincentivises the need for critical analysis, since we want to focus on the entertainment aspects rather than the literary one, and this ameliorates the discomfort we may experience from the display of dystopic and apocalyptic scenarios. The film reiterates this effect throughout, diminishing the need to consider the darker aspects of WALL-E’s world and focus on the brighter, funnier, and entertaining ones.
Importantly, the cute and funny work in tandem – they are inseparable in the case of WALL-E because of the very graphic design that the film takes, as well as the style of performance that has been chosen. The cute and funny reinforce each other, though some scenes may be predominantly humorous, or cute – they are ubiquitous in the film. This makes reading WALL-E as social commentary doubly hard, not merely because it is cute and funny but because these two phenomena synergistically engage our attention and dull our motivation to take a critical lens to the film: Ergo, the lay-reader will not notice the critique that the film has because his attention is fully absorbed by the spectacle of the cute and funny.
Using the first act as an exemplar, which begins with a depiction of a wasteland covered with dust and detritus, I will demonstrate how the above concepts interfere with our reading of WALL-E. Instead of focusing on the backdrop, we see WALL-E, a robot of unusual appearance that piques our curiosity – our attention is focused on him as we try to categorise him, puzzle over what he is and what he is doing. He is strange enough to be cute, cute enough to distract, distracting enough that the apocalypse fades into the margins. This, however, is not enough to transform the experience of viewing into a light-hearted comedy, for that, we need the entrance of humour. Already, we have the benign violation that is WALL-E. This is coupled with his playful interactions with the cockroach, this cutesy humour amuses and the pleasure we get from this surprise, transforms the viewing into a movie that is imaginative and cheerful.
This sequence of cute and humorous phenomenon cycle throughout the film in various other scenes: They distract from the apocalypse using the peculiarities of the characters, they attract our attention to the performance instead of the dead world. When we combine the different factors, I have mentioned, it becomes clear how the obfuscation of the apocalypse occurs through this circuit of feedbacks, cycles and synergies. The result is WALL-E’s wondrous world.
Brown, Jeffrey A. “‘I’m the Goshdarn Batman!’: Affect and the Aesthetics Of Cute Superheroes.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 9.2 (2017): 119-136. https://doi.org/10.1080/21504857.2017.1299023.
“Benign Violation Theory.” HuRL: Humor Research Lab (HuRL) 25 Aug. 2021. <https://humorresearchlab.com/benign-violation-theory>.
Kis, Iulia. “Kindchenschema: The Science of Cute.” Imperial Bioscience Review 12 Feb. 2021. <https://imperialbiosciencereview.com/2021/02/12/kindchenschema>.
May, Simon. The Power of Cute. Princeton UP, 2019.
“Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 20 Nov. 2020. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor>.
“WALL-E Genre.” Shmoop. <https://shmoop.com/study-guides/movie/wall-e/analysis/genre>.
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Now Is the Time to Revisit Wall-E, Perhaps the Finest Environmental Film of the Past Decade.” Vox 3 June 2017. <https://vox.com/culture/2017/6/3/15728220/wall-e-pixar-environmentalist-movie-of-week-paris-accord>.