Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 6, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
WALL-E, PB Teen, Babes & Angels, Christian Pop
I really wasn't interested in seeing WALL-E. Pixar has a tradition of making
great movies, of course, but for me, personally, the movie had -- and has --
several strikes against it going in.
First, I don't like movies that have machines that fall in love, with each other or
with people. Computers (and therefore robots) do what they're programmed to
I accept the human characteristics in Asimov's robot novels precisely because
he gives them a brain that functions more or less organically. But the robots
in WALL-E are, so far as we know, direct descendants of our current digital
"Personality" in such computers exists only as a programmed simulation; there
is no reason why emotions should have been programmed into a robot garbage
(And don't write to me about "Jane" in my own novels Speaker for the Dead,
Xenocide, and Children of the Mind -- if you think her example applies, you
haven't read the last two books.)
Second, I generally dislike stupid science fiction movies, which includes almost
all of them. I don't like it when the science is stupid. I don't like it when the
technology is stupid. And I don't like it when the society depicted in the movie
Experience has made me so extremely skeptical of science fiction movies that I
assume going in that they are going to be stupid in every way.
Now, add to that the license that animators generally take with the rules of
reality, and what chance, really, did WALL-E have? Almost none, for a
skeptical adult like me.
Every single dreaded attribute of bad sci-fi films, WALL-E has.
And I still had a wonderful time watching it. I recommend it highly. Pay no
attention to the rest of my review.
Because I can't stop myself. I have to pick apart the absolute nonsense in this
movie. Start with the fact that the story is about machines in love. Why, of all
the identical robots that we're actually shown, were these two the only ones to
develop emotional bonds?
To his credit, the writer/director, Andrew Stanton, at least addressed the
question. At the beginning of the movie we see WALL-E going about his
endless job, resourcefully refurbishing himself from time to time with spare
parts cannibalized from broken down copies of the same machine.
This part of the film is, in my opinion, the most powerful film depiction of
loneliness that I've ever seen. If it had done nothing else right, WALL-E would
be worth seeing just for the time span before "Eve," the other robot, arrives.
In his loneliness, WALL-E has taken to watching the movie Hello, Dolly! over
and over again. The filmmakers were merciful: They only showed us bits of two
numbers: "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment."
(These numbers involve a very young and silly-voiced Michael Crawford as
Cornelius, Danny Lockin as Barnaby, and Marianne McAndrew as Irene
Molloy. We do not have to watch any portion of any scene containing Barbra
Streisand. Much as I love Streisand's voice, Hello Dolly! was not her finest
hour. If I'd had to watch any of her numbers over and over and over during
this movie, I would have needed serious therapy.)
We see WALL-E using a hubcap to imitate the straw hat bits in "Sunday
Clothes" and we get the idea: WALL-E see, WALL-E do. Therefore, it is "logical"
that he also wants to imitate the love scene involved with "It Only Takes a
Moment," complete with hand-holding.
Later, Eve gets to see the same scenes, and comes to get the same message
from them as WALL-E.
This means that even though there is still no logical way that such lessons
could be internalized by digital computers, at least Stanton showed us a source
from which the machines could get the idea of falling in love. Now the
animator's license (Wile E. Coyote climbs out of the hole his body made when
he hit the ground at terminal velocity) applies: I was able to accept the
storyline. I never cared about the robot love story, but at least I didn't gag
while watching it.
The same thing applies to the behavior of the robot bosses on the spaceship --
Stanton carefully supplies programmed-in reasons for the autopilot to run
amok, and then to be defeated. The plot still depends on ridiculously bad
programming, but since Windows Vista exists in the real world, that clearly is
I'm not going to enumerate the various impossibilities in the garbage-filled
Earth that WALL-E inhabits at the beginning of the movie. It's obviously meant
as a comic exaggeration of the human propensity toward fouling our own nest.
Besides, it's nowhere near as dumb as some of the ridiculous anti-science that
is actually believed in by groupthink eco-puritans, on the basis of which
economy-wrecking treaties and legislation have been proposed. In fact, during
the movie I realized: Eco-puritans are, in fact, living in a cartoon universe.
They should be right at home watching WALL-E.
When we get to the spaceship, the stupid science abounds. Just a couple of
obvious howlers: This spaceship has presumably not landed on any planet in
hundreds of years. Yet it deals with garbage by compacting it, putting it in a
huge airlock, and jettisoning it into space -- along with whatever air is in the
You can't do that in a closed environment. Very quickly you deplete your air
supply and your stores of whatever elements are present in the garbage. You
can grow more food as long as nutrients and light remain, but you can't grow
more oxygen, carbon, or hydrogen, let alone metals, gases, and other elements
needed to sustain life.
Then, the funniest dumb mistake: The ship apparently has a system for
generating gravity, because it does not rotate to provide a "down" for the
passengers. The gravity generator is presumably located in the bottom of the
So when the navigation goes awry and the ship tilts, the gravity generator still
remains in exactly the same position, relative to the rest of the ship. There is
simply no way that, from merely tilting the ship, it would cause people to slide
along the deck and bunch up along one edge.
(Something similar could happen if the ship continued to spin in the same
direction, and the spin accelerated. But that's not what the movie showed
If WALL-E has so much dumb science, why do I recommend it?
Because it's a terrific human story.
I didn't care about robot love. But I did care about the human society on the
ship -- the two passengers who became real people to us, and the ship's
captain. Together, they represented the human victims of human stupidity (of
which, as said before, there is never a shortage), and what made this film
inspiring was the way that their resourcefulness and will-to-survive, not to
mention joie-de-vivre, found their way to the surface.
The robots are the catalyst for change, but it is the human characters whose
achievements I cared about, and human beings who triumph in the end.
I never switched off my brain -- I knew there was dumb stuff, but I also knew
that for the big things, Stanton was trying to make the movie less dumb than it
could have been. And when it came to human desires and achievements, he
got it right -- he showed us good people doing good.
Oh, and did I mention that the movie is also funny? This is the same guy who
directed and co-wrote Finding Nemo, and who also co-wrote A Bug's Life,
Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 1 and 2. He knows funny.
And here's when I decided I didn't just like, but loved this movie.
(Spoiler alert -- not that there's all that much suspense.)
At the end, when the people return to Earth on the strength of having located
exactly one forlorn little plant, I couldn't help but think: These obese, feeble-boned people are doomed to die of starvation.
Stanton thought of that, too. So he showed us that the plant they found wasn't
the only plant that existed. And then, during the end credits, we were shown
the whole progress of the humans' effort to recolonize Earth.
Not only that, but each stage was animated in artistic styles echoing human
history. First cave paintings, then Egyptian art, and so on up to Van Gogh.
(Again, as with Hello Dolly!, we were spared having to endure what would have
been unendurable in this context: No cubism, no abstract.)
Is WALL-E the best of the Pixar movies? No, not by a long way -- that would be
Finding Nemo or Ratatouille. But it's a good movie, which is more than I
expected from the promos, and way more than most studios have offered us so
far this summer.
My wife and I looked up from the TV the other day and noticed that our
youngest had turned fourteen. She was still using bedroom furniture that had
been bought for her when she was way, way younger, and it occurred to us she
might want to redecorate.
I will not try to convey to you the heart-rending scene when she realized that
we were actually aware that she might not have the same tastes or needs in
furniture that she had when she was five.
Suffice it to say that she made some excellent choices from the PB Teen
catalog. The PB in the name stands for Pottery Barn, and Pottery Barn is a
Williams-Sonoma trademark. In my experience, all three brands deliver
excellent quality. If it looks good in the catalog, it's almost certainly going to be
good when you get it home.
You probably already knew that. What you might not know is that PB Teen
also delivers when it comes to delivery.
They actually made an appointment to deliver the furniture. And they called
several times to make sure we were aware it was coming and when it was
coming so that we would be home to receive it.
The delivery guys arrived at the front door right on time -- carrying a rose,
which they gave to the recipient of the furniture.
Then they brought everything upstairs and skillfully assembled what needed
assembling. They knew what they were doing. They damaged nothing.
The furniture was, of course, as good as it looked in the catalogue. And
because such care was taken with the delivery and assembly, it has brought
nothing but pleasure, to our daughter and to us.
And the rose was so fresh it lasted for more than a week.
That, my friends, is what is called "a class act."
For those of you who love The Opera Babes (Rebecca Knight, soprano, and
Karen England, mezzo), their new album is now available. Alas, it was
published only in the UK so far, which means that we can get it here in the
states, but it costs a premium.
To me, it was worth it. They have the same lush, perfect harmonies, atop
quirky and wonderful arrangements of classical music.
This time, they also included some songs that aren't normally regarded as part
of the classical repertoire -- most notably, the strangest arrangement of
Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" that I've ever heard.
It don't prefer this arrangement to the moving Glynis Johns performance on
the Broadway album, or to Judy Collins's very different -- and much sweeter --
pop version from her Judith album.
But after two hearings, I decided that the Opera Babes version was also very
good -- and true to the quirky, weird, joyous way they approach all the songs
they sing. And since that's the weirdest thing on the album, I have to say the
whole thing is a smashing success.
The Opera Babes have spawned some imitators, just as the Three Tenors did.
(Or was it four?) Some of the imitations have been rather sad, but to my
surprise, a nonce group called All Angels is really quite good, with their self-titled album.
Because they combine four voices, a greater thickness of harmony is possible
than the Opera Babes can do. And while the voices are much more traditional
and the arrangements much less quirky, I found that every track was well
worth listening to.
And I mean every track. When "The Windmills of Your Mind" (the theme from
The Thomas Crown Affair) was a big hit back in the sixties, I liked its
incantatory melody and rhythms. I continued to like it for the first hundred
times I heard it. But the remaining 1445 times that it played on the radio, in
grocery stores, and on elevators, I came to loathe it.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the All Angels version refreshed the song and
made it listenable again.
One of the best things about the movie Amazing Grace, which included the
story of the former slave trader who, in his repentance, wrote that most lovely
of hymns, was the album.
Or, I should say, the albums. Because there were two. One was the original
score by David Arnold, and it's superb program music -- what a fine composer!
The other album, though, was the real revelation. Amazing Grace: Music
Inspired by the Motion Picture consists of traditional hymns performed by
some of the leading Christian pop singers of our day.
These singers brought a fresh sensibility to traditional hymns like "Holy, Holy,
Holy" (Steven Curtis Chapman), "I Need Thee Every Hour" (Jars of Clay), "Were
You There?" (Smokie Norful), "Rock of Ages" (David Crowder), and many more.
Even country powerhouse Martina McBride showed up for a wonderful
rendition of "How Great Thou Art."
Now, some people might not like hearing modern pop-voice interpretations of
these hymns, but I love the whole album and enjoy all the tracks, though of
course some more than others.
Eventually, I realized that I wanted more music by these sensitive, talented
So I went on Amazon and listened to all of them and ...
And their solo albums, almost without exception, ranged from embarrassing to
Why? Because on the Amazing Grace album, they were singing great hymns --
great words, great music.
On their own albums, they were singing really embarrassing on-the-nose lyrics
and tedious, unimaginative music that ranged from unmelodic all the way up
to three-chord hackwork.
These are wonderfully talented singers -- but apparently not songwriters, or
even acquainted with songwriters.
But it's a disease of most faith-based pop music, I've found. The songwriters
get all confused about how art works in relation to faith. They think that if
they feel really good when they write down the words or sing them, then it
must be "inspired."
Not so. Musical inspiration comes only to people who have mastered the arts
of composing and/or lyric writing. And it's not about the feelings of the
performer or songwriter -- it's about the feelings that the music engenders in
Most particularly, with religious music, in the listener who is not already
converted to the song. I'm betting that these performers rarely hear serious
criticism, because they generally perform, I imagine, for audiences who
congratulate the singers for what they are not -- worldly, sexy, commercial.
But music isn't good because of what it isn't. That only keeps it from being
wicked or seductive or soul-numbing. Music only achieves real quality because
of what it is.
The one group whose album I ended up buying was Avalon. I bought only one
album of theirs -- the one entitled Faith: A Hymns Collection.
And that's why it worked. These aren't pop songs. They're hymns, done with a
pop sensibility, like the performances on the Amazing Grace album that started
my exploration of Christian pop.
A bad pop song doesn't become good because you say the name of Jesus in it.
But a good hymn can be rediscovered and reinvented when interpreted by a
good pop performer who nevertheless treats it with respect.
Here was the biggest surprise for me: Amazon's "if you like that, you might like
this" software actually led me somewhere wonderful. The name Constance
Demby kept coming up, and so even though she wasn't on the Amazing Grace
album, I gave her music a try.
She's a new age composer with Christian subject matter. I was not optimistic.
When your album title is Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate, the prospect
of mixing Christianity and sci-fi is appalling.
To my surprise, I was moved. While Demby uses the techniques common
among new age musicians, she does not use her faith as a substitute for talent.
Rather, she brings enormous talent and musical insight to her faith.
If you love the Latin liturgical tradition, that's where the roots of her music
seem to be. And the words, when they occur, tend to be more icon than
It isn't the religious music you're used to, I promise you -- but it truly is
religious, and it is also, in my opinion, good music, fascinating and beautiful.