CGI Storytelling: Why WALL-E Works and Kung Fu Panda Doesn't

One of the most dangerous phrases for Christians who are striving to think biblically about culture is, “it’s just a _______.” The trump card against all criticism, this phrase is used to justify a creation by simply appealing to its existence: it’s just a song, it’s just a book, it’s just a sitcom, it’s just a cartoon, as if somehow any demand for excellence is inappropriate (or elitist) when it comes to pop culture. The practical result of “just a” thinking is that we can justify any saccharine, fatty, tasteless, shallow creation, keeping both the audience and the artist from any kind of accountability for excellence. This last week I saw two CGI movies which came highly recommended, Kung Fu Panda and WALL-E. While both films received relatively good reviews, only one told a compelling story, the other was filled with tired cliches and jokes interrupted with marketing moments. One was a genuinely well-made film, worthy of praise and the other could only be explained with the phrase, “it’s just a movie.”

Pixar is treated by many as the production company that can do no wrong since Toy Story. While I have always enjoyed Pixar’s films (except Cars, but lets not talk about that), I felt that they were a bit overrated. Sure, The Incredibles was fun and Finding Nemo was funny, but it seemed like these stories had room for a bit more depth, something to chew on after I left the theaters, but all I was really left with was the spectacle. After viewing Pixar’s latest film, WALL-E, I have happily jumped aboard the Pixar Bandwagon Express. Although the CG was stunning and the character designs were cute, the element that pushed me on board was the way I was presented a story about two robots that sincerely and compellingly evoked and celebrated what Francis Schaeffer would call our “manisheness,” our imago dei.

As the last functioning robot on earth, WALL-E’s task is to clean up a world covered in trash. In the process, he becomes fascinated with human culture and longs for a relationship. He collects artifacts from the wasted world that interest him: songs, trinkets, classic musicals. For company he befriends a cockroach and later falls in love with EVE, a robot sent to find signs of life on Earth. What was so remarkable about this story to me was that it was not ironic. Consider this plot:

The last robot on Earth gains a sense of wonder about the world by sorting through trash. He falls in love with another robot, who then adopts his sense of wonder, setting off a chain of events which leads to the renewal of human culture and civilization.

Can you imagine this film being made in the last fifteen years without the heavy use of irony? At no point in this film are we encouraged to view WALL-E’s love of EVE or sense of wonder about human culture as silly, ignorant, foolish, or stupid. His emotions and actions are presented as sincere and noble. Although we might laugh at the way he struggles to classify a spork (is it a spoon? is it a fork?), our laughter does not in any way diminish WALL-E’s fascination. In scenes like these, the audience is taking delight in the strangeness of our own culture. We are a strange people, and it’s good to acknowledge that. Throughout this entire film, through scenes of love and loss and wonder and sadness, Pixar gives us a story that is unflinchingly sincere. It is this very un-post-modern sincerity and purity in storytelling that is the heart of WALL-E. What made this presentation clear to me was my experience watching Kung Fu Panda a few days later.

Kung Fu Panda is the story of a fat, awkward panda who longs to be a great kung fu master. And in the spirit of the traditional hero’s quest, he leaves his home and eventually becomes the great Dragon Warrior. In the end he learns that he has had the strength he needed inside him all along. Despite some strong voice acting by Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda seems like a tired and half-hearted effort. The biggest problem facing the latest Dreamworks project was not that it wasn’t funny enough, WALL-E wasn’t really funny either. The problem was that it tried to be both a parody of kung fu movies and a sincere hero’s tale. The movie follows the classic kung fu story type while making fun of the genre along the way. Mentors, training, and Eastern mysticism are all parodied, while at the same time the movie expects us to take the drama seriously. There are several “touching” moments in the movie, but since half of them are interrupted by parody, it is nearly impossible to actually care when something bad happens to the characters. In addition, much of the movie is taken up by fulfilling the kung fu story type. We must watch the hero leave his home and journey to become a fighter, earn the respect of his mentor, be trained by his mentor, and then return home to save his village. All these are aspects of the traditional hero’s story, and are to be expected in a typical kung fu flick, but since many of these tropes are parodied in the film, the plot development seems unnecessary and dull. If the storytellers can’t take the story serious, why should we? Instead of presenting us with a rich, compelling story, Kung Fu Panda asks the audience to laugh at martial arts movies and take them seriously. The result is that we are left with a mediocre parody and an insincere story.

What I find most troubling about this is that it is so easy to excuse movies like Kung Fu Panda as “just a kid’s movie.” There is no need to make mediocre movies like this. As WALL-E demonstrated, it is quite possible to make a movie that is entertaining and funny while un-ironically telling a story. I am also concerned that these films are targeted at kids. There is something very redeeming and important for kids in watching/hearing/reading stories. When the most exciting and praised stories kids see are cynical parodies of classic storytypes, I worry that kids will miss the tremendous benefits of imagining themselves in other worlds and in the shoes of other people. Certainly there are still popular stories in pop culture that aren’t completely overcome with irony or self-reference, but for every Harry Potter movie which presents us with a story, there are 5-10 Kung Fu Pandas which offer only half-hearted parody of stories. But, someone will say, it’s just a movie.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Carissa Smith

    Thanks, Alan! I remember my shock when I criticized the incoherent plot of Happy Feet, and a friend responded, “Calm down–it’s just a kid’s movie.” Ack! If anything, shouldn’t we care more about the quality of films for children? Unfortunately, since kid’s films are usually big money-makers, that’s certainly not the prevailing ethos at most movie studios. Pixar seems to get around that mindset by making movies for all ages, rather than just for kids.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Noble Alan – I’ve never been a big booster of Pixar material either. Monsters Inc. was great fun and The Incredibles was just great, but otherwise the CG-haus is mostly just a purveyor of good, mindless fun.

    There is always a high standard of technical excellence in their features, but rarely do their films eclipse the proving ground of Kid’s Film into something more robust like Family Film or, even better, Film. I think that with The Incredibles, the company brushed greatness. I missed Cars (and wasn’t overly sad to do so), but I think I’ve seen everything else the studio’s put out. Toy Story was revolutionary and so gets a pass on story simply because it was the first CG-film to prove the medium. It’s sequel was forgettable. In fact, I forget what happened save for that their was a female cowboy character. A Bug’s Life was just trash. Especially when compared to the slightly above-average Antz, which was released at the same time, the film is revealed to be nothing but prettied-up formulae. Monsters Inc. was cute and funny and entirely entertaining, but didn’t have a lot of staying power; beyond the premise and the overall impression that I really enjoyed it, I can’t recall much about the film. Finding Nemo was mindless, worthless entertainment. But at least it was entertaining (for the most part). It will forever beat out A Bug’s Life for that alone. And Ratatouille. for all the praise, was little more than a very well-polished cliche (with occassional glipses of greatness). Enjoyable, I guess, but not particularly wonder-striking.

    Wall-E, however, like The Incredibles before it, tries to get at something better. Something deeper in the human experience. Watching the opening half of Wall-E was striking simply because what I was watching was definitely not a kid’s film. Until about the halfway point, it was like I was watching a sci-fi drama. (Of course, the last half is definitely more like standard kid’s fare, unfortunately.) All in all, Wall-E was a great film that was only hampered by what was probably a perceived need to draw in those elements that would fit better in a kid’s movie rather than in a worthwhile movie movie.
    _______________________

    I don’t think your reason for the failure of Kung Fu Panda is really on the mark though. I haven’t seen the film, but the problem you pin on KFP is less a criticism of the particular film and more an indictment of film’s that try to mix genuine story with parody. I suspect the real problem may be that KFP “tried to be both a parody of kung fu movies and a sincere hero’s tale” but failed in the doing. There are plenty of films that attempt this kind of mix and succeed (e.g., Princess Bride, Shaolin Soccer, and even The Incredibles). So it’s not the kind of film but the inability of KFP to accomplish such a film.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • Paul

    I have not seen kung-fu Panada, and lacked interest anyways from the previews. But, I have watched Walle and would definitely say it is a must watch. I was most impressed by the character development, and the relationship between the two robots. How they built the character Walle and demonstrated his silliness in chasing after something simple as a red dot, yet possessed a deep affection known as love. I also admired how Walle became a hero in the end and was the one “leading” for the directive instead of Eve. Eve wanted to rush into this love she was unaware of, yet Walle was concerned about what Eve wanted to do, displaying a concern for Eve rather than himself. A fascinating display of agape love.

  • http://www.kogmedia.com patrick

    wow, awesome, i was thinking i would wait til it came out on rental but i definitely won’t… btw, at a glance, Wall-E totally looks like the robot from “Short Circuit”… minus the cheesy 80′s style


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