Years ago, I dated a voracious reader. Her apartment was wall-to-wall bookshelves, showcasing a highly respectable collection of fiction and nonfiction: the canon, modern classics, cult favorites, everything. We’d been together for months before I discovered the cache of self-help books and romance novels she’d hidden in the closet, as if they were porn. (Possibly the romance novels were.) By the same token, no casual visitor to my house is gonna see my huge stacks of Entertainment Weekly back issues from the ’90s, even though I only hang onto them because a review or column I wrote appears in each one. Our possessions reveal a great deal about us, and we curate them accordingly, striving to create an image.
Even so, it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to bring a prospective romantic partner home for the first time, and watch as various objects that you’ve accumulated over the years get taken in and… well, judged, really. Usually, the judgment is silent, and any disapproval will be couched in flirtatious jokes; unless Nazi memorabilia covers the walls, odds are the person won’t take one look around and motor. But you’re still more or less auditioning yourself by way of your stuff. It’s a ritual we’ve all taken part in from both sides.
WALL-E demonstrates that even sentient robots engage in this goofy mating dance. One of the film’s most charming scenes occurs not long after the title character, who’s existed alone for untold ages on the long-abandoned, garbage-strewn remains of Earth, meets EVE, a probe that humanity has sent back to look for evidence of flourishing plant life. While EVE initially perceives WALL-E as a threat, attempting to blast him with her built-in laser, WALL-E is unmistakably smitten with this comparatively sleek, high-tech new arrival. After mooning over her from a distance for a while, he eventually leads her to the broken truck he calls home, ostensibly to seek protection from a massive dust storm. Once they’re inside, however, it’s time for WALL-E to take advantage of this opportunity by showing EVE his collection of junk. Despite having made no preparation for a moment he couldn’t possibly have anticipated, he’s much too excited to be self-conscious or worried. On the contrary, he almost quivers with enthusiasm as he presents EVE with one seemingly random object after another… until he finally hands her the wrong one. Take a look:
Had WALL-E been a live-action movie, it would have been the production designer’s job (possibly delegated to the art director and/or the set decorator—I’ve never quite worked out the hierarchy) to fill WALL-E’s house with visually compelling bric-a-brac. That would have meant procuring a whole bunch of physical objects. Pixar’s animators, by contrast, had the luxury of being able to invent whatever junk they wanted, though that freedom can also be a creative burden. While the particular items that WALL-E shows EVE were surely in the script, somebody had to think up and then design hundreds of background objects, most of which the average viewer will barely glimpse. And they did a superb job of creating a look that’s unified without being distracting, in the sense that nothing that isn’t intended to stand out does so. When I look past the two robots at the clutter behind them, the only things that really grab my attention are some computer keyboards; it’s mostly generic-looking figurines, scattered utensils, and various other stuff that just falls into the category of knickknacks. (To their credit, the animators mostly resisted the temptation to include inanimate cameos from Toy Story characters. Rex is just barely visible at one point—not in this scene—but he’s the only one I’ve ever spotted.)
No sooner does EVE “step foot” in the place than she sees something that would embarrass any owner who isn’t either a robot or a dad: Big Mouth Billy Bass, twisting its head toward her to sing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a great gag in a vacuum, and an even better gag given EVE’s propensity toward blasting any creature she encounters on sight. WALL-E seems proud of it, though, and subsequently proceeds to share other prized possessions, from a broken light bulb (which EVE activates just by holding it) to some bubble wrap (ideal for robotic speed-popping). The Rubik’s cube that gets solved during the few seconds that it’s out of the frame is a predictable joke, but still amusing; funnier still is EVE accidentally breaking the eggbeater by spinning it too quickly, then somehow looking sheepish about it. (It’s downright amazing the way Pixar’s animators create the illusion of EVE having shoulders, despite her head not even being attached to her body.) Naturally, WALL-E’s precious VHS copy of Hello, Dolly! is the pièce de résistance, providing him with an opportunity to woo EVE with a little soft-shoe he’s picked up by watching it over and over again. All in all, he comes across as a thrifty guy with a diverse set of interests. Not too shabby.
However, this ritual can work both ways. What a host chooses to display or share is telling, true—but so is what a visitor naturally gravitates toward, as anyone who’s watched someone flip through their albums or CDs (yes, I am ancient) well knows. WALL-E shows EVE half a dozen of his favorites, but it’s EVE herself who picks up the Zippo lighter and becomes transfixed by its flame. That’s a romantic metaphor, of course—the reflection of the fire in WALL-E’s eyes is a nice touch—but it also suggests a certain dreaminess, which the film then almost immediately yanks away. Not having seen WALL-E from start to finish in nearly a decade, I couldn’t remember offhand whether the lighter turns up again later, but would have bet a small sum that it does, just based on the fact that EVE picks it up with no prodding, of her own volition. And I was right: WALL-E shows EVE the lighter toward the end, specifically to remind her of this scene, and of the cache of spare body parts he keeps in the truck. He remembers that she’ll remember, because that was the one item, among the mountain of random crap he hoards, that piqued her curiosity.
No, sorry, one of the two. EVE doesn’t spot the seedling WALL-E found until he thinks to show it to her, but it certainly would have caught her eye, as it’s the very thing she was sent to Earth to find: evidence that life has resumed. We don’t yet know the nature of her directive at this point in the movie (though it’s not too hard to guess), and neither does WALL-E. All he knows is that the moment she sees (and scans) the plant, she grabs it, places it into a hollow container in her torso, and completely shuts down save for a single pulsing light. Poor WALL-E has no idea that she’s automatically gone into signaling mode, having completed her mission. To him, it must feel like an inexplicable rejection, and our own uncertainty at this stage about what’s going on only strengthens the parallels between robotic and human behavior. It’s as if you showed someone your framed conceptual art for the long-defunct Disneyland attraction Adventure Thru Inner Space and they just stared at you blankly, as if all of their mental processing power has now been diverted toward thinking up an excuse to leave as soon as possible. Not that that’s ever happened to me.