Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Wall-E's Hero's Journey

I've spent the last several months working through all the stages of the hero's journey. To illustrate how the hero's journey works in practice, I'm going to track it through a film. Disney/Pixar do a really good job of story structure (Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey, has worked as a story consultant for Disney, so it's probably not by accident that their stories line up so well), which makes their films good for analysis (plus, they're short). I initially thought of doing this for Tangled, because it has the journey structure for dual heroes, but it's not out on DVD yet, so I consider it within the spoiler protection window (in other words, Mom hasn't seen it). I decided to go with Wall-E, since it functions as almost a silent movie and you really have to look at the characters' actions to judge them and where they are on the journey since there's almost no dialogue. That makes it an interesting exercise. It is a slightly atypical hero's journey in one respect, though. Wall-E himself doesn't change much. Instead, he changes his world by changing the others he encounters. He goes through the stages on the journey and he does seem to expand his horizons and expand the scope of what he considers to be his duties, but I think he's still fundamentally the same character as he was at the beginning. He's more of a catalyst who changes others by changing the way they see the world.

Naturally, there are spoilers here for the entire movie. If you haven't seen Wall-E, get yourself a box of tissues (this is Pixar, after all) and watch it, and then come back here.

Ordinary World: Wall-E the trash robot lives on an Earth covered in trash but abandoned by humans. He goes through his daily routine of collecting and compressing the trash, creating cubes that he stacks into tall towers. His only companion is a cockroach, and he frequently has to take shelter from terrible dust storms. But he's managed to carve a life out of this sad place by scavenging whatever treasures he finds in the trash and bringing them to a "home" full of toys, Christmas lights and pretty, shiny stuff. He entertains himself by watching a videotape of Hello Dolly and longs for the kind of romantic moments he sees in the old musical. He's particularly fascinated by the way the people in the movie hold hands, and he longs for that kind of contact.

The Call to Adventure: Wall-E finds a single green plant among the rubble -- a sign that the Earth isn't dead, after all. At the same time, a spaceship arrives.

Refusal of the Call: At first, Wall-E hides from the ship's probes and from EVE, the exploratory robot from the ship, who seems hostile. He watches from afar as EVE goes about her mission to scan the Earth for life.

Meeting with the Mentor: Wall-E meets EVE and brings her home with him to escape a dust storm, then shows off all his treasures to her. He shows her his plant, and she takes it into her body, then shuts down completely. (This is a sort of reversal of the usual Meeting with the Mentor, in that he's the one giving knowledge to someone else, but it fits with the idea of him bringing change to others and changing his world.)

Crossing the First Threshold: Wall-E crosses into the special world of the story, the spaceship, when the scout ship returns to take EVE away and he hitches a ride so he can be with her. Now he's in an entirely new place full of robots and humans -- and not full of trash.

Tests, Allies and Enemies: Wall-E has to learn his way around as he tries to track EVE when she's taken for evaluation. He encounters the obese humans who float around on hoverchairs and the fleet of robots that meet all their needs. During his explorations, we get to see what life is like on the massive spaceship that has housed the human race for generations. Meanwhile, his interactions with the people and robots start to show them that maybe this life isn't what it should be. He also meets the evil Autopilot that wants to keep everyone on the ship. Strangely, the plant Wall-E gave EVE is missing when she's brought to the ship's captain, which means the ship won't be returning to Earth. Our little trash robot accidentally frees the ship's misfit robots and creates an incident while trying to rescue EVE when she's sent for reconditioning after what they believe is a malfunction in claiming to have found life. That gets them both declared rogue robots. EVE tries to send him back to Earth on an escape pod, but then she discovers that a security robot stole the plant. In trying to get the plant back, Wall-E gets stuck on the escape pod, with it set to self-destruct. He escapes as EVE comes to his rescue -- and he's got the plant. Wall-E and EVE "kiss" and go "dancing" through space together. Their flight also brings together two of Wall-E's new human friends, who start to break out of their inert existence as they watch the two little robots.

Approach to the Inmost Cave: EVE carries out her mission to bring the plant to the captain. The captain is disappointed by the contrast between what's on the ship's files about Earth and what's in EVE's data, but the Hello Dolly video she got from Wall-E restores the captain's hope, and when he revives the plant by giving it water, he realizes that they need to go back to Earth because the plants need to be cared for. Meanwhile, Wall-E has followed EVE to the bridge.

Ordeal: Auto tries to stop the captain from putting the plant into the ship's holodetector to trigger the program that will send the ship back to Earth. Wall-E rescues the plant from Auto's minions, but gets shot and blown down a trash chute in the process, and Auto deactivates EVE and confines the captain to his quarters. But EVE reboots, waking in the airlock trash disposal, where she finds Wall-E in a pile of trash about to be shot out into space. She rescues him just in time with the help of one of Wall-E's new robot friends, but he's badly damaged.

Reward: EVE tries scavenging the trash pile for spare parts to repair Wall-E, but he wants her to carry out the directive of getting the plant to the captain so the ship can go to Earth. She tells him that she considers him her new directive and doesn't want to leave him, but he persuades her that the return to Earth is more important.

The Road Back: EVE picks up Wall-E and the plant and takes off to get the plant to the holodetector. Wall-E's human friends and the misfit robots help them battle their way past the ship's security systems and all of Auto's schemes. Meanwhile, the captain has managed to get back to the bridge and has learned that Auto is following orders from hundreds of years ago, when the people in charge decided Earth couldn't be fixed. He thinks things have changed, but Auto won't listen to him.

Resurrection: Wall-E makes it to the holodetector and fights to hold it open to put the plant in it, but Auto makes it close before they can get the plant in. The captain fights his way off his lounge chair, using his legs for the first time in his life, to get to where he can turn off Auto. The humans on the deck find the plant and pass it to EVE so she can put it in the holodetector, and that triggers the ship to return to Earth. Unfortunately, Wall-E appears to be dead. When they reach Earth, EVE takes Wall-E back to his "home," where she repairs him, using the spare parts he's been scavenging. But when he reboots, he doesn't seem to remember her at all. He just goes back to his work, even when she plays Hello Dolly for him. She reaches him, though, when she holds his hand the way the people in the movie did, and Wall-E is back (to the sound of Michael Crawford singing "It Only Takes a Moment"). And I cry.

Return with the Elixir: The captain brings the plant back to Earth and plants it, telling the children from the ship about farming and how many plants they're going to grow. Meanwhile, we see the new "family" of misfit robots gathering around Wall-E and EVE. In the closing credits, we see how the humans and robots work together to restore the Earth.

I originally classified the bit where EVE tries to send Wall-E away in the pod as the Ordeal, with the dance through the stars as the Reward, and then had the rest as a very long Road Back/Resurrection sequence. And then I pondered whether the Inmost Cave/Ordeal stuff was the way I have them here, but with the Reward coming in anticipation of the Ordeal. I finally decided that the dance through the stars was really more of a "getting to know you" thing and the real Reward in their relationship came when EVE was willing to give up her original directive for Wall-E, and he got what he initially wanted (her) but now had the greater goal of getting back to Earth. That leads into more of a turning point moment, even though the dance through the stars is glorious and has all the usual hallmarks of a Reward sequence. I guess that shows how awesome Pixar is, when something in Tests, Allies and Enemies has the power of the Reward. This also shows that the important thing is the result, even if you classify things in different ways while plotting. It ultimately doesn't matter whether you see something as Ordeal or just as a Test. What matters is the way the audience responds.

Both EVE and the captain also have their own journeys, to some extent. EVE's ordinary world is her mission, she gets the Call to Adventure when Wall-E makes friends with her and gives her the plant, and her death/resurrection involve her gaining a new "directive" in caring about Wall-E while truly understanding the importance of her original directive. The captain's ordinary world is the slug-like existence he's been living. He gets a Call to Adventure when EVE returns with evidence of plant life. The Inmost Cave/Ordeal part is when he first challenges Auto and gets locked on the bridge. Then his death/Resurrection comes when all seems lost and he feels helpless, but he manages to get to his feet to turn off Auto.

And now I'm done with the Hero's Journey. I hope you've enjoyed taking it with me. After Tangled comes out on DVD (and Mom sees it), I may revisit the topic to show how the dual-hero structure works, since that's how you plot romance novels. In the meantime, I'm open to other questions or topics you want me to address.

1 comment:

Yvonne said...

Thanks for your insight Shanna. It helped me understand my own hero's Journey. A man I know named Wally came to me a dream but it was very unusual for me to dream about him. Then I realized that my daughter had given me Wall-E to watch a couple of weeks before, I found this very "coincidental" When I watched he movie I tried to figure out what message the movie was trying to give me and tonight you helped me figure it out! I am on my own hero's journey and I need to trust that for some reason unknown to me at this point everything is as it should be!