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When Pixar’s Wall-E Became an Environmental Hero

When Pixar’s Wall-E Became an Environmental Hero

Set on a trash-filled, uninhabitable Earth in 2805, Wall-E tells the story of a lonely robot left behind to clean up the mess — and 16 years after the Pixar film’s release, that robot has become something of an environmental icon.

In the film, Earth has been destroyed by corporate greed and consumerism, with humans abandoning the planet and finding solace on spaceships. Trash-compacting robots have been tasked with returning the planet to its former state, but that mission has largely failed, and Wall-E is the only one left. But everything changes when he meets and falls in love with Eve, a sleek robot who’s been sent to Earth to find proof that life is once again sustainable.

At the recent premiere of Pixar’s Inside Out 2, Pixar president Jim Morris — who produced Wall-E — reflected on the film today, insisting the studio didn’t make it “with a message movie in mind” and noting, “We wanted to make a movie about a lonely robot and kind of reverse-engineered everything else.”

Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter, who developed the story alongside director Andrew Stanton, added, “I think the first version of it wasn’t even set on Earth, it was just a planet full of trash. It wasn’t until [former Pixar CEO] Steve Jobs had sort of suggested, ‘Let’s bring it closer to home and place it on Earth.’” But cut to 2024, with the threat of the climate crisis increasing by the day, and Morris said its relevance “just worked out that way.”

Whether intentional or not, the robot has become something of a folk hero for young environmentalists, as the movie is repeatedly cited as a story that opened kids’ eyes to environmental destruction. Social media is filled with videos comparing the film’s scenes and themes with real-life events; Wall-E even pops up at climate protests around the world, as activists wave signs with sayings like “Wall-E won’t clean up our planet” and “Don’t let us end up like this,” alongside an image of the animated robot.

Wall-E opened in June 2008, earning $521.3 million worldwide ($760.4 million today), and went on to win the Oscar for best animated feature, making it a rare climate change-centered project that was a box office success and connected to the mainstream. It was also ahead of the curve, with Stanton and Docter first devising the idea under the title Trash Planet way back in 1995 — a decade before Al Gore sounded the alarm with An Inconvenient Truth.

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“When you plan something early on, you don’t have a crystal ball telling you what’s going to be the current of the time five, six, seven years out,” Stanton said in 2008, as reported by The Vancouver Sun. “I was just going for what naturally made sense with the storyline I was doing. I wanted things that were ‘gettable’ visually — things that would make sense to an audience without explanation, even to a kid. The fact that trash is everywhere is an easy thing to visualize, as it is to show that it needs correction.”

This story first appeared in the June 2024 Sustainability issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to see the rest of the issue.

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