Watching Wall-e Watching Us
It makes sense that a children's film would find so much success without dialogue there to shape and mold it, and the content is far enough removed that the audience would not find its "mythology" unbelievable. Barthes describes mythology as "not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message" (Rose 96). The added benefit of the science fiction perspective allows for children as well as adults to both see and maintain their suspension of disbelief. We can watch Wall-e discover human emotions by visual means, struggle with a pseudo-prepubescent notion of heterosexual romance, and pursue the ethics of human preservation in a post-apocalyptic society without dismissing it as absurd, fake and beyond current reality. "Science fiction as a genre of art lends itself to the presentation of psychological issues through situations and story lines that are unlikely to occur, but not impossible" (Zerby 316). The film opens with Wall-e as robot-cum-sentient, intelligent force capable of learning and emulating human emotion. This assertion is the myth behind the basic "form" that is Wall-e (form being the lowest level of Barthes's mythology structure.) The way in which Wall-e is presented to the audience visually "naturalizes" his humanism. Wall-e has personality, he has curiosity. He shows us his curiosity through his job as planet janitor and obsessive collector. Also, he portrays human qualities like shock and remorse when he runs over his pet cockroach, loneliness when he watches Hello, Dolly!, fear when Eve's ship lands, love when he actually meets Eve, and bravery in the face of Auto, the antagonistic Axiom auto-pilot. The "signifier" is the image of Wall-e as that of a machine which performs tasks and can perform human emotion.

The word robot is the "signifier," labeling the visual representation of what Wall-e is (Rose 79). The signification of Wall-e as robot, in the myth constructed for the audience, speaks of the pinnacle of technological success. However, the desolate landscape that Wall-e appears in, his lonesome existence, the absence of humans on earth and the function he carries out, what he was built for and what we perceive his job as, all belie the other reason for Wall-e: ultimate human failure, greed and selfishness. Wall-e is a "polysemic" visual construction meant to mean many things all at once for the audience. The sentient robot may represent scientific triumph; however, Wall-e also represents human failure and the result of wanton consumption without regard to the cost. Wall-e is the "denotive sign," the basic representation of robot, a machine with humanistic capacities (Rose 87). These representations of Wall-e as both a picture of human failure and the technological capabilities of humankind expose him as a "connotive sign," something that carries a higher meaning.
However, because this is a film meant for children, Wall-e as the connotive sign of human failure does not prevail, and it is not the focus of the film. "Mr. Disney and his successors were and are aware of societal trends and attitudes, and they capitalize on them by providing the public with filmic fantasies through which dreams about a peaceful and virtuous society can be fulfilled" (O'Brien 9). Look to every Disney-Pixar film ever produced and you will see the evidence of human failure, but you will also see it muted, downplayed in light of some positively reinforced message about human nature like in Cars(2006), Toy Story(1995), Finding Nemo(2003) or Monsters Inc.(2001). At the same time though, Wall-e, like these other films, does not convey our technological success as its primary visual meaning either. If this were the case, then Andy Darley would be right and this form of visual representation would focus almost exclusively on the signifier instead of its signification, as I discuss in the section titled The Semiotics of Hello, Dolly! The "preferred meaning" for children holds that other connotive meaning of Wall-e, the one about the re-creation, rediscovery and re-evaluation of human nature (Rose 98). The cameras of the film focus on the way Wall-e navigates the visual landscape in pursuit of what positive humanity he has managed to provide for himself. Wall-e develops through visuality and ascription. The audience is meant to experience Wall-e's visuality and in many ways encouraged to emulate it. The humans in the film, fat and confined to their technology, are beholden to Wall- e for releasing them from their self-constructed technological prisons, and reintroducing key human qualities to them as well. Rose refers to visuality as "the ways in which both what is seen and how it is seen are culturally constructed" (Rose 2). A large part of the film centers around how the main character sees the world (or universe or ship at times) around him and then how he ascribes both what he sees and how he sees it into his budding humanistic awareness. Actually, it may be more correct to say that what Wall-e experiences draws him in and creates him in a process called "appellation." Specifically, Wall-e "become[s] created by" an ancient copy of the 1969 film musical Hello, Dolly! (Rose 100). Much of what Wall-e desires, his goals if you will, comes from his desire to emulate what he sees in Hello, Dolly! For example, Wall-e wants to hold Eve's hand (see bottom left). For Wall-e, the idea of holding Eve's hand is what he considers the penultimate of sentient connection of love and heterosexual relationship. We, the audience, watch the screen with Wall-e, transitioning from looking at him while he watches Hello, Dolly! to watching with him. Mulvey refers to this instance where the audience shares the same view as the male protagonist as "draw[ing] deeply into his position..The spectator is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis, which parodies his own in the cinema" (Mulvey 66) Our focus is drawn to the specific moment when the main characters of the musical intertwine their hands while they sing "It Only Takes A Moment." Because the audience shares this viewing simultaneously with Wall-e (see image bottom right,) we are being called to recognize this position, participating in this appellation so that we can empathize and institute in ourselves Wall-e's desire - understanding it and following his quest to fulfill that desire throughout the film. We are made aware visually that Wall-e is recording this moment for himself, both with the reflection of the image of the couple holding hands in his optical lenses as well as when we see him push the literal record button on his body. The seeing of reality is crucial to the integrity of this film, click on the pictures below to further explore the importance of Hello, Dolly!

The Semiotics of Hello, Dolly! Back to Visualizing Humanity