This is why I don’t watch films very often, I end up analysing them to death but this is my favourite one and I found it really interesting so thought I would post.

Analytical Film analysis: The narrative structure and intertextuality of Disney Pixar’s ‘Wall-E.’(2008)

By Bronagh Doherty.


Narratives are cognitive patterns that we construct to make sense of the world. They convey our longing for consistency, closure, and a single unified meaning. According to the theories of Levi-Strauss (1955:1966) and his studies of Mythology, film narrative is a construction of binary opposites which help us make sense of our social world. Narrative is a product of all cultures; story-telling, myths and folklore that have been shared from generation to generation throughout the world in order to help produce ‘meaning.’ Turner (1988, P.32) States, ‘Myths negotiated a peace between men and women and their environment so that they could live in it without agonizing over its frustration and its cruelties.’ Many film theorists suggest the same can apply to film narrative as it naturalises the inevitable and the inexplicable, homogenising societal norms and practices. Brooks has said, we are now “immersed” in narrative. Brooks (1984, p.3) From our parents, from our friends, and from strangers; in school, at work, and at home; in newspapers, novels, advertising, film and TV; factual, fictional, or somewhere in-between, the number of narratives we are exposed to even in a single year must run into many thousands. This assignment studied Disney Pixar’s Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class) examining the narratives binary oppositions in relation to other film narratives which are drawn upon in the film and explain how they naturalise contemporary societal norms.

In the establishing shot at the start of Wall-E, the camera slopes from outer space to a landscape that looks uncannily familiar but undoubtedly different. What seem at first like skyscrapers turn out to be neatly stacked mountains of rubbish on a vast wasteland. The quiet is broken only by the unlikely sound of a song from Hello, Dolly! — Originally considered to be non-diagetic sound is actually heard coming from a solitary (inhumane) figure quickly moving around a junk-strewn landscape. Apparently, humans never changed course on pollution and consumerism, and sometime in the 22nd century they were forced to leave a planet they had turned into a giant rubbish dump. But they left without turning off a robot they’d left behind; this is the plot of Wall-E. The first half hour of Wall-E contains very little dialogue, uncommon for a contemporary film; the silence is filled with music and the beeps and whirls of two robots as they attempt to communicate with each other. Emotions and storylines are played out through gestures made by a malfunctioning robot that has developed a slight technical glitch: a human personality. Marketed as a futuristic fantasy film directed at children, Wall-E, like many other animation films holds satirical humour aimed at cultural life that adults will enjoy. Following Todorov’s narrative theory, the equilibrium at the beginning of Wall-E is destroyed when another robot lands on Earth, Wall-E presents the robot with a plant which signifies that human life on earth is once again sustainable. Wall-E however has fallen in love with this new and improved robot and follows her into space by holding on to the spacecraft. When the captain of the Axiom (the humans’ spacecraft) attempts to bring them back to Earth the equilibrium is disrupted by the plot’s villain Auto who tries to destroy the plant. The equilibrium is only restored when the plant is brought back to the captain by Wall-E and the humans return to Earth. In the final credits we can see the captain teaching the humans about farming and production in order to keep human life sustainable on Earth. We structure our understanding of the world around categories of difference and similarity which are often a conflict between good and bad, below are some of the binary oppositions, that Levi-Strauss believed helped to make meaning, that can be seen through both characterization and themes in Wall-E:

Wall-E: Auto (the robot who tries to stop the return to earth)
Good: bad
Earth: space
Nature: Technology
Health: obesity
Environment: Pollution
Anti-consumerism: Consumerism
Anti-Capitalist: Capitalist

The main conflicts in Wall-E are the influences of consumerism and the effects of pollution, a problem reflected in our own society today, Wall-E could be considered a warning of what is to come if the humans don’t make lifestyle changes. The humans who have been deported to space have turned into obese and passive consumers, who spend their days on virtual holidays, talking to each other virtually and staring at a screen all day. The film deals with the issues that are affecting todays’ society, and reflect Marxist views that a single large corporation can take over the world. Wall-E is not the only Pixar film which features the ‘Buy ‘N’ Large’ company logo, it can also be seen in Up (2009), where the company tries to buy a house off an elderly man, to knock it down and build a shopping centre. Many critics in the blogosphere have argued that the Wall-E is unsuitable for children as it deliberately conveys environmentalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-technological propaganda — and aims it at an audience of children, who some argue still lack the critical faculties and intellectual sophistication to evaluate all relevant aspects of the issues presented. The ideology (obvious to adults) in the film is shadowed by the classic narrative traits of the classical Hollywood romance genre, all Wall-E wants is for the sleek robot EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), which interrupts his earthly rubbish collecting routine, to hold his hand like the characters on his favourite video tape Hello-Dolly!
This form of narrative is the most common and can be uncovered by looking at the theories of Vladimir Propp (1968) who researched the common properties of folk-tales and defining common ‘spheres of action’ that can be found within the story. These are outlined below and used to show their relevance to Wall-E:

1. The Villain- Characteristically in Wall-E the villain is Auto, who tries to stop the Axiom (the space craft, perhaps a nod to Blade runner) with a sidekick called GO-4, from returning to Earth. Thematically however the villain is ‘Buy ‘N’ Large’, who have promoted consumerism and contributed to the pollution of planet Earth.
2. The Donor/ Provider- Wall-E, as he finds and provides the plant which means the humans can return to Earth.
3. The Helper- The helper in Wall-E is both the Axiom’s captain and the rogue robots that Wall-E helps escape from the factory. Wall-E is also helped by M-O (Microbe-Obliterator).
4. The Princess- EVE
5. The Dispatcher- EVE
6. The Hero/ Victim- Wall-E
7. The False Hero- Auto, he first appears good but turns out to be evil.

These properties can be applied to countless numbers of films for example, the helpers are similar to the dwarfs in Snow White, Wall-E is similar to Dreamworks Shrek or the Beast from Beauty and the Beast who falls in love with someone who is seemingly out of their league only to eventually capture their heart in a display of romance and bravery. Turner (1988) states this, ’underlines the possibility that film and the primitive fairy-tale serve similar functions for their respective audiences. ‘These properties are still relevant to contemporary film however; the purpose has changed alongside society. It could be suggested that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Shrek (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003) were used as ideological tools to naturalize difference in society. The dwarfs’ bare similarities with the malfunctioning robots in Wall-E, both groups would be categorised in Propp’s spheres of action as the helper’s. Shrek and Nemo have similarities with Wall-E as being the unlikely heroes. If film relates to social issues it could then be rational to suggest that contemporary productions such as Wall-E, which has similarities to Blade Runner, as it shows human colonialism in space, are forms of warning humanity about the effects of consumerism and pollution. Also that our reliance on advancing technology can damage relationships among humans, in Wall-E the humans have become the impassive robots and the robots have become the humans. Wall-E and EVE can be seen dancing around the Axiom in space and building friendships while humans have become stationary and passive, only connecting with each other through technology, this is only broken when the humans are forced to recognise each other because of the disruption of their daily routines as the captain struggles with Auto to bring the humans back to Earth. The animation of the film allows the audience- the majority of which are children, to consume these connoted messages passively.

As the works of Julia Kristeva, along with other poststructuralist theorists, has taught us, any text is a combination of others, a part of a larger fabric of cultural discourse. “A text is a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, writes Barthes in 1977 (P. 146) Film theoreticians Raengo & Stam (2005)explains: “The text feeds on and is fed into an infinitely permutating intertext, which is seen through ever shifting grids of interpretation” (P.57) The depth of intertextuality in Wall-E is continuous, referencing other films such as Blade-Runner (1982), I Am Legend (2007), Hello Dolly!(1969) and many more. Thompson (1997) suggests such analogic equivalencies are quite consistent with cognitive schema theory: consumers learn about novel products by thinking about them as similar or dissimilar to product concepts they already have in memory. References to other texts produce a multi-layered intertextual fabric, in which each thread potentially unravels the narrative possibilities suggested by the other threads. Intertextuality functions to increase ambiguity, and is therefore thematically relevant to narrative theory. Wall-E’s behaviour and personality is somewhat reminiscent of Chaplin-esque slapstick humour, particularly when he causes chaos in the factory, a nod to Chaplin’s little tramp in Modern Times (1936), it is easy to see where Pixar got the idea of having very little dialogue at the start of the film. “Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all the other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations” Allen (2000,P.1). An interpretation of this use of text could be a suggestion that humanity needs to look back and remember simpler times where technology and social issues were different, and production and agriculture thrived; thus corresponding with the narrative themes of anti-consumerism and environmentalist views in Wall-E. The incorporation of HelloDolly! serves the same purpose, when the clips of the film appear brighter on screen connoting happiness and better times, referring back to a time when human interaction was more important than the latest trend or newest technological advancement. I Am Legend (2007) and Wall-E share a similar establishing narrative, a vast city landscape that is now a brownish haze of rubbish and squealer, also similar to The Day After Tomorrow (2004), these references derive meaning in the form of a warning that if humans continue on the path of consumerism and pollution they could potentially destroy their planet. In the waste level of the Axiom spaceship, a nod to the rubbish compactor in Star Wars (1977), Apple computer mouses, PC computer parts and other remnants of our disposable culture can be spotted. Intertextuality distorts the outlines of texts, making them an “illimitable tissue of connections and associations” (Barthes 1981, P. 39). However this wholly depends on the reader’s knowledge to make all the necessary links.

Narrative structure is universal; the narrative theories of Propp (1968) and Levi-strauss (1955:1966) illuminate the fundamental values governing the movement of narrative. This research on Wall-E shows that both the structuralist theories of Levi-Strauss and the folklore studies of Propp can usefully be applied to many different texts from a variety of cultures, which can help their audiences derive meaning from and relate to these texts as they address the cultural issues within contemporary society. “By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world. This is the consoling function of narrative — the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time.” Eco (1994) Themes in film progress alongside society however the narrative structure of the majority of films remains the same. Wall-E could be described as Pixar’s most original unoriginal movie, the film, like most movies, is just the same story told in a new way. The robots are gendered to reinforce common narratives of heterosexual relationships of the classic boy-meets-girl love story even further. Although the interpretations of Wall-E’s ideological themes hit home, the film is a complete contradiction of itself. With the production of merchandise and advertising that will inevitably surround the film Disney Pixar is encouraging consumption and pollution, as children will want the merchandise which will eventually become waste materials. ‘Films can be regarded either as entertaining fictions, as reflections of reality, or as cultural artefacts that shape and constitute our understanding of social and organizational life.’ Huczynski & Buchanan (2004, P.708)


Allen, G. (2000) Intertextuality. London: Routledge
Barthes, R. (1977) Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, in: Image-Music-Text. London : Fontana.
Barthes, R. (1981) Introduction to the structural analysis of the narrative. Birmingham [England]: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) [film] Walt Disney Feature Animation: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise.
Blade Runner (1982) [film] Warner Bros.: Ridley Scott.
Brooks, P. (1984) Reading for the Plot. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.
Buchanan, D. and Huczynski, A. (1997) Organizational behaviour. London [u.a.]: Prentice Hall.
Eco, U. (1994) Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hello Dolly! (1969) [DVD] USA: Gene Kelly.
I Am Legend (2007) [film] USA: Francis Lawrence.
Modern Times (1936) [film] USA: Charlie Chaplin.
Propp, V. (1968). The Morphology of the Folktale. University of Texas Press.
Raengo, A. and Stam, R. (2005) Literature and film. Malden, Mass. [u.a.]: Blackwell.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) [film] USA: Roland Emmerich.
Shrek (2001) [film] DreamWorks Pictures: Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) [film] USA: Walt Disney.
Star Wars (1977) [film] USA: George Lucas.
Thompson, C. J. (1997), Interpreting Consumers: A Hermeneutical Framework for Deriving Marketing Insights from the Texts of Consumers’ Consumption Stories”, Journal of Marketing Research, 34, November, 438-455.
Turner, G. (1988) Film as social practice. London: Routledge.
Wall-E (2008) [film] Pixar Animation Studios: Andrew Stanton


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