Wall-E the robot for president

This year's July Fourth festivities were marked by a childish debate over who is and isn't patriotic. Let oil soar above $140 a barrel. Let layoffs and foreclosures proliferate like California's fires. Let someone else worry about the stock market's steepest June drop since the Great Depression. In our political culture, only one question mattered: What was Wesley Clark saying about John McCain?

Unable to take another minute of this din, I fled to the movies. More specifically, to an animated film, “Wall-E.”

The crowds at the G-rated film were primed by the track record of its creator, Pixar Animation Studios, and the ecstatic reviews. But this movie may exceed its audience's expectations. It did mine.

In touch with today's troubles

“Wall-E” opened the same summer weekend as the hot-button movie of the 2004 campaign year, Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Ah, the good old days. Oil was $38 a barrel, our fatalities in Iraq had not hit 900, and only 57 percent of Americans thought their country was on the wrong track. “Wall-E” may touch a more universal chord in this far gloomier time. Indeed, it seemed more realistically in touch with what troubles America this year than either the substance or the players of the political food fight beyond the multiplex's walls.

While the real-life grown-ups on TV were again rebooting Vietnam, the kids at “Wall-E” were in deep contemplation of a world in peril.

Almost any description of this beautiful film makes it sound juvenile or didactic, and it is neither. “Wall-E” is a robot-meets-robot love story, set largely in a smoldering and abandoned Earth, circa 2700, where the only signs of life are a cockroach and a single green sprout.

The robot of the title is a battered mobile trash compactor whose sole knowledge of human civilization and intimacy comes from detritus the former inhabitants left behind – a Rubik's Cube, an engagement ring and a single stuttering VCR tape of “Hello, Dolly!,” a candied Hollywood musical from 1969. Wall-E keeps rewinding to the song that finds the young lovers pledging their devotion until “time runs out.”

Consumers too bloated to walk

The world's human population cruises the heavens ceaselessly on a mammoth luxury spaceship that it boarded in the early 22nd century after the planet became uninhabitable. For government, there is a global corporation called Buy N Large, which keeps the public wired to umpteenth-generation iPods and addicted to a diet of supersized liquefied fast food and instantly obsolete products. The people are too bloated to walk – they float around on motorized Barcaloungers – but they are happy shoppers.

And yet these rabid consumers, like us, are haunted by what paradise might have been lost. How can they reclaim what matters? How can Earth be recolonized? These questions are rarely spoken in “Wall-E,” but are omnipresent, like half-forgotten dreams.

One of the great things about art, including popular art, is that it can hit audiences at a profound level beyond words. That includes children. The kids at “Wall-E” were never restless, despite the movie's often melancholy mood. They seemed to instinctually understand what “Wall-E” was saying. What they applauded at the end was not some banal cartoonish triumph of good over evil but a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out.

The fierce urgency of now that drives “Wall-E” and its yearning for change is absent in both the Obama and McCain campaigns these days.

For all the hyperventilation on the left about Barack Obama's rush to the center – some warranted, some not – what's more alarming is how small-bore and defensive his campaign has become. Whether he's reaffirming his long-held belief in faith-based programs or fudging his core convictions about government snooping, he is drifting away from the leadership he promised and into the focus-group-tested calculation patented by Mark Penn in his disastrous campaign for Hillary Clinton.

What Obama has going for him during this tailspin is that his opponent seems mortifyingly out-to-lunch. McCain is a man who aspires to lead the largest economy in the world and yet recently admitted that he doesn't know how to use a computer, the one modern tool shared by everyone from the post-industrial American work force to Middle Eastern terrorists to Pixar animators. Getting shot down over Vietnam may not be a qualification for president in 2008, but surely a rudimentary facility with a laptop is.

Candidates should see “Wall-E”

McCain should be required to see “Wall-E” to learn just how far adrift he is from an America whose economic fears cannot be remedied by his flip-flop embrace of the Bush tax cuts (for the wealthy) and his sham gas-tax holiday (for everyone else).

Obama should see it to be reminded of just how bold his vision of change had been before he settled into a front-runner's complacency. Americans should see it to appreciate just how much things are out of joint when a cartoon robot evokes America's patriotic ideals with more conviction than either of the men who would be president.