I expected Wall-E to be an anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist piece of tripe that I was going to regret seeing or exposing my children to. But I have not found a Pixar movie yet that I didn't enjoy to some degree. (The Incredibles was my favorite followed by Ratatouille and A Bug's Life. Least favorites: Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo.) I had these expectations because the liberals I follow raved about it and the conservatives I follow despised it. I think that means that the actual meaning of the movie is deeper than it appears, which allows viewers to see on the surface what they would like.
The movie, in case you're not familiar with the basic story, is about a small robot that's been left on Earth to clean up its trash for the last 700 years. The robot, Wall-E (who is given voice by Ben Burtt, the same guy who did R2-D2), develops something of a personality as he scours the trash for interesting items. One day, a spaceship lands and emits another robot called Eve, a probe robot (designed by Jonathan Ive, the guy behind the iPod), who is on Earth looking for signs of plant life. She was sent there by the captain of a ship containing the entire population of Earth. The humans, having consumed Earth right into inhospitableness, abandoned the planet and left robots to clean up the mess in preparation for their eventual return.
So you can see why both groups see the movie as they do. For the liberals, it's a parable of humanity's future if we don't Do Something. For conservatives, it's a propaganda piece put out by Hollywood liberals completely out of touch with reality. On a superficial level, I think they're both right. The future in the movie is run by a single corporation that provides everything for the people; the luxury spaceship that they live in is completely automated and they needn't lift a finger; and the Earth is so uninhabitable that nothing grows there for centuries. That's pretty damning stuff, a sort of hyperbolic An Inconvenient Truth.
But it's not the central theme of the movie. For me, the core idea of the movie is summed up by the captain, who exclaims "I'm tired of surviving, I want to live" when faced with a choice between continuing life aboard the ship or returning to Earth and starting a new Jamestown without all of the resources or helpful Indians. In that moment, the captain has realized that life is about values and the struggle to achieve them. By having everything handed to him and letting his life be run on autopilot (literally in his case), he's missed out on a life proper to a human being. Furthermore, in a deliciously ironic twist, the robot is the value pursuer and it inspires the captain to reclaim his dignity.
For me then, the movie was about working for what you want and accepting responsibility for your life. There is always a temptation for us to take the easy way out: to let others do our thinking for us, to let others pander to us and become our masters, to let others provide for us. But that is not the good life: it is a betrayal of our very humanity. Sometimes it takes an unusual source to remind us of that.
(NOTE: It was Jennifer Snow's review that made me decide to give the movie a shot. Thank you, Jennifer!)
[UPDATE: My wife reminded me of one of the best parts of the movie. Whenever Wall-E, who was solar-powered, got his morning charge and started up, the chime is the Mac startup sound. I'm so proud of her!]