A bold, wondrous and touching intergalactic animated adventure, two parts robot love story and one part cautionary Mother Earth tale.
It's only June, but with Wall-E, the latest collaboration from Pixar/Disney, the pole position in the race for the next Best Animated Feature Oscar has clearly been staked out. A bold, wondrous and touching work that thrills and entertains even as it strives to impart a message of moderation and environmental respect, Wall-Eis two parts robot love story and one part cautionary conservation tale, with just enough anarchic intergalactic adventure thrown in to sweeten the pot for wide-eyed adolescents.
Set in an apocalyptic, consumerist wasteland seven or eight centuries into the future, the movie centers around squat, solar-powered WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class), who's apparently the last robot on the planet. WALL-E wanders around the dust storm-ravaged landscape, where seemingly only Twinkies and his pet cockroach have survived, dutifully compacting trash into neat cubes, and stacking them into towering structures that summon to mind the leaning garbage towers in Mike Judge's Idiocracy.
WALL-E possesses a unique combination of loyal obligation and instinctual yearning. He keeps performing his "directive," even in the face of its absurd futility, but also watches clips from Hello, Dolly! over and over, and collects various knick-knacks and trinkets which catch his eyes, stashing them in scrupulously ordered bins, as much for a sense of domestic comfort as any future practical use.
WALL-E discovers a new purpose in life, though, when a sleek search robot named EVE (an acronym for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Examiner), lands on Earth to search for signs of photosynthesis. Trepidatious at first, WALL-E befriends EVE, who comes to realize that, in the form of a small seedling, WALL-E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the Earth's future. When this revelation kick-starts an automatic departure, he gives chase after his new love.
Together they arrive at the Axiom, a city-sized spaceship populated by the tubby castaway remnants of humankind, who haven't walked or done anything for themselves in generations. While the ship's captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) grapples with the consequences of life on Earth, his robotic second-in-command, Auto-Pilot, works to jettison the plant and undermine any return, leading to madcap shenanigans in which WALL-E and EVE are repeatedly torn apart and reunited.
Pixar's meticulous attention to detail, both visually and conceptually, makes Wall-E an absolute joy to watch -- in fact, to experience may be the operative word. Early on, Thomas Newman's score pulses with the eerie menace of a classic tale of sci-fi abandonment, and later deftly moves to highlight the movie's wistful, romantic and, finally, increasingly quick-paced moments. While the movie trades in silences and bare-bones vocalizations prior to the introduction of its human characters, WALL-E's personality -- his curiosity, compassion and desire for connection -- comes through with crystal clarity. His Earthbound rituals -- struggling to get his treads on in the pre-dawn morning, like a commuter before their coffee -- feed a strong and sympathetic identification with him.
Wall-E is preceded by Presto -- a zany new five-minute, equally superb, Pixar-produced short about a magician and his hungry rabbit -- and, like Brad Bird's The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the film pushes the envelope for kid-pitched big screen fare, underscoring the fact that animation is a medium and not a genre in and of itself. Andrew Stanton, a co-director of A Bug's Life and the driving force behind 2003's Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, delivers a movie with considerable heart, narrative substance and characters to care about.
A few moments early on may be tough for younger viewers to translate, given thata viewing of Wall-E requires one to engage more actively than a lot of animated films, which trade chiefly in noise and color. Its concessions toward kids, though -- a gallery of malfunctioning, rogue robots that become WALL-E and EVE's protectors during a frenetic chase sequence, say -- actually always feed the story, though, instead of merely some checklist of scatological humor.
The pro-environmental message at the core of Wall-E (Fred Willard, playing a corporate CEO/figure of presidential authority, touts the status quo with a recorded admonition to "stay the course," a phrase that has particular resonance) could have the potential to seem like neo-populist band-wagoning, but it's so honestly arrived at that anyone looking to make hay from this is just itching for a fight; as engaging as it is thoughtful, Wall-E is about caring for others and the environment around all of us, and the regenerative value that comes from both.