Voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin
Directed by Andrew Stanton
For 700 years, WALL-E — a Waste Allocation Load Lifter robot, Earth-class — has been doing the job he was programmed to do. Left behind on an Earth no longer inhabitable by humans, the solar-powered WALL-E gathers and compacts garbage, stacking the cubes in skyscraper-sized towers, over and over, all day long. But he is not so single-minded that he's unable to find wonder in the mountains of trash surrounding him. In his makeshift home, he has built a collection of artifacts that intrigue him: a Rubik's Cube, a spork, the velvet case for a diamond ring, and, most importantly, a single ancient VHS tape of the exuberant musical Hello, Dolly.
Because writer/director Andrew Stanton and his Pixar cohorts are such extraordinary storytellers, there has been plenty of metaphorical content strewn throughout the computer-animation pioneers' consistently delightful features: a critique of radical egalitarianism in The Incredibles, Cars' paean to the roadkill left on the superhighway to "progress." In WALL-E, Stanton recognizes that his little robot has developed a soul because of what he does that's not part of his mundane routine. Being human, he reminds us, is about the ability to recognize beauty — the kind of beauty you find in a work of art like this breathtaking little miracle of a movie.
One could get hung up, I suppose, on the potentially political content of its premise. WALL-E presents its 28th-century Earth as a dust-blasted cityscape, the result of a consumer culture encouraged by the omnipresent Buy-N-Large corporation (its president, played by Fred Willard, appears to have become the country's ever-grinning de facto ruler). When another robot called EVE (Elissa Knight) arrives on a mission to find any sign of life, WALL-E falls in love at first sight and follows her back to the massive spacecraft that has become the home-in-exile of surviving humanity. There people have evolved into obese, self-obsessed slugs who cruise around in hover-chairs, oblivious to the fact that they've ruined their home planet. When the ship's captain (Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin) begins engaging with the history of a planet he barely understands, he finally demonstrates a humanity that previously had seemed recognizable only in the robots.
Part of WALL-E's genius is that Stanton builds to this idea so patiently. For approximately the first 45 minutes of the film, the story emerges with almost no spoken dialogue, dependent on visual storytelling and the electronic blips of sound designer Ben Burtt — who also created R2-D2's "language" 30 years ago — for WALL-E's quirky personality. And while WALL-E gets a cute little cockroach as a pet — well, cute for a cockroach, anyway — the film doesn't aim at the attention span suggested by its G-rating. This is no passive viewing experience; it practically demands engagement.
Even once the action moves to the expatriate humans' Battlestar Galactica-cum-Love Boat starship Axiom and human voices are heard, WALL-E remains a marvel. A tiny cleaning robot called MO obsessively scrubs the filthy tread marks left behind by WALL-E's seven centuries-worth of caked-on muck; a collection of malfunctioning robots runs free on the ship like mechanical refugees from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, following WALL-E as their McMurphy. And in a sequence of almost heartbreaking poetry, WALL-E and EVE both find themselves outside the Axiom, the sleeker EVE jetting along gracefully while WALL-E propels himself with a fire extinguisher. The moment plays like a transcendent first date — Beauty and the Beast's ballroom dance reimagined as a waltz of two vibrant beings in the void of space.
It seems almost absurd in the presence of such lyrical filmmaking to draw attention to Pixar's ongoing pushing of the computer-animation envelope, except that those advances become part of the storytelling. As impressive as it may be to watch the flicker of a flame grow ever more realistic, it's even more wonderful when the reflection of that flickering flame in WALL-E's eyes represents the spark of love. The details in this universe matter, because this universe itself comes to matter. WALL-E holds out a hope that we can find the best in ourselves, even if sometimes it takes a technological marvel — like the work of Pixar — to remind us of how much joy we can discover if we're willing to stop shoveling garbage long enough to fall in love.