Out of this world
Daring 'WALL-E' is a family film with a cautionary message that even parents can love
The accomplishment of director Andrew Stanton, his co-writers Pete Docter and Jim Reardon, and the artists and computer jockeys who work under Pixar majordomo John Lasseter can be gauged by the disturbing awe we feel at the trash-choked disaster man has made of his home planet. "WALL-E" begins on a ravaged Earth centuries in the future; humans have long since fled in cruise-line spaceships, leaving behind small robots with sad, binocular eyes to sweep up the mess. These are called Waste Allocation Load Lifters, Earth-class - WALL-Es for short - and there appears to be only one left in working order.
As you'd expect, he's lonely. WALL-E spends his days compacting detritus into cubes and piling them up; early on, we realize with a start that what seem to be skyscrapers are in fact towering ziggurats of our leftover junk. At night, WALL-E puzzles over his keepsakes - a Rubik's Cube, a rubber duck - and watches a videotape of the 1969 musical "Hello, Dolly!," obsessively returning to the Michael Crawford love song "Out There." (He's not a Streisand fan, I guess.)
These scenes are stunning in their wide-screen attention to detail and their refusal to let us off the hook. While there is a standard Disney sidekick critter, it's a cockroach; surprisingly cute, but still, a cockroach. The first act of "WALL-E" is, daringly, a post-apocalyptic silent movie that picks up where the last act of "AI: Artificial Intelligence" left off.
What keeps us from hanging ourselves in the theater? Two things: WALL-E himself - he's an ingeniously designed pip, with a timid curiosity and a comically stalwart sense of duty - and the arrival of EVE, a gleaming white probe from the BnL Corp.'s cruiseship far out in space. Her name stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, and she's looking for plants - evidence that Earth is ready for recolonization. By chance, WALL-E has just turned one up, a delicate shoot he's repotted into a shoe.
So this is what Pixar is asking us to buy into: a romance between two robots. Because it is Pixar, bringing wit and intelligence to kiddie CGI fare that usually has none, the task turns out to be unexpectedly easy.
"WALL-E" picks up speed when the little guy follows his girlfriend back to the spaceship and the film becomes a more familiarly rambunctious action-adventure story. Again, though, there's magic in the swooping design of the interiors - Pixar just thinks bigger and more elegantly than anyone else - and the comic variations on robot servants. (I especially liked M-O, an anal-retentive sweeper-bot that freaks out at the sight of dirt.)
Where are the people? They're here, and after 700 years of being waited on hand and foot by domestic machines, they've grown pear-shaped and indolent, unable to get to their atrophied feet for lack of bone mass. If anything, this is more frightening than the scenes back on Earth, a goofy but ferocious attack on a consumer culture that turns leisure into religion and humans into overfed sheep.
The machines, by contrast, are superior in every way to the people they ostensibly serve: smarter, faster, more alive. Even the human captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) is under the sway of Auto, the piloting system that takes the form of a ship's wheel with an angry red HAL 9000 eye in its center. The captain wants to head back to Earth. Auto, acting on outdated directives, intends to destroy the plant and keep the ship floating through space forever. Against him (it?) are EVE and WALL-E, now labeled "rogue robots" and volleying through the ship in open rebellion.
"WALL-E" takes the fizzy, frenetic action-comedy of previous Pixar releases and places it in a bigger setting, visually and philosophically. The movie's a consistent delight but you never lose sight of the stakes involved; when the ship tilts off its gravitational axis and the humans pile up against the windows like fat, flopping tuna fish, the image makes you laugh and inhale in horror at the same time. Stanton and company appear to have been studying the work of Japanese animation guru Hayao Miyazaki; while his spiritual dimension is missing, the eco-despair that galvanizes his films "Princess Mononoke" and "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" is even more keenly felt here.
Everything clicks on the micro level too, from Thomas Newman's exuberant score to the slapstick comedy of the malfunctioning repair-shop bots that assist the heroes (they're lunatics taking over the asylum). Pleasingly, "WALL-E" is aware of its cinematic roots: Aside from the "2001" references, the title character's cozy metallic speech comes courtesy of Ben Burtt, the sound designer who previously provided the voices of R2-D2, Chewbacca, and E.T. It's he who gives us the soul in this new machine.
The end result is, in one of Lasseter's pet phrases, a work of genuine "soopa-genius," but are audiences ready for it? "WALL-E" is an assault on much that we hold dear: our throwaway lifestyle, the belief that high-tech narcosis is our just reward, our corporations and politics (Fred Willard appears in ancient video footage as BnL's "global CEO," vainly urging us to "stay the course"). The mirror it holds up is not a flattering one.
In other words, can you take the kids? The movie's dense by "Finding Nemo" standards, but of course you can, and should. Expect the little ones to be entertained while the larger themes lodge subcutaneously; expect older kids to marvel and be a little saddened and want to have long discussions on the ride home. Expect some adults to be scared silly, others to be confused, still others to clap their hands with joy at a toy story that dares to say things our grown-up movies don't. The nagging, almost misanthropic vision at the core of "WALL-E" may ultimately cause it to be Pixar's most admired movie rather than its most well-loved. For now, it's simply the best.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the June 27 movie review of "WALL-E" in the Weekend section incorrectly identified the sound the title character makes when he starts up. It is the sound made by a Macintosh computer.