Wall-E (Disney) pushes the purist aesthetic of Pixar animation to the borders of the avant-garde. It’s a largely dialogue-free story set on a planet Earth nearly devoid of organic life, and its view of humanity’s future is about as dark as dystopias get. Yet Wall-E is an improbable delight, a G-rated crowd-pleaser that seems poised to pack theaters as efficiently as the titular robot crams his chest cavity with rubble.
Wall-E (whose clicks and beeps were created by sound designer Ben Burtt) is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, the last functioning robot left on a planet abandoned by humans 700 years ago. He spends his days scooting around the ruins of a devastated city, compacting cubes of trash in his boxy middle and stacking them into piles as high as skyscrapers. His only companion is a mute and nameless cockroach who lives with him in a bunker filled with treasures that Wall-E culls over the course of long, garbage-gathering days: a rusted spork, a light bulb, and a videocassette of Hello, Dolly! that he watches, rapt, each night.
The opening scenes establish Wall-E and the roach’s world with such economy and wit that it’s almost a letdown when a third party shows up to complicate things. Eve (Elissa Knight) is an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, an elegant white robot—she looks like a cross between an iPod and an egg—who’s been dispatched to Earth to find any evidence of returning plant life. Though they can communicate at first only by speaking their own names, Eve and Wall-E begin an unlikely courtship. This idyll is lost when a smitten Wall-E shows her his latest find—a tiny plant that he’s transplanted into an old boot—and Eve’s prime directive is activated. She snatches the sprig away, stows it in her storage compartment, and blasts off for the Axiom, a kind of floating resort in space that houses the remnants of humanity.
When Eve arrives at the Axiom with Wall-E in tow, the movie shifts gears from a minimalist robot romance to a richly detailed satire of contemporary humankind. After seven centuries in a corporate-controlled pleasure dome in space, all earthlings have become obese, infantile consumers who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs, staring at ads on computer screens—in other words, Americans. Confronted with Eve’s evidence of plant life on Earth, the ship’s tubby, unmotivated captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) at first refuses to believe that Earth is ready for recolonization. But when the ship’s mainframe computer (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) decides, 2001-style, to abort the Axiom’s trip home, a human and robot rebellion ensues.
You shouldn’t go into Wall-E knowing much more than that, the better to be surprised by the visual, verbal, and conceptual treats the movie has to offer. Every detail of the design, from the contents of Wall-E’s revolving shelf of knickknacks to the layout and function of the Axiom’s central “Lido Deck,” has been thought through with the compulsive perfectionism that must make Pixar Studios an insane place to work. Wall-E generously dispenses one sight gag after another, but it also expects a lot of its audience. Space out for a moment, and you’ll miss a laugh. The story is unmistakably an ecological fable, though its tone is more wistful than preachy, more The Lorax than An Inconvenient Truth.
Directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton, a longtime Pixar collaborator who also directed the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo in 2003, Wall-E isn’t quite as transcendent as last year’s Ratatouille, but it’s more formally innovative. Some of the lesser characters, particularly the misfit bots who help Wall-E stow away on the Axiom, could have been better fleshed out (if one can say that of a robot). But the central couple—forlorn, googly-eyed, stubbornly loyal Wall-E and sleek, directive-obsessed, but ultimately tenderhearted Eve—are triumphs of the animator’s art, as their characters are established almost entirely through movement and gesture (though Burtt, who also provided the “voice” for Star Wars’ R2-D2, is an expert clicker and beeper). Despite the virtuosity of its technical execution, Wall-E never feels like a soulless, well-oiled entertainment machine. Rather, the movie resembles its resilient, square-shaped hero: a built-to-last contraption with a disproportionately big heart.