Pixar’s newest animated feature, WALL-E, is the oddest of ducks: a feel-good love story set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. This wonderful dichotomy is reflected in its opening scene in which we’re shown a panoramic view of Earth shrouded in a cloud of orbiting litter followed by sweeping overhead shots of desolate debris-laden cityscapes—to the accompaniment of a peppy Broadway show tune from Hello, Dolly! The effect is eerie and mesmerizing. It is in this brilliant juxtaposition of light and darkness that writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) produces cinematic magic.
Mankind, it turns out, has abandoned planet Earth after exploiting its resources, leaving it so polluted and infertile that only cockroaches can survive. Everyone has departed aboard sprawling space-cruisers, with only clean-up bots like the titular character, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class), left behind. The last of his kind, the lonely WALL-E, a binocular-eyed roving trash compactor, has spent the past seven centuries compressing garbage into building blocks that he stacks to create haunting, towering edifices. With only his pet cockroach to accompany him, WALL-E collects odd bits of junk he finds interesting among the endless garbage heaps: a Rubik’s Cube, a beat-up boot, bubble wrap and a jewelry box (after dumping out the uninteresting diamond ring inside of it). And at the end of his work day or when fleeing from regular dust storms, he retreats to a hideaway where he stores his collectibles and watches with fascination his most prized possession, a VHS tape of Hello, Dolly! Not since ET has a CGI character with limited speech managed to generate so much empathy from an audience.
WALL-E’s world is literally shaken to its core when a spaceship lands and deposits EVE (“extraterrestrial vegetative evaluator”), an egg-shaped probe sent to detect photosynthetic organisms. The lonely WALL-E is instantly love-stricken and his attempt to romance the uninterested EVE – who blasts away at anything that moves with a laser gun – is both hilarious and touching.
It is in this wondrous, dialogue-free first third of the movie that WALL-E comes close to cinematic perfection. It is remarkable how effectively the script conveys character and emotion through simple action. We are made to understand that WALL-E is a lovelorn innocent trapped in a bleak setting in which hope and love, against all odds, have somehow managed to survive. We can’t help but root for him.
When EVE and WALL-E eventually encounter humanity in deep space aboard the resort cruise-ship Axiom the film veers toward more traditional storytelling, though tinged with biting satire. In the 700 years since leaving the planet, humans have changed (or have they, really?) into obese, obtuse couch potatoes too lazy even to walk. With no memory of their home planet, they lounge about in floating chairs, pampered by robot servants, gulping slurpees and consuming products generated by mega-corporation Buy & Large. When the captain determines that the time has come to leave their too-comfortable environs and return to Earth, the ship’s automated navigator (a red-eyed, steering wheel-shaped cousin of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey) decides instead to follow the final orders given centuries earlier by Buy & Large CEO and President of the World (Fred Willard, seamlessly integrated in a live action role) to stay away from the inhospitable planet. WALL-E and EVE must lend a hand to set things right.
In one of the film’s most romantic moments, WALL-E and EVE jet through space, circling one another in delicate pirouettes while the ship’s computer (voiced by Sigourney Weaver) defines the word “dance” to the ship’s chair-bound captain.
While the second act suffers a bit from the lack of a strong villain, WALL-E, like so many other Pixar movies, provides a sumptuous visual and intellectual feast. It is topnotch entertainment that deserves kudos not only for its ambitious amalgamation of so many genres – children’s animation, love story, political commentary, satire, science fiction post-apocalyptic epic – but for its boundless charm. It is a worthy addition to the Pixar stable of classics such as Toy Story and Ratatouille.