If you remember what the folks at PIXAR did with a pair of Luxo lamps and a bouncing ball 20 or so years ago, then you know that these animation wizards have an uncanny ability to imbue to the most unlikely of inanimate objects with a complex emotional life. Two decades on, a state-of-the art that is light years ahead of those simpler times and they’ve come up with WALL-E, an irresistible romance between service robots not programmed for anything of the sort that is funny, heartwarming, and more than a little sly.
WALL-E, it stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth class, is the last of his kind. A robot on the job for 700 years cleaning up the debris left by the human population, who have all departed for a star cruise while the Earth in tidied up for their return. With only a cockroach and a VHS copy of HELLO DOLLY for company, he’s become just a little eccentric. He’s developed a personality, albeit one that can only express itself with a series of beeps, whirs, and the odd mechanical-accented word (voiced by Ben Burt, who also voiced R2-D2). He also has a penchant for collecting bits and pieces that catch his fancy of the civilization that is no more, things like rubber duckies and Rubik’s Cubes. The rest is cubed and stacked in towering piles taller than the empty and decaying skyscrapers.
It’s the part of HELLO DOLLY where two lovers hold hands that has captured WALL-E’s fancy, and his locking together of his tiny claws in imitation of it is almost too poignant to bear. Even if this is the same robot that got on the wrong end of a fire extinguisher and decided that a bra was some sort of eye-protector. His world is rocked in several sense with the arrival of a space ship and the deposition from same of another robot. It’s love at first sight. She’s sleek, graceful, and has big-blue eyes atop her aerodynamically sound body. She’s also been programmed to shoot first and ask questions later, which makes his initial encounters with her exciting, but for all the wrong reasons. He tags along after her, trying to impress her and failing miserably until she discovers that he has exactly what she’s looking for, but not his unending devotion, alas. That would be a tiny plant that he collected, the first green thing on Earth in centuries and what she was programmed to bring back to the Axiom, the star cruiser where humanity has been lolling waiting for the cue to return home.
When she’s picked up by the space probe that brought her, WALL-E tags along and when they get to the AXIOM, his misadventures shake things up and reveal the star cruiser’s true mission. There’s more than a hint that it might be something sinister from the way the Auto Pilot is rendered: a ship’s wheel with a red eye that is a dead-ringer for HAL in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. As for the humans, catered to 24/7 by an army of robot stewards, infantilized in minds preoccupied with gossip and the next meal-in-a-cup, and in their bodies grown soft, squishy, and spherical after centuries of space travel and hover chairs that offer the convenience of a virtual world that blocks their view of the real one. WALL-E’s accidentally freeing of a passel of defective robots from the ship’s cyber-psycho ward provides just the sort of insanity all the inhabitants, human and robot, desperately need.
The animated characters, robot and human are so lively that the cameos of Fred Willard seem somehow, well, dull by comparison. No reflection on Willard intended. He’s swell as the supercilious Global CEO of Buy-N-Large, the superstore that took over the Earth and eventually rendered it uninhabitable with its philosophy of disposable consumerism run amok. Once you’ve gotten used to the way WALL-E’s ocular units, they’re inspired by binoculars, can express even the most fleeting of feelings, or EVE can giggle without making a sound, flesh and blood doesn’t seem quite as richly evocative. The way an eye changes from one simple shape to another, the way a tiny claw or an antenna moves decisively or tentatively, it captures a seemingly endless variety of emotions from subtle to broad with economy and clarity and brilliance. The animation operates on the same level, dust being the most impressive new trick, but for sheer beauty, nothing tops the way strings of colored lights in WALL-E’s lair are refracted and reflected in the gloss of EVE’s pristine white body.
The clever sense of humor that is as much PIXAR’s trademark as the dazzling animation doesn’t fail. Exploiting the visual nature of the medium, the first 20 minutes are virtually soundless, but spiked with so much flawlessly executed slapstick, the dialogue isn’t missed. Some of it is more subtle. WALL-E’s bumbling courtship of the completely indifferent EVE has as much truth about humanity’s sweetness and perseverance as any piece of great literature, but there is also something keenly yet absurdly logical in WALL-E’s confusion over how to classify the ambiguity of a spork in order to store it properly in his collection of human artifacts. Some of it is a forthright poke in the eye, as it lays bare the folly of a disposable society in which humans have become too distracted by virtual reality to engage in anything resembling real-time interaction. It’s not just funny that everyone is surprised to discover that there’s been a pool on the Lido Deck for 700 years, it also has more than a touch of creepy foreboding in a present-day of I-Pods, Bluetooth, and PDAs.
WALL-E isn’t just a great animated movie, as enchanting as it is droll, as smart as it is silly, it’s a great movie. Period.