By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
The idea for WALL-E, the ninth and arguably best film from Pixar Animation Studios, was born during a 1994 brainstorming session in which the company’s founders knocked around ideas for follow-up movies to their upcoming debut, Toy Story, which was nearing completion.
Among them was Andrew Stanton’s concept, set 700 years in the future, of a trash-compacting robot left behind after mankind packs up and flees a polluted, uninhabitable Earth. At the time, Stanton had no story to go along with the character, so WALL-E was put on hold while Pixar followed through on the other pictures cooked up that day (including Finding Nemo, which Stanton directed).
Inadvertently, they saved the best for last. WALL-E is Pixar’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or its Pinocchio: an archetypal fable about loneliness simple enough — yet deep enough — to instantly captivate anyone who sees it. That quality was present in most of the studio’s previous eight films, but none of those had the cosmic expanse of WALL-E. This is a work of genuine sci-fi, filled with ideas and allegories about our future, the qualities that distinguish us as sentient beings and the emotions that motivate us to alter our destiny. It is not a coincidence 2001: A Space Odyssey is paid considerable homage.
The story, however, begins small, showing us the day-to-day existence of the last remaining Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robot, or WALL-E for short. Brilliantly voiced by Ben Burtt (who created equally memorable non-human voices in Star Wars and E.T.), WALL-E doesn’t speak, exactly: He mostly beeps and boops, albeit expressively, and can parrot only the simplest, shortest words, like his own name.
Running on solar power, WALL-E spends the daylight hours compacting trash into cubes, then neatly stacking them into skyscraper-sized towers. His only companion is a cockroach, which he has adopted as a pet. He also collects stray items that catch his attention, such as a Rubik’s Cube and the occasional spork. At night, he compulsively watches a battered VHS tape of the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly! where happy-looking, elegantly dressed people dance and sing about a place that’s “out there, full of shine and sparkle.”
Reminiscent of the android boy in Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, WALL-E is a machine whose circuitry has, with time, developed recognizable human longings: He craves nothing more than to hold another hand in his pincers, the way the actors in the musical do.
By boiling down WALL-E’s loneliness to such a simple and concise desire, the filmmakers make the robot an instantly endearing figure. It also helps you overlook the fact that when a spaceship lands on Earth and an exploratory robot named EVE emerges, WALL-E becomes something of a maniacal lovefool, stopping at nothing to win over the female robot’s circuit board.
The first 45 minutes of WALL-E depict the hero’s comical courtship of his gleaming obsession (EVE looks a lot like an Apple computer, so cleanly and elegantly designed that you understand why WALL-E wants to touch her). Most of it unfolds without any dialogue, forcing director Stanton to convey the story entirely through visuals. It is animation — and moviemaking — at its purest, like a collaboration between Walt Disney and Jacques Tati, and it is simply rapturous to watch. You’re constantly aware of the challenge the filmmakers have created for themselves, but you’re continually delighted by the ways they approach it.
The second half of Wall-E, in which we discover who sent EVE to Earth and find out where all the people went, is set in outer space. The movie adopts the more familiar Pixar template of large-scale action setpieces and overtly comical characters, but Stanton does his best to keep the spoken dialogue to a minimum. He also keeps pulling off poetic, astonishing sequences — such as a tango in space between WALL-E and EVE, in which he uses a fire extinguisher to propel himself toward her — that remind you of the joy movies are capable of when they’re done right.
WALL-E contains messages about the perils of a consumer culture and the importance of ecological conservation, and there are also, for those who want them, strong Christian allegories. But none of this gets in the way of the film itself, which already feels like a timeless classic. In the far-flung future, you can imagine an alien coming across a battered DVD of the movie and learning about what made us tick the way WALL-E learns from watching Hello, Dolly! This is a beautiful movie.
Voices: Ben Burtt, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon
Producer: Jim Morris
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 105 minutes. No offensive material. Playing at area theaters.