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Excellent WALL-E finds love, hope at the end of the world

by Glen Baity

If you haven’t ventured out to the theater in the past few months, I can’t really blame you. Maybe you’re over the superhero craze; maybe you like your Indy wrapped up in a neat little trilogy; maybe it’s been years since you laughed at either Adam Sandler or Mike Myers. And that’s okay. I’ll be the first to admit it’s been a lukewarm season so far for humans.

Ninja panda bears and sentient trash compactors? That’s another story.

Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda was already one of the best films to come out since Memorial Day, but once again, Pixar returns to raise the bar. At the risk of overburdening this review with cliché: If you see no other movie this summer, or this year, see WALL-E, and see it on the big screen. The newest from the studio behind Toy Story and Ratatouille is a rare summer film. It isn’t an adaptation, or a remake, or the latest in an ongoing franchise, but that’s only one reason it’s such a breath of fresh air. More on that shortly.

I’ll say first that every single frame of this film – the end credits included – is a discovery. With that in mind, I’ll keep the plot’s particulars to a minimum, and advise that, for the best effect, you should really know as little about it as possible before watching. But you probably already know the basics: your host is a boxy little go-bot named WALL-E – that’s Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class. Besides a solitary cockroach – his only friend – WALL-E is the sole being left on Earth, since the authorities declared the planet inhospitable for human life 700 years previously.

In the intervening centuries, various WALL-E units have been dispatched to clean up the mess we humans have left. That line of custodians terminates with our hero, who spends his days sifting through, and marveling at, the rubble of our lost civilization – our Rubik’s Cubes, discarded hubcaps, and unwanted VHS copies of My Fair Lady. He’s fascinated by much of it, and what doesn’t captivate him is crushed into cubes, which he piles skyscraper-high amid the ruins of what appears to be Manhattan.

Every day is the same until a passing spaceship drops off EVE, a flying, evidently-female robot that looks a bit like a Faberge egg as engineered by Steve Jobs. WALL-E is instantly smitten, weaned as he is on the Hollywood musical version of courtship. In a move that would be unbearably corny in any other film, he makes holding her hand his new prime directive.

This covers the first half, and except for a few recognizable bleeps and bloops, there is no dialogue. Don’t let that scare you away – this animation team conveys volumes in WALL-E and EVE’s surprisingly expressive faces, and their love story is completely charming from beginning to end. Seriously, they’re a couple for the ages.

Pixar does just about everything better than its contemporaries, but the area in which it most excels is its ability to disarm the viewer. WALL-E, on its face, is a cute story about two robots in love. But like every other film from this studio, it’s really much, much more. This is largely thanks to director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, who put together some of Pixar’s most memorable pictures with Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, three films that comprise a veritable case study in cinematic perspective. All three deal with the well-worn subjects of childhood and its attendant growing pains, but they’re told, respectively, through the eyes of neglected toys, monsters in closets and terrified single parents. So it should come as no surprise that the end of the world, which occurs in seven out of every 10 Hollywood movies, feels like unexplored territory in Stanton’s capable hands.

That said, the dusty, red remains of Earth look quite a bit like the scorched planet of Mike Judge’s 2005 non-hit Idiocracy, though humans, in Stanton’s imagination, at least had the good sense to get out. But WALL-E, in a surprisingly strong statement, shares some of Idiocracy’s inherent disappointment at humanity in general (though it eschews Judge’s scattershot rancor), casting the descendents of earth as a bunch of incurious, overweight tourists in the film’s second half.

Like the rest of the film, however, Stanton’s social criticism comes from a gentle heart, and WALL-E is ultimately generous to all its characters. I’m always wary of overstating, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t close this review by saying I haven’t had such a satisfying experience at the movies in years. WALL-E might be the finest film Pixar has ever made, which is high praise for a studio whose name has become synonymous with quality animated story-telling. There are scenes in this film – WALL-E’s first glimpse of EVE, or an elaborate zero-gravity dance among the stars, to name only two – that in a few short years will be as recognizable in the pop-culture lexicon as ET’s glowing finger.

E-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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