Pixar picks a prize

From slapstick comedy to humanitarian bent, robot romance is a classic

After eight films, Pixar has more than proved itself to be the gold standard in computer-animated films. That reputation has as much to do with the impossibly gorgeous visuals the studio creates as the well-honed, knowingly humane stories it tells. Though there are plenty of high-quality contenders, Kung Fu Panda being the latest, Pixar's only real competition is whatever instant classic it released last. Which, in this case, means outshining the warm and wonderful Ratatouille.

As a film critic who has spent too many summers viewing mediocre misfires and uninspired reinterpretations of TV shows, comic books and cult classics, it's immensely satisfying to recommend something as breathtakingly glorious as WALL-E.

Though it wears its sci-fi film influences on its sleeve, writer-director and Pixar founding father Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) turns what could have been a predictable tale of robot romance into one of the most evocative, entertaining films of the year. It's a bold endeavor that bets the house on a pretty unlikely protagonist: a nearly mute trashcan-robot with binoculars for eyes.

With a first act that is nearly devoid of dialogue, this endlessly charming film takes its cues from the silent-film era to create something akin to the sci-fi version of The Little Tramp if it had starred R2D2.

Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class) is the last functioning robot on Earth, dutifully cleaning up the epic mess humans left behind 700 years ago. Our planet is now a global garbage dump, due in no small part to the machinations of "Buy-N-Large," a manufacturing-retail megacorporation. Wall-E's "life" involves compacting never-ending piles of trash into cubes and stacking them onto the skyscraper-sized mounds that dot the world's ravaged landscape.

Picking through the detritus, however, Wall-E (voiced and designed by R2D2's Ben Burtt) saves interesting knick-knacks for himself. You see, over the centuries the little robot has not only developed a personality, he's become deeply interested in the humans that once lived on Earth. In particular, he obsessively studies an ancient videotape of Hello Dolly, memorizing the emotions, gestures and expressions of humanity it depicts. It's his Rosetta Stone, if you will. And with Wall-E's curiosity and self-awareness comes a profound sense of loneliness.

Enter EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sleek, advanced model robot sent to Earth on a secret mission. Though their initial meeting is explosive (literally), EVE is quickly charmed by Wall-E's persistence and bumbling advances. For his part, Wall-E is smitten, and when he gives EVE a small plant he's found, she shuts down as her mission programming kicks in. Soon, the two are transported to the Axiom, a giant space cruiser where humans have lived for centuries in a pampered state of eternal vacation. Force-fed a steady diet of advertisements, milkshakes and unending comfort (provided by robots, of course), they have grown rotund to the point of immobility. Needless to say, the goofy little robot-that-could teaches the humans to regain their humanity while pursuing his one true love.

Strange as it may sound, Pixar has turned a little robotic love story into one of the most intimate and poignant films in its canon. From Wall-E's heart-breaking loneliness to EVE's slowly evolving emotions, the studio once again demonstrates incredible attention to detail and devotion to storytelling. Eschewing dialogue for character expressiveness, they also trust the audience to play along and fill in the gaps.

As with previous Pixar efforts, the world the filmmakers create is richly complex, and amid the ingenious touches are photo-realistic landscapes of its dusty Earthly settings. Stanton fills the first half-hour with seemingly handheld "shots," simulating corrections for under-lit and out-of-focus imperfections. The effect is brilliant, lending both immediacy and authenticity to the film. In fact, the opening act is so good it's a little disappointing when we leave Earth for the spotless intergalactic world of trademark Pixar humans.

But what sets WALL-E apart from the studio's other efforts is its obvious socially conscious message. Delivering a cautionary subplot about consumer culture and waste, it offers hope about the strength and underlying integrity of humanity. Stanton strikes the right balance between cynicism and optimism, giving the film a message that never preaches, and a heart that never sentimentalizes.

From an opening tour of the galaxy set to "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," to its gentle slapstick comedy to its humanitarian vision of hope and perseverance, WALL-E stands out in Pixar's stable of classics.

NOTE: As they've done with other features, Pixar kick things off with a comedic short. But unlike their other efforts, which were self-consciously clever, Presto is five minutes of balls-to-the-wall, laugh-out-loud pratfalls involving a magician and his feuding rabbit. Don't be late or you'll miss it.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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