EmptyThis is getting to sound like a broken record: Pixar Animation Studios has just topped itself. Again.
In "WALL-E," following the sublime culinary slapstick of "Ratatouille," Pixar and director-writer Andrew Stanton — officially the studio's ninth employee way back when — have spun a whimsical sci-fi fantasy about robots 800 years into the future that has all the heart, soul, spirit and romance of the very best silent movies 60 years ago. Well, you don't expect robots to talk, do you? While the soundtrack is full of clanking noises, explosions, music and even dance numbers, there is little dialogue as such to get this story told. Stanton and his animation team punch across their terrific (and ecologically sound!) story by inventing a visual and aural language with which these robotic creatures can express a rainbow of emotions.
The film is so clever and sophisticated that you worry, slightly, that it might be too clever to connect with mainstream audiences. But like those worries last year that having a rat for a hero in "Ratatouille" might throw off audiences, surely "WALL-E" will make that connection. It's so sweet and funny that the multitudes undoubtedly will surrender to its many charms.
A trashed and toxic Earth has been abandoned by mankind centuries ago, but somebody forgot to turn off the last robot. That would be WALL-E (an acronym that stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), a mobile trash compactor who goes about his job decade after decade. He has even developed a storage system so he can self-replace his parts. His only companion is a cockroach. Well, you knew that creature would survive anything.
Mankind, grown fat and lazy after centuries of floating like lotus eaters in a Club Med spaceship above Earth, sends a probe to search for signs of life on the abandoned planet. That would be EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). WALL-E develops a mighty crush on EVE, though her fearsome temper — she tends to blast anything that moves — makes him shy. But their romance, an innocence in the unlikeliest of places, blossoms. WALL-E even shows her his little green plant.
His little what? That's the very thing she's been looking for! That plant launches the couple on an epic journey to the Axiom spaceship, where with other "rogue robots" they overthrow a robotic controlled civilization and galvanize humans — more robotic than the actual robots — into something approaching life.
The visual design of "WALL-E" is arguably Pixar's best. Stanton, who wrote the script with Jim Reardon from a story he concocted with Peter Docter, creates two fantastically imaginative, breathtakingly lit worlds — a wretched, destroyed Earth city, not unlike Manhattan, and the spaceship where humans hover in floating couches, their bloated body fat encasing virtually useless bones, while an intricate series of robots perform all labor and a 3-D Internet is the chief form of human communication.
The real stroke of brilliance, though, is the use of old movie footage, mixed in with the CG animation, to trigger WALL-E's romantic yearnings. After work, WALL-E endlessly watches a videotape from the 1969 movie "Hello, Dolly!" Its musical imagery and two songs make him understand what love and passion mean. He even learns how to hold hands, something he is finally able to try out with EVE.
Sound designer Ben Burtt creates expressive sounds given off by the robots, and in particular WALL-E, that you would swear are voices speaking words. If there is such a thing as an aural sleight of hand, this is it.
There are lifts from "2001" — acknowledged as such with a wink by the filmmakers — as there are moments when the robots run riot that remind you of Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." Yet "WALL-E" is just possibly the studio's most original work yet. Can they really top this?