In 1986 Pixar revolutionized the animation world with "Luxo Jr.," a two-minute, 18-second short about a pair of hopping desk lamps that proved animated machines and the computers that generate them can mimic the soul and sensitivity of humans. This sweet and startlingly visionary feature brings Pixar full circle: Its hero is a small, heartbreakingly lovelorn android who adores Hello, Dolly! and a high-tech space probe named EVA, and it's company's greatest achievement to date.
The late, great planet Earth, circa 2800 AD: Seven hundred years have passed since earthlings abandoned their hopelessly polluted, sun-scorched landfill of a planet and boarded the Axiom, an enormous ark/starship owned and operated by the ubiquitous, Wal-Mart-styled retail giant Buy N Large. According to Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard), BnL's unctuous, Bush-ism-spouting CEO, the move was meant to be temporary: While Earth's citizens floated through space in cruise-line comfort, an army of solar-powered, trash-compacting androids known as WALL-Es (Waste Allocation Load Lifters -- Earth Class) would swarm the planet, collecting and compressing all the garbage into neat little piles, hopefully restore Earth to a state capable of sustaining life. "Operation Clean-Up" was meant to take five years, but seven centuries later earthlings are still drifting through space aboard the Axiom, and they've devolved into little more than technology dependent blobs of fat with little intelligence, muscle tissue or bone mass, and no memory of the bright blue marble they once called home. Meanwhile on Earth -- where the only sign of life among the ruined buildings and towering ziggurats of cubed garbage is the proverbially indestructible cockroach -- only one WALL-E (voice of Ben Burtt) seems to be still functioning. Each day, despite the existential fruitlessness of it all, WALL-E goes about his appointed rounds, collecting and compacting trash into small cubes and keeping random objects that strike his robotic fancy: a Rubik's cube, a light bulb, a Zippo lighter and a single slim, green sprout of plant life found safely hidden inside an abandoned refrigerator. Once his day is done, WALL-E and cockroach friend return to the derelict transport vehicle they call home to enjoy WALL-E's most prized possession: a old VHS cassette of the 1969 movie HELLO, DOLLY. Watching the screen lovers tentatively hold hands, fingers entwined, WALL-E longs for companionship. He gets more than he bargained for when a huge exploratory craft deposits a fetchingly sleek, Mac-inspired piece of glossy white high-tech robotics designed to test the Earth for life sustainability. Here name is EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), and for lonely WALL-E, it's love at first sight.
The film's second half -- which takes place almost entirely aboard the Axiom -- is a hilarious comment on the rapid devolution of human civilization a la Mike Judge's IDIOCRACY: In our fat and lazy technology-enslaved future, we won't even need to chew for ourselves, thanks to Big Gulp-sized sippy cups. The film is bright, fast-paced fun in the Pixar tradition with an obvious environmental message, but it's the first half of WALL-E that's the real achievement. Aside from a few blips and beeps, there's nary a word spoken, and the whole thing unfolds like a deeply poignant, Chaplin-esque pantomime set amid the grease and grime of frighteningly realized dead world. It can hardly be called a children's film, but a masterpiece of feature-film animation for all ages.
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