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Pixar Perfect (Again)

In a summer movie season dominated by superheroes redefining the blockbuster (e.g. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, Hellboy 2, The Dark Knight), Pixar Animation Studios’ joins the blockbuster fray with WALL•E, the long-in-development, eagerly anticipated computer animated family film. Co-written and directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL•E is a Pixar film through and through: engaging characters, a meticulously crafted world, a universally appealing storyline, a strong underlying message (in this case, an environmental one), and enough humor, heart, wonder, and awe to fill an entire summer’s worth of blockbusters.

WALL•E is set in a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial, definitely post-consumer world where the excesses of consumerism have led to humanity fleeing a junk-filled Earth for the vast expanses of outer space aboard fully automated luxury liners. Expecting to return in five years, humans have remained off world for close to seven hundred years. All of the robots they left on Earth to clean up the massive mess they left behind have gone quiet, with one exception. The one remaining robot, WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), spends his day collecting and compacting garbage into cubes and the cubes into piles. Over four hundred years, though, WALL•E has developed a personality and identity of his own. He collects knick-knacks and trinkets for the trailer he calls home. He’s also found a videotape of a 1960s musical, Hello Dolly, that’s become the center of his routine every night. Watching Hello Dolly repeatedly has made WALL•E an incurable romantic.

Everything changes for WALL•E when a sleek space ship lands nearby and out pops EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), an advanced, egg-shaped robot with a mind (and temper of her own). On a classified mission from one of the space liners, EVE initially rebuffs WALL•E’s attempts at friendship, but when she discovers the first signs of vegetative life and the space ship returns, WALL•E leaves with her (by clinging to the outside of the space ship).

Aboard the luxury liner, the Axiom, WALL•E encounters more advanced robots, along with the potato-shaped humans who have lived aboard the Axiom for several hundred years, made soft and rotund by living in a micro-gravity environment and having their every whim and desire attended to by a fleet of robots. WALL•E, of course, is the classic agitator, shaking up life aboard the Axiom, actions that antagonize the ship's captain (Jeff Garlin) and it's Autopilot (a riff on HAL-9000, the malevolent AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey).

WALL•E is a comedy, a romance, science fiction, drama, and action/adventure too, all wrapped around an environmental message that only the most curmudgeonly and willfully, blissfully ignorant will deny: stewardship over the earth comes before corporate profits. Like the best that Pixar has had to offer over the last thirteen years (e.g. Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Toy Story), WALL•E succeeds in meeting or surpassing expectations about story, character, and animation. Stanton and his collaborators create a warmly sympathetic character in WALL•E and his desire for friendship and companionship. But a character in a screenplay doesn’t go far unless the animation is there to make the character someone (or something) we, as moviegoers, can identify with on a basic level.

With echoes of R2-D2 of Star Wars, E.T.: the Extraterrestrial and Johnny 5 form Short Circuit, WALL•E might seem, at least initially, derivative. He’s not. With his boxy, turtle-like exterior, binoculars for eyes (and a head), claw-like arms, and treads for getting around, WALL•E is a marvel of anthropomorphic expressiveness. Likewise with EVE, who’s everything WALL•E isn’t: she’s sleek, she’s aerodynamic, she can fly (while he’s most definitely earthbound), and she’s shiny, clean, and white. At least at first glance, EVE is as sterile and antiseptic as anything and everything on the Axiom.

Appearances can be deceiving, though: she’s just as expressive as WALL•E, if in need of a new identity. And as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, the world or worlds in WALL•E (earth, space, and the luxury liner) were created with sharp, distinct contrasts in mind. The Earth’s brown, muddy tones are offset by the brilliantly lit, blue-toned, retro-futuristic interiors of the Axiom.

But why would anyone expect less from Pixar? They’ve done what no other studios have done: they’ve let the filmmakers create without the interference from bottom-line obsessed business executives to dictate story elements or story direction. Pixar has succeeded as long as it has due to the creative talent that carefully nurtures a story, sometimes over several years WALL•E came out of a 1994 Pixar meeting), and then finding (and rewarding) the key collaborators necessary to bring their vision to fruition. And in doing that, Pixar has been rewarded with critical and commercial (in thirteen years, every Pixar film has recouped its initial investment and then some). WALL•E is just one more, but hopefully not last, reminder of why audiences have come to expect smart, thought-provoking entertainment from Pixar.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars