Pixar’s ninth consecutive wonder of the animated world is a simple yet deeply imagined piece of speculative fiction. Despite the decade-plus since its inception, “Wall-E” is a film very much of its moment, although in a cheeky, uninsistent way; it has plenty to say, but does so in a light, insouciant manner that allows you to take the message or leave it on the table. Adroitly borrowing from many artistic sources and synthesizing innumerable influences, Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton’s first directorial outing since “Finding Nemo” walks a fine line between the rarefied and the immediately accessible as it explores new territory for animation, yet remains sufficiently crowd-pleasing to indicate celestial B.O. for this G-rated summer offering.
Sci-fi films have offered up an endless supply of robots and droids, just as they have imagined numerous visions of post-apocalyptic Earthscapes, and both elements are central to “Wall-E.” But how many films, sci-fi or otherwise, have proposed a future human civilization populated by people so fat that they can’t raise themselves from their mobile chairs, in which they sit connected to phones, screens and super-sized cups? One can’t help but speculate about the perverse prospect of plus-sized multiplexers laughing at these genuinely funny scenes while digging into their popcorn and slurping their sodas.
On its most elementary level, “Wall-E” is a wistful robot-meets-robot love story, in which two lonely and compatible souls, if that is an applicable term, meet in utterly against-the-odds circumstances. It’s 700 years since humans have vacated planet Earth, for unspecified reasons, and the only active inhabitants of a once-major American city are the title character — a small trash compactor on treads — and his pet cockroach.
To modern audiences, the amber-hued vistas of the abandoned metropolis will recall the effective opening stretch of “I Am Legend,” although the city here has been dead for so long that parts of it have become overgrown in the manner of Mayan ruins. Also, Wall-E has been so industrious that he (the gender is suggested, if not verified) has built neat piles of compacted metal that rival the deteriorated skyscrapers in height and architectural distinction.
Although others of his ilk (officially, Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) have fallen by the wayside, Wall-E, who consists of binocular-like eyes and claw-arms attached to an adaptable box frame atop triangular treads, has clearly been built to last and only needs a blast of sunlight to recharge. He’s a collector who lives in a tchotchke-filled space that resembles a larger version of himself, and he’s got a single VHS tape, of “Hello, Dolly!” of all things, to keep him company and instruct him in the ways of human courtship.
Unexpectedly, Wall-E soon needs some social skills due to the spaceship arrival of Eve (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). A flying white robot (voiced by Elissa Knight) who roughly resembles a plastic penguin with a black monitor for a face and a head, body and limbs that, disarmingly, don’t physically connect, Eve is a superior being in every respect. She spars physically with Wall-E, who would probably fall for any creature to come his way but quickly develops a yen to hold her hand — for him, the ultimate consummation of desire.
One of Stanton’s bold strokes is to withhold any “dialogue,” such as it is, for 16 minutes, a decision surely made long before the appearance of a similar strategy in “There Will Be Blood.” Albeit accompanied by Thomas Newman’s fine score, which provides notable support throughout, this is a silent movie for nearly the length of an old two-reeler, one that combines sobering physical spectacle with sight gags to odd and charming effect.
Everything changes when the object of Eve’s mission, a single green sprout, is uncovered, signaling the return of photosynthesis to Earth. This momentous news must be delivered to humanity posthaste, and when Eve blasts off, Wall-E latches onto her ship’s exterior.
Having focused on these two characters for nearly an hour, the film shifts into more familiar, boisterous gear upon arrival at the monstrous craft Axiom, a virtual nation in space that has been gleefully conceived and detailed to a degree that could be called malicious if it weren’t so genial. It’s a world run entirely by machines, to the extent that human beings have turned into floating couch potatoes too lethargic to move even if they wanted to. These Earthlings have turned into full-time consumers with no collective memory of where they came from or what life consists of outside their artificial compound.
All the same, when the equally listless ship’s captain (an amusing Jeff Garlin) learns what Eve has brought back, he knows it’s at last time for Operation Recall, the return of human beings to Earth. The problem is, are these people ready, willing and able to get off their giant butts and whip their distant homeland back into shape?
That, presumably, could be addressed in a sequel. In the meantime, “Wall-E” pushes an agenda that could, and no doubt will, be interpreted as “green,” or ecologically minded. It’s a theme that is certainly present, at least as pertains to what forced humanity off the planet in the first place. But in a bigger sense, the picture seems to be making a quiet pitch for taking clear-headed responsibility for the health of the planet as well as one’s body and mind.
The adages about how you must lie in the bed you make, and you are what you eat, both would seem to apply here. But Stanton, his co-story hatcher Pete Docter, co-scenarist Jim Reardon and the entire Pixar team operate on the principle that entertainment values come first, and they have applied it throughout to sprightly effect.
Almost certainly, “Wall-E” stands as the first animated film in which the sound designer/editor/mixer also voices the leading role. One can hear echoes of R2-D2, a character for which Ben Burtt created the “voice,” in the peculiar sounds he bestows upon the little robot here. Although there is significant pranking and foolishness among the leading characters as well as the “rogue robots” on board the Axiom, there is considerably less dialogue than in the generally talkative Pixar films, which creates a significant difference in feel.
A major distinction in message and tone between this and most related sci-fi is that, for a story rooted in an apocalypse, “Wall-E” is very optimistic. Yes, the worst will come, whatever it is, but humanity will, no matter what, be able to reconnect with its roots. This is good to know.
As expected from Pixar, the picture looks great, and cannot have suffered from having the great cinematographer Roger Deakins on board as a visual consultant.