Imagine that a company like Wal-Mart grew so big, it clogged the world with garbage. Nothing could grow, and the air is became so toxic humanity had to relocate. The hoi polloi crowded in a great wad into a luxury liner spaceship, and disappear for the stars.
Now fast forward four hundred years. On Earth, the only thing moving is a little cleaning robot, model name “WALL-E”. Thousands of other WALL-Es have stopped working, but this one has survived by his ingenuity, cannibalizing the derilects for spare parts. He is going about his Sisyphean directive, compacting trash into one-foot cubes and stacking them into ghastly skyscrapers.
WALL-E is a heck of a cute little thing, a cube on treads whose expressive binocular eyes recall the Viewmaster from Toy Story, or Number Five from the film “Short Circuit”. His only companions, in an extravagantly lonely existence, are romantic musicals played on an ancient VCR, and a resilient cockroach whom WALL-E iis always accidentally squishing.
And then one day, everything changes. A spaceship lands, and into WALL-E’s world drops a small reconnaissance probe called EVE. Her smooth, eggshell-white surfaces make her look like an animated iPod. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Steve Jobs, Apple Computer’s CEO, has a controlling stake in Pixar. In fact, every time WALL-E boots up, we hear the Apple chime.) Eve is a mercurial career woman way out of WALL-E’s league, who almost blows the little guy’s head off with an arm laser, before befriending him, or at least tolerating him.
Somehow WALL-E gets EVE back to his crib. She’s deathly bored by the Zippos, Rubik’s Cubes, and other junk that WALL-E has collected, until he shows her a small green shoot he has recovered. EVE goes berserk, tucks the plant into her belly, and enters lockdown mode. Of course WALL-E is bereft and frantic; he tries everything to reanimate her, but nothing doing. And when the spaceship returns, and reclaims EVE, the determined WALL-E grabs on to the hull and hangs on for dear life.
I’d rather not tell you where the adventure takes WALL-E; enough has been spoiled by the trailers. I will say that the opening act is nearly wordless, and that lends it some real poetry. The middle passages are less organic than willed.
But that criticism is to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Even when the film doesn’t sing, there are pleasures galore. “WALL-E” can be preachy, but how can we begrudge it when the message is as urgent as the ecological ruination of the Earth? In its conscience, “WALL-E” resembles “Happy Feet”, another computer-animated film with ecology on its mind, whose underlying seriousness sometimes seemed at odds with a too-sweet story that was probably necessary to sell it.
Even when they don’t go all the way, Pixar films usually add up. To take “WALL-E”;s meaning, contrast the memorable villain whose name says it all – “AUTO” – with the tiny cleaning robot, whose short stature and name – “MO” – belie his abundance of character. MO’s directive is to follow a glowing green line on the ground, literally to see only what’s right beneath his feet. But he looks up. He spots some grime just off his beaten path. He concentrates, he quivers, he decides – and then he jumps the line.
Technically, this is a glitch, as it is when Eve pirouettes through the sky for the pure joy of it, or when WALL-E develops a personality. It’s the misfits, the artists, who hold the key to renewal of the pre-programmed “normals” and the damage their inattention and gluttony have wrought. Big ideas couched in efficient commercial entertainment, “WALL-E” is a film of joy and even genius, an exemplar of the heights a summer movie can reach.