The emotions at the heart of 'WALL-E' are anything but robotic

Review -- A

June 27, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

WALL-E stays true to Pixar's promise that toy-oriented animation will keep growing with its audience. The title character, a Charlie Chaplin-meets-R2D2 hero, is sure to tap emotions in humans of all ages. The film, like its protagonist, moves from scrappy kiddie comedy to over-the-moon romance. WALL-E conjures magical comedy out of the confusions of adolescence and the wrong turns of adulthood, as well as the exuberance of childhood. It's sometimes bright, sometimes gloomy, but always engaging and accessible.

WALL-E is a game little robot who moves through an abandoned American city with a song in his heart - make that two songs, "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment," which he learned from an ancient Hello, Dolly! videotape. WALL-E, you see, is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth class. And waste is all that's left of people on Earth, which has become a monument to planned and unplanned obsolescence. (Even that videotape is a Betamax.)

Eight hundred years before the movie starts, the Buy N Large mega-corporation sold enough of its products to coat the Earth completely in its trash. Then Buy N Large provided a solution: Send all humans into outer space on mammoth cruise liners while a mechanized cleanup brigade labors to restore the planet. The film's immediate slapstick delights derive from WALL-E's quick, efficient motions: He turns investigations of junk into droll, surprising dance routines - juicy doggerel in motion. (He creates skyscrapers of junk that are as fascinating as the Watts Towers.) Sunny and bitter laughs alike erupt from a blighted landscape.

The movie is a triumph because it's all of a piece. From beginning to end, even when it's delightful, it's dark, and vice-versa. WALL-E develops an edgy romance with an unexpected visitor to Earth: a sleek robot named EVE, an Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator programmed to discover whether anything organic can be grown again on our native soil. The movie takes an elating and unexpected turn when WALL-E follows EVE up into the Buy N Large mother ship. There, all-embracing consumerism has continued apace - and human consumers have become gelatinous blobs. And there, improbably and inspirationally, he becomes a hero in a fight to revive human civilization.

The director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), who co-wrote the movie with Jim Reardon, is a born entertainer. He keenly balances the resourcefulness of his characters with their dystopian circumstances. He makes you experience the film as a flight of urgent feeling, not an emotional teeter-totter. WALL-E himself is a victory of characterization and design over disbelief. He manipulates garbage with segmented arms that glide along tracks on either side of his square torso (that's where the trash gets compacted). His head resembles an old ViewMaster equipped with binoculars, and he can operate it like a jack in the box in charge of his own hinged neck.

If a robot moving on treads can have "spring in its step," WALL-E does. Becoming the last WALL-E left standing seems to have accelerated our hero's eagerness, inquisitiveness and hope. The movie swerves on whether you believe in his need for love and EVE's potential to fulfill it. Luckily, WALL-E is as lovable as Steven Spielberg's E.T., and EVE is a vanilla ice-cream cone of a robot, with alluring, glowing blue eyes. You root for them to connect, while you savor the complications.

For WALL-E, it's love at first sight. EVE is all about her mission - locating any sprout of greenery. Yet something in the way WALL-E looks at the world (and then at her) attracts her like no other robot. WALL-E's determination that she see him as her soulmate propels him into outer space and gives her the capacity to feel. The way Stanton has seen the movie whole, it's a contest between romanticism and pragmatism, waged as slapstick ballet.

Stanton has built WALL-E strictly for utility. The baldness of his bravery and his fright is equally, instantly funny. He charges right into the thick of chaos like a minitank. But he can retract his head with hair-trigger quickness back inside his torso: At different times, he's like courage or cowardice squared. EVE is more elusive and ambiguous. So when WALL-E unveils his beloved Earth artifacts to EVE and starts to win her over, the scene is as piercing as Elliott sharing his Star Wars action toys with E.T.

Everything WALL-E shows off is touched with feeling, including marvels as modest as packing bubbles. And that's the miracle of WALL-E: Human artifacts retain their humanity even after humanity has left. And WALL-E, now the ultimate human artifact, retains more personality than anything or anyone else. His acquisition of attributes such as love and loyalty ultimately catalyze EVE to sustain her quest even after her computer master tries to short-circuit it.

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