No one can accuse Pixar Animation of not taking big risks with its latest feature “WALL-E,” which tells a love story between two robots (who speak three words between them) against the backdrop of an Earth that’s been destroyed by waste and consumerist overkill. While the film’s most daring gambits pay off in full, the inclusion of a standard outwit-the-bad-guys storyline dulls the magic that “WALL-E” so often achieves.
As the film tells it, humans abandoned Earth sometime around 2010 when the planet became uninhabitable due to mounds and mounds of waste from consumer goods purchased from the gigantic megastore BnL (which, wittily, stands for “Buy ’n Large”). The company left behind an army of WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) robots to pick up all the trash, compress it into cubes and clean things up enough so that the human population, currently living on a distant spaceship, can return.
Seven hundred years later, our hero is the only WALL-E left, with only a cockroach and an old videotape of “Hello, Dolly!” for company. (He has a soft spot for “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” and the love song “It Only Takes a Moment” makes him long to one day be able to hold someone’s hand.) WALL-E (voiced by sound wizard Ben Burtt) collects shiny and unusual objects — and repairs himself with parts scavenged from his fallen brethren — but he is alone in all the world.
Breaking his solitude, a spaceship lands and leaves behind another robot, EVE (Elissa Knight), who is as sleek and digital as WALL-E is clunky and analog. But the two form a sweet bond, and the film shows its strongest hand by portraying their nearly wordless courtship; it’s no stretch to compare it to Charlie Chaplin’s adoration of blind flower girl Virginia Cherrill in “City Lights.”
When WALL-E presents EVE with a tiny plant he found growing inside a trashed refrigerator, however, EVE stores the plant inside herself and goes into shutdown mode. WALL-E is perplexed, but takes care of her until the ship returns — and we discover that EVE is one of many probes that have been sent to Earth by the BnL spaceship to find evidence of sustainable life. WALL-E, smitten by EVE, latches onto the ship and rides it across the galaxy, following her to the massive BnL ark.
And that’s where “WALL-E” goes from being poignant and sweet and funny and special to just an above-average kids’ movie. Humanity has grown corpulent and complacent on the ship, with robots taking care of their every need, but the arrival of the plant makes the ship’s captain (Jeff Garlin) realize that there’s a secret conspiracy to keep people from ever returning to Earth. And while the film’s latter half is put together with the wit and excitement we’ve come to expect from Pixar, you can’t help missing the delicate dance that “WALL-E” performs in its first two acts. (You also wonder if the human race isn’t better off staying in space rather than returning to the “Idiocracy”-esque garbage dump it once created on Earth.)
Even if landfills are currently overstuffed with their Buzz Lightyear dolls and talking Nemo toys, Pixar and Disney still deserve a salute for making a family movie that so confrontationally addresses this generation’s spending habits and its impact on the environment. That it’s also a movie that relies upon kids to follow a story with minimal dialogue represents a refreshingly bold step in the genre. Even if that level of chutzpah recedes as the film proceeds, it’s still one of the smartest and most moving pictures to come out of a major studio this year.