Many will attempt to describe WALL-E with a one-liner. It's R2-D2 in love. 2001: A Space Odyssey starring the Little Tramp. An Inconvenient Truth meets Idiocracy on its way to Toy Story. But none of these do justice to a film that is both breathtakingly majestic and heartbreakingly intimate — and, for a good long while, absolutely bereft of dialogue save the squeals, beeps, and chirps of a sweet, lonely robot who, aside from his cockroach pet, is the closest thing to the last living being on Earth.
Cobbled from so many familiar spare parts — from Star Wars to Buster Keaton to Tron to the Marx Brothers — WALL-E feels, here and there, formulaic: Lonely boy and sexy girl meet cute, fall in love, and save the planet. It's a lifetime of celluloid memories cut and pasted into a spiffy computer program that buffs off the rough edges and leaves us with the shiny, sumptuous brand-new. Writer-director Andrew Stanton, among the founding fathers of the Pixar empire, even admits as much. In the press materials, he name-checks all the above, plus Alien and Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Such reverence for movie history in general and sci-fi in particular is vital to the story, because it's what ultimately gives WALL-E its wow factor and its weight — this reinvigoration of the past on the way to the future of filmmaking. (Charlie Chaplin … in space.) The foundation allows Stanton to turn an almost-stale story into something approaching the abstract, as the film insists that you do as much work as it does. It needs you to fill in its gaps, which are copious when the movie's star is nothing more than binoculars perched upon a metal box hauled around by worn-out treads. (Fact is, WALL-E is little more than Number 5 from 1986's Short Circuit, freed from the tyrannical shackles of Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy. About time.) It demands that the audience connect the dots, if only to see the smile of a lipless robot. Kids, of course, will be tickled by this silly robot. Also, at times, they will be absolutely confounded and even a little bored.
Stanton, pinning his hopes on a nearly mute trashcan, needs the audience to buy in early. Wisely, he opens with a warm touch: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from the Hello, Dolly! soundtrack — “Out there /There's a world outside of Yonkers/Way out there/Beyond this hick town” — plays as the virtual camera (piloted by Coen brothers collaborator Roger Deakins) rockets the audience toward a planet Earth that's a smoky shade of decay, its cities a wonderland of trash and rubble tended to by a compact compactor who is kept company by the last surviving roach and a fading Sun. There are skyscrapers of scrap as high as the high-rises abandoned by humans 700 years ago, or some time in the 22nd century, when the morons in charge of the planet killed it and then ditched it rather than cleaning it up. (Playing the CEO leader of the world at the time of Earth's eventual give-up, Fred Willard does one or maybe two presidents named Bush.)
WALL-E (a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is the sad creature charged with piling up the detritus. Carcasses of his robotic siblings litter the streets of the former megalopolis in which WALL-E roams solo, as though he is Legend. After work, WALL-E retires to his bachelor hovel, his only companions the rescued trash (a Rubik's Cube, lawn gnomes, rubber ducks) and a videotape of Hello, Dolly! Oh, and the roach, still living off Twinkies seven centuries into the no-future future. All WALL-E wants is someone to hold hands with, like they did in 1960s musicals.
The sadness is palpable; your heart breaks for the heartless. WALL-E speaks through Ben Burtt — the same man who, 31 years ago, turned a garbage can into a teddy bear when he designed the “voice” of R2-D2. (Burtt is among just seven voice credits in a film that has substantial dialogue sequences only in its final half hour.) WALL-E eventually meets EVE (an Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, voiced by Elissa Knight), who arrives in what looks like Boba Fett's ship to scour the earth per her “directive” and ultimately, accidentally, provides the little dude with some company — but not before a courtship period that involves his almost being incinerated a few times.
So evocative and effective are the early sequences involving the two — especially the first time he brings her back to his pad, their only exchange of words thus far a stuttered recitation of acronyms — that by the time the pair wind up in space, where the humans have taken refuge, it almost feels like a letdown. Because then you're transported back to Pixarland, where instead of blessed silence interrupted by the occasional coo, it's Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Garlin, and (heh-heh, not again) John Ratzenberger chattering and barking away.
Stanton, having run out of road with the romance on Earth, moves heavenward, and for the first time his film feels earthbound. After 700 years confined in the hermetically sealed space-cruiser Utopia, living off advertisements and milkshakes, humanity has turned globular to the point of immobility. But the parody is too easy; besides, Woody Allen and Mike Judge (the latter with his “garbage avalanche”) got there first.
But WALL-E will not be remembered by children — or the adults for whom WALL-E is really intended — for its tsk-tsking environmental policy or its Naomi Klein polemics. Rather, you'll adore it because of a cuddly, lonely little robot who breaks your beeping heart.