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WALL-E: At Its Robotic Heart, a Simple Love Story

June 27, 2008

By Mal Vincent, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jun. 27–THE FIRST THING we see is a panorama of stars — tiny pinpoints of light that suggest infinity, points of wonder even in a world in which so much has been explained.

A bigger surprise is what we hear: Broadway star Michael Crawford (“The Phantom of the Opera”) singing about how there is hope “out there.” The song is “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from the 1969 movie version of the Broadway musical “Hello, Dolly!” Who would have thought it would be showcased in an innovative movie masterpiece in 2008?

Next, we get an overhead, widescreen shot of a metropolis — presumably New York — covered with trash. The shot rivals the opening of “West Side Story” in its breathtaking scope, looking straight down upon an urban tangle.

We then meet WALL-E, who is going busily about his task of collecting refuse and compacting it into neat cubes that are put into his rust-covered storeroom. His only living companion is a pet cockroach. We wince when he almost mashes the cockroach with his motorized treads.

He puts on his tape of “Hello, Dolly!” and peers with wide eyes at the scene when the boy and girl hold hands as they sing “It Only Takes a Moment.”

In the space of only a few moments, we have been hooked into the emotional and meaningful world of “WALL-E,” one of the more imaginative animation films ever made. It is all the more profound because of its simplicity.

The bigger surprise may be that it comes from the commercially obsessed Disney empire, but here it is, and our congratulations to Pixar for using some of its huge profits from more routine animation projects to make a film like this one.

In those opening scenes we have learned that Earth has been abandoned. WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, and he is the last robot still functioning on the planet. He has been performing, with determined loyalty, his repetitive duties for 700 years. He is lonely and curious about the meaning of love. We also come to care about the fate of a lone cockroach, a creature we know would be the only thing to survive the end of the world.

In the year 2805, humans have abandoned Earth to live in huge space colonies. EVE, a space-probe robot, is sent to Earth to determine if there is any sign of life. She’s the shape of an egg, but she has glamorous eyes that suggest she is female. WALL-E is smitten, but she’s temperamental and powerful — blasting anything that moves.

He woos her.

Yes, this is a date movie more than a kiddie flick.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, who helmed Pixar’s highest-grossing film to date, “Finding Nemo,”"WALL-E” is an adventurous love story that is more Adam and Eve than Romeo and Juliet. There is a real risk that children won’t get it at all. There also is some risk that adults might not be able to muster the concentration needed to follow a film with little dialogue.

WALL-E suggests the underdog, hangdog persona of Buster Keaton in a romance that could have been inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” The film suggests the kind of risk Walt Disney himself once took with “Fantasia” and “Bambi.”

If the kids can’t keep up, too bad. Who said animation is an art form only for children? The over-praised martial arts spoof “Kung Fu Panda” can take in the bucks. “WALL-E” will take the animation Oscar.

Still, we do have a few hesitations. Things get a bit questionable as to motivation when we learn that humans have become fat and obsessed with TV, yet there is a captain who is eager to return to Earth because “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” His humanity seems a bit unlikely amid the sloth around him. Buy ‘N Large, the largest money cow left, tells people what and how much to buy, and they obey. They are so fat they can’t walk. They are offered “Re-Generative Food Buffets.”

Operation cleanup has apparently failed on Earth, and the outer-space humans seem oblivious to the situation — living instead in privileged squalor. After setting all this up, Stanton’s script asks us to immediately accept a heroic captain who fights to return to Earth so he can restore it.

WALL-E himself looks disturbingly like the robot in the 1986 hit movie “Short Circuit.” Stanton has said he concocted WALL-E from the binoculars he used to watch a baseball game.

There is an evil robot, Otto, who reminds us of HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and, of course, the whole end-of-the-world forecast recalls “Planet of the Apes,”"Soylent Green” and “Blade Runner,” only with sweetness added.

Thomas Newman’s score is an opportunity missed. If ever there was a film that should have a magnificent score, this is it. What we have is merely ordinary.

There is a convenient truth, but the film never preaches.

There’s an R2-D2 sort of robot that helps WALL-E but gets little screen time. More could have been developed for it. The roach, too, could have had a bit more of a Jiminy Cricket personality.

But why ask for the moon when we have the stars? “WALL-E” is one of the more imaginative movies to come along this year. Don’t leave it just to the kiddies.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, mal.vincent@pilotonline.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

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