WALL*E (Andrew Stanton). 97 minutes. Opens Friday (June 27). Rating: NNNNN
I didn't cry at the end of Pixar's WALL*E; I wept. There's a difference, at least for me. Crying is sniffling, or maybe choking back a tear; weeping is the result of an uncontrollable flood of happy. And WALL*E is pure digital joy.
WALL*E is a dystopian science-fiction epic about a lonely garbage-processing robot whose programming is corrupted just enough to give him a personality and what happens when the little guy falls in love with a visiting probe.
Andrew Stanton, who directed Finding Nemo, co-directed A Bug's Life and holds scripting credits for Monsters, Inc. and both Toy Story films, has made the studio's most ambitious film to date, building the usual Pixar spectacle around a character whose vocabulary is limited to perhaps three words.
But there's a universe of feeling in the way little WALL*E speaks those words – his own name, the name of his little probe friend, EVE, and one additional technical command – and in his incredibly expressive face and body, an intentionally clunky design that brings to mind Short Circuit's Number 5 only for as long as it takes to put that movie entirely out of your mind. This is a whole new world.
The imagery of a devastated Earth, 700 years after the human race has packed up and left, expands spectacularly on the befouled visions of vintage SF classics like Soylent Green, Silent Running and Alien. WALL*E's devastated, junk-filled home is stunningly realized, a destroyed city (it looks a lot like San Francisco) covered in filth and grit, marked by the pyramids of compacted garbage – our hero's life's work.
But when a ship unexpectedly touches down and dispatches the sleek, hovercraft-like EVE on an unknown mission, WALL*E – whose social life up till now has consisted of hanging out with a cockroach and watching an old videotape of Hello, Dolly – is smitten. He must learn more about this gorgeous creature. Of particular interest is whether EVE has hands, and if he can hold them.
From that simple desire springs an entire universe – literally, as WALL*E's quest leads him into deep space, and into a much larger adventure than he could ever conceive. It's terrific fun, with entire stretches of robot action playing out sans dialogue (but accompanied by Thomas Newman's delightful score). There's something else working in the corners of the frame, however: a soulful, redemptive subtext that grows larger and more imperative as the story progresses.
The inclination is to view WALL*E as a corrective to John Lasseter's Cars, since both productions focused on machines with personalities. But they operate on totally different levels. Cars was little more than a NASCAR-flavoured remake of Doc Hollywood, lacking in internal logic and character development, while WALL*E is almost overwhelming in its ambition, vision and emotional punch.
This may well be the best film of 2008.