Saturday, July 12, 2008

'WALL-E' is complete magic

“WALL-E,” a robot love story with a social conscience, may be an animated feature, but adults would be wrong to dismiss it as merely kid fare. Like last year's “Ratatouille,” the Pixar Animation studio is working on another level and telling a simple story with a sophistication and eloquence that is so often lacking in both animated and live action films alike.

Pixar has the best the track record in Hollywood. Starting with 1995’s “Toy Story,” the studio hasn’t had a dud yet. It pioneered the computer-animated feature and is rarely matched in terms of visuals and storytelling.

The key to Pixar’s success is its refusal to condescend to its viewers, whether they are adult or child. Its films deal with universal stories and time-worn messages, but present them with imagination, intelligence and unforced sincerity.

With “WALL-E,” writer-director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) has created something truly special and quite magical. The title character is the last of a team of robots left to clean up Earth after humanity left its trashed planet to float around in hover chairs in a giant ocean-linear-like spaceship called the Axiom.

During his 700 years of trash compacting, WALL-E has developed a personality. While going about his business he also picks up items he likes and brings them back to his pad, which he shares with a roommate of sorts: a cockroach. Believe it or not, you’ll grow fond of that cockroach.

WALL-E’s most prized possession is a video of “Holly Dolly” from which he has learned about love. He gets to experience love first-hand when a spaceship drops off EVE, a robot sent to see if plant life has returned to Earth. The love story that unfolds on Earth and eventually on the Axiom is engaging, sweet and even touching.

You wind up caring a lot about these two little robots, which is all the more amazing since their conversations almost exclusively consist of saying their names to each other. The emotional range attached to simply calling out someone’s name is larger than you might expect.

Large portions of the film play like a silent film, with WALL-E a stand in for Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. This does mean there is a lot of slapstick comedy, but it has the same grace and beauty of those pre-sound comedies. Just as with Chaplin’s best work, Stanton has managed to add a lot of pathos to the comedy antics on screen.

While this isn’t a dark movie, the underlining message is a sobering one. After all, WALL-E is roaming around an Earth decimated by humanity. Humans are shown as blobs of fat lulled into that state by centuries of robot pampering. There are quiet commentaries about the dangers of the path humanity is currently on.

The film is not heavy handed or forceful with its message. It simply presents a cautionary view of one possible future. Although there is a happy ending, the film is certainly not recommending staying our course.

The film features very little voiceover work. The bleep and blops that make up WALL-E’s speech were created by Ben Burtt, who created the sound design for R2D2 in the “Star Wars” movies.

Fred Willard (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”) makes a funny live action appearance as the president of Buy N Large, the conglomerate that apparently not only monopolized all businesses but all governments, too. Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is also amusing as the captain of the Axiom, who upon meeting WALL-E and EVE is knocked out of his apathetic state.

The animation in “WALL-E” is at times absolutely stunning, as when WALL-E looks on in wonder at celestial bodies while hitching a ride to the Axiom. There is also a lovely sequence where WALL-E and EVE “dance” through space that is both visually and emotionally beautiful.

The joys to be had watching “WALL-E” can’t be overstated. If you have children and they have yet to drag you to see it, then drag them with you. If you don’t have children, go anyway. It is one of the best films of the year.

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