WALL-E is one of those movies for which the hardest part of the review is coming up with the first sentence. What should one say about the latest offering from that most excellent animation studio, Pixar? That it’s surprisingly, delicately, effectively, poignant? That, for that reason, younger children may not quite get it? That the WALL-E character is genuinely charming, and his originality has not been siphoned off by ET or Short Circuit’s Johnny 5? That the film succeeds in making an ecological statement without being annoying? That, despite all those worthy elements, there’s just something missing — a plot, perhaps?
But what was expected to be a five-year hiatus has now stretched to seven centuries. Only one WALL-E is still operating, diligently turning trash into cubes and stacking the cubes into towers. Then a sleek modern robot shows up, sent by the mother-ship to search for signs of earthly life. (Her kind of robot is called EVE, and she looks like a handy combination of penguin, iPod, and egg.) When she encounters a slip of plant life, the now-ancient computer program clicks on to deliver the specimen to the spaceship, and return the humans to earth. But will they ever make it?
And that’s about the extent of it — odd when one considers that Pixar has given us such original stories as Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004). There’s a longish (maybe too long) opening section in which we get to know WALL-E (are his eyes maybe a little too pathetic — like a kitten in an alley in the rain?). And then there’s a part involving chases and fights and narrow escapes in and around the Axiom. Some kids might find the latter hard to follow; I was not always clear on what Eve and WALL-E were trying to get into or out of or why.
It’s a cliché to say of a beautiful-but-thin production that “you come out humming the sets,” but WALL-E’s greatest strength is visual. The film begins masterfully, as we approach earth from space, and are surprised to pass through a layer of junk and debris. At the same time we begin to hear a jaunty tune that sounds like it came from an old Broadway musical, a male chorus repeating exhortations to “put on your Sunday clothes” and “get out the Brilliantine and dime cigars.” The music is coming from WALL-E’s built-in recorder, and is a clip from a videotape of “Hello Dolly” that he had found. “And we won’t come home until we’ve kissed a girl!” the chorus proclaims, as the solitary robot continues his endless task. The animators have rendered this landscape as realistically as they can, and it (and WALL-E himself) is rusty, dinged, and gray. The contrast is already wrenching, and the movie’s only minutes old.