HOLLYWOOD — Within the rumbling, stumbling hunk of junk that is WALL-E beats the sweetest, warmest heart — a robotic representation of humanity’s highest potential.
And within the sci-fi adventure “WALL-E” lies an artistic truth: that Pixar’s track record remains impeccable.
Following high-concept movies about a superhero family, talking cars and a gourmet rat, this is the Disney computer animation arm’s boldest experiment yet. “WALL-E” is essentially a silent film in which the two main characters, a mismatched pair of robots, communicate through bleeps and blips and maybe three words between them.
And yet director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) is resourceful enough to find infinite ways for them to express themselves — amusingly, achingly, and with emotional precision. He’s also created, with the help of a team of animators, a visual marvel. Not that this is in any way surprising from a Pixar flick, but still, it’s worth noting.
The smudged, dented metal that makes up WALL-E’s frame looks so realistic, you could reach out and touch it; at the same time, his big eyes often appear so vulnerable and pleading, you can’t help but feel a connection with him. The characters are adorable without being too cutesy, accessible to adults and children alike.
Ben Burtt, a multiple Oscar winner who created R2-D2’s signature sound effects in the “Star Wars” movies, provides the “voice” of WALL-E, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. Seven hundred years after Earth was abandoned, leaving the planet looking like a post-apocalyptic Tomorrowland, WALL-E is still doing the job he was programmed to do: pick up all the trash he sees around him and compress it into tidy packages.
But he’s a romantic at heart with an eye for nostalgia, sifting through garbage for items like bowling pins, a Rubik’s Cube, an iPod, a spork. The script, which Stanton co-wrote with Jim Reardon from a story he co-wrote with Pete Docter, evokes iconic cultural items and imagery without going for the cheap pun or empty celebrity gag. Genuflections to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Alien” seem fitting, as does WALL-E’s physical resemblance to E.T. (It’s one of the movies that earned Burtt an Academy Award for best sound effects editing.)
He’s an odd, lovely combination: He carries himself like a little old man, but has the innocence and wonderment of a child. It’s only upon the arrival of the sleek, shiny Eve (voiced by Elissa Knight), a robot sent back to the planet on a search mission, that he realizes how lonely he’s been. That she’s everything he’s not — new, quick, high-tech, efficient — is only part of the allure. She’s someone with whom he can finally share all the lost treasures he’s amassed, and she seems open to the idea of making a friend in him, too.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the universe, the remaining humans are lolling about in a giant flying cruise ship. (Kathy Najimy and Pixar veteran John Ratzenberger provide two of the passengers’ voices, with Jeff Garlin as their boisterous but clueless captain.) Thanks to the big, evil corporation that runs the place (and ruined Earth), every convenience is available at their chubby fingertips — oh yes, we as a people have gotten fatter and lazier in the future, it seems. And the possibility of useless consumption is overpowering and ever-present.
So maybe it’s more than a little hypocritical for a movie that’s being distributed by a worldwide entertainment conglomerate to condemn needless spending on food, toys, stuff, you name it. Fred Willard, the only live-action human, plays the film’s CEO with typically humorous buffoonery — perhaps that’s intended to make the message more palatable.
You could busy your brain which such complex thoughts. You’re more likely, though, to walk out of the theater with the rare joy of knowing that you’ve just witnessed something that touched your heart.
“WALL-E,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated G. Running time: 97 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.