Pixar's magnificent WALL-E might be their best movie yet, and that's saying something. It's a robot love story that's more touching and more human than anything else in theaters, and it might be the best romantic comedy since High Fidelity. The genre-bending is even more remarkable than that, as its post-apocalyptic love story careers wildly but surely from silent film to sci-fi epic, landing a subtle message about personal responsibility amid automation.
Perhaps most importantly, it may be the first animated film in over a decade not to be marketed on the strength of its voice talent. There are only seven speaking roles in the entire film (an eighth is voiced by Apple's Macintalk software, best known for Radiohead's "Fitter Happier"), and its two robotic leads have vocabularies of about 5 words each. Like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon or Fantasia, the visuals tell the story.
WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class) is the last working robot on an abandoned earth. The future, several hundred years hence, looks very much like the one from Idiocracy: the landscape mainly consists of overflowing mounds of trash and the advertisements for the one super-mega-gigastore, Buy n Large, the world's last corporation, WALL-E's manufacturer. WALL-E compacts and stacks the trash, from which he rescues treasures: an iPod, a spork, a Rubik's Cube, a Twinkie, spare parts, a videotape of "Hello, Dolly!" that he watches over and over. His best friend is the only living thing on the landscape, a cockroach who burrows in an open Twinkie. These opening minutes perfect what I Am Legend was aiming for: the boring, beautiful, surreal stillness of a world with exactly one sentient inhabitant.
Then, of course, the plot sets in. A female robot comes to earth with a secret mission, and he falls hopelessly in love with her sleek curves and obvious perfection in manufacturing, resolving to aid her no matter what. Their interlude is adorable, but nearly excessively saccharine. Fortunately, the movie manages to catch itself by kickstarting the action again. WALL-E and EVE (the love interest robot, whom WALL-E's primitive voice box calls "Ee-va") go into space, the last refuge of the human race, and have an interstellar adventure, complete with Pixar's trademark stunning action tableaux, and one show-stopping dance through the void.
As usual, a Pixar animated short precedes the movie, and this one is a winner: "Presto," a hysterical cartoon about a magician whose hungry rabbit doesn't want to be pulled through his hat. From beginning to end, it's a loving homage to Chuck Jones, from the characters' facial expressions to the rapid-fire gags to the wily rabbit himself. Little Steven van Zandt has often said that in rock and roll, "You're only as cool as who you steal from," and Pixar chooses its inspirations well, from Chuck Jones to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, silent-film icons who elevated the pratfall to its Platonic ideal.
Pixar's first nearly wordless main character was Boo, the adorable baby human girl from Monsters, Inc., who could only say two things: "Kitty" and "Boo!" WALL-E does most of his acting with his oversized, droopy eyes, his armclaws that shake when he's frightened, and his plaintive, scratchy voicebox that shouts the one word he knows other than his name, with all the love, longing, fear, and courage he can muster: "Eva!"
Animation is the art of bringing life to the lifeless, and Pixar has put more life into Luxo lamps, unicycles, Etch-a-Sketch dolls, and robots than many human actors invest into human roles. Each of their films is a labor of love, love that pours out of every cel. If the movies weren't so funny, they might overwhelm their post-ironic audiences with their supreme empathy. But a spoonful of sight gags makes subversive sincerity go down easy. After billions of dollars of box office revenues and over a decade of unbroken blockbusters, Pixar might just be making the world a better place.