If you ever saw the Disney movie Lilo and Stitch, perhaps you got all jazzed by the opening like I did. It takes place in a huge spaceship, where a zillion different aliens are attending the trial of Stitch. And it's AWESOME, because it's freakin' DISNEY doing a freakin' SCIENCE FICTION movie. The aliens, the interiors, the spaceships -- everything is Disney-slick and eyepoppingly right. It's like the Captain Sternn sequence in Heavy Metal but, you know... good.
Of course then the movie lands on boring old Earth and it's about Hawaii and hijinks and the value of families and hawdy ho and hoopdy hoo, and I totally forgot about that awesome beginning. Until six years later when the Pixar logo faded out and the song from Hello Dolly started up and the screen blossomed with Hubble-style images of planets and stellar phenomena, except they've been created by freakin' PIXAR and they're beautiful and the rush of excitement I described above came rushing back -- except because it's Pixar this time and because I knew the whole movie would be sci-fi, the rush was multiplied by a factor of about a billionty billion.
The alchemy of this movie is mixed so perfectly I find it difficult to know how to begin, (except to start with the plot summary that you've probably all read a few times by now, so I won't).
There are two major settings in this movie: the garbage-strewn Earth and the vast spaceliner Axiom, and both offer sights so creative and delightful I started to feel let down by other sci-fi movies that have explored these ideas before. One scene of WALL-E and Eve watching the glow coming off a fleet of burning, beached oil tankers was so starkly beautiful I forgot for a moment how superbly grim this movie's premise is. The achievement of making a children's movie about environmental apocalypse cannot be understated. This movie is Silent Running but up in your face, actually showing you the blasted vistas those older flicks could only talk about. And yet somehow the bloated human characters come off as appealing and sympathetic, otherwise this never would have worked.
I've heard a number of people say the trailers for WALL-E raised not one jot of interest for them, a statement I'll admit I tended to ignore since I'm such a diehard Pixar fan. I wonder how much of that indifference hinges on the resemblance between WALL-E and the stupid Short Circuit robot, and whether people extrapolate a plotline along the lines of the old chestnut "a robot... with feelings?" The thing is, all the robots in this story exhibit feelings. Eve demonstrates this moments after her arrival, slyly watching for her host rocket's departure before she suddenly indulges in a joyous display of aerial acrobatics.
What sets WALL-E apart from every other character in this story are his years of being the Earth's only companion -- he engages with the world in a way that's completely fallen out of fashion. Once he enters the regimented spacebourne society, he immediately begins to change it, merely by waving to other robots or shaking someone's hand. That this elemental humanity can come from a pair of binoculars atop a box is a testament to the potential of animation. There's an early scene of WALL-E and Eve both enraptured by the flame from a Zippo lighter that is somehow so evocative, so achingly real and true that it quietly punches right through the fact that you're watching such abstract characters -- or even that you're watching an animated film at all -- and just warms your heart in a butane glow.
So for all my gushing, why drop the quarter star? Tiny quibbles: Despite the fact the live-action footage was limited exclusively to viewscreens, I still found it a little jarring to imagine the coexistence of real life and what I was seeing (this despite the funny and ultimately touching performance of Fred Willard). I think I also felt the film's optimism, while completely necessary, was a tad naive. It might be a bias against certain old sci-fi movies of a similar stamp; for instance, when the civilization in Logan's Run breaks apart at the end and everyone swarms to the surface and marvels at the sight of the old man up there, I always thought it'd be more realistic if they went into a panic and tore him apart.
These nitpicks amount to nothing against what is a truly remarkable film. I could go on and on about the design of the Axiom and all the robots aboard her, but you should really just go see it for yourself. And don't miss the closing credits! At least stay until the names start scrolling upwards, it's a perfect little denoument.