The first point to make about “WALL-E” is that visually it’s pretty spectacular, with elegant widescreen compositions and computer animation that rivals anything that Pixar’s done in the past. The second is that the script doesn’t match the images, particularly in the second half. Perhaps it’s inevitable that after an absolute triumph like “Ratatouille” even the savviest company would suffer a letdown, but happily in this case the fabulous look—and a slapstick sense of humor drawn from the silent-movie era—redeem the problematic content.
The picture, set eight centuries in the future, is predicated on a premise with the sort of heavy save-the-environment message that’s become almost obligatory in kids’ movies nowadays. By the twenty-second century the surface of the earth had become so covered with discarded trash that it was necessary to send all the humans off into space aboard huge cruisers while a massive clean-up was undertaken. Unfortunately, the job proved too much even for an army of robot workers, and the planet was abandoned.
The story actually takes up seven hundred years later, when a single robot, the only still-working example of the titular model (the acronym means Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) continues to spend each day compacting piles of garbage into skyscraper-tall mounds. The little drone, who looks a lot like the live-action model from the old “Short Circuit” movies but beeps and mutters a lot like R2-D2 (his “voice” is done by Ben Burtt, who was sound designer on “Star Wars,” just as he is here), has only one friend in the vast wasteland—a cockroach who can, it appears, survive anything—but has built a decidedly anthropomorphic life for himself. WALL-E hoards bits of junk he finds as he goes about his work and is addicted to an old tape of the “Hello Dolly” movie, which he replays endlessly, trying to mimic the choreography of Jerry Herman’s jovial anthem to having a good time, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.”
The plot kicks in when a sleek, egg-shaped probe is deposited on the surface by a huge ship and begins surveying the area for signs of life. Initially the gizmo—called EVE (for Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator)—is standoffish, but WALL-E wins her over with his charms, and a romance buds. When she finds a solitary plant growing in an old shoe, however, she’s whisked back to the mother-ship, and her now-devoted admirer hitches a ride with her.
That brings us to the second, much less amusing half of the movie. The cruiser is where humankind has been surviving for eight centuries. All the work is done by robots, and the humans, including the ship captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin), have turned into bulbous, inactive blobs of flesh carried around on flying recliners, hypnotized by the computers screens always in front of them. They’ve literally been turned into big babies cared for by the ship, unable even to walk.
The arrival of the plant EVE has brought back from earth, proving that the planet is capable of sustaining life again, is supposed to be the signal for the captain to initiate the process of returning the humans aboard his ship home. But though he rouses himself from his customary lethargy to do so as he’s told more and more about the planet by the ship computer (Sigourney Weaver), he’s obstructed by the autopilot AUTO (Macintalk), which has a secret order in his programming from Shelby Forthright (Fred Willard), the twenty-second century CEO of the Buy N Large Corporation, which helped cause the catastrophe on earth and was behind the entire evacuation-and-cleanup plan. WALL•E, EVE, the captain and a bunch of comic rogue robots—along with a couple of humans, John and Mary (John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy)—have to overcome AUTO and his army of robotic minions to bring the ship back to earth and restart human habitation there—this time with a green perspective, of course.
This whole shipboard finale to “WALL-E” is played like a broad spoof of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with AUTO bearing a suspicious resemblance to HAL-9000 and the whole “secret mandate” plot lifted from Kubrick and Clarke. For anybody too dense to get the references, the makers even insert the opening fanfare from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” at the moment the captain dismounts from his recliner and takes his first timid steps in opposition to AUTO’s machinations. Since he looks and acts like a big kid, the result is a joke on the emergence of the Star Child at the end of the visionary 1968 sci-fi classic. And while the idea of referencing Kubrick’s masterpiece isn’t a bad one, the way it’s done is frankly more creepy than delightful.
In fact that’s the case with the entire last act of the movie, with its grossly overweight, obscenely pampered men-and-women children. The notion was obviously to satirize a consumerism-is-all culture and condemn the blissful stupor to which it can lead, but the portrait of a sanitized, stagnant lifestyle drawn here isn’t so much amusing as sledgehammer obvious (as is the eco-friendly ending, with kids—of course—learning to bring the earth back to life). One could say the same thing about the first half of the picture, with its underlying warning about protecting the planet from man’s thoughtlessly destructive, throw-it-away-rather-than-recycle habits; but there the Stan Laurel or Buster Keaton-like sweetness and naivete of the WALL•E character make up for it; and though EVE frankly doesn’t match him, their romance—which, of course, makes them more human than the actual people they eventually help—has a certain charm, too. Even that cockroach is a plus. In the latter stages of the picture the captain, John and Mary can’t hold a candle to them.
Still, the movie does rouse itself to a big chase finale, complete with a gaggle of stooge-like rogue robots, that will appeal to the small fry who will certainly have been taken by the initial reels with WALL•E and EVE. And the visuals throughout are a marvel. The result is a movie that entrances the eye while only fitfully engaging at a deeper level.
One thing’s certain, though: this is the first picture that’s ever treated Gene Kelly’s overblown filmization of “Dolly,” with a miscast Barbra Streisand, as though it were some joyous classic. Anyone who’s moved by the clips to go back and watch the entire thing is bound to be disappointed. As for “WALL-E,” it doesn’t attain classic status either, but it’s pleasant enough—and certainly pretty enough—to serve: a lesser Pixar effort, but one that most viewers, young and old, will enjoy if not be transported by.
The picture is preceded by a winning short, “Presto,” about a preening magician who gets his comeuppance during his act at the paws of his rabbit-in-the-hat, a hungry little critter whom he’s neglected to feed. With its Looney Tunes spirit (you can almost imagine it having been written as a vehicle for Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam and then recast), it makes you nostalgic for the days when gems like this were regular parts of pre-feature packages.