Even a robot can become human by watching old movies. Specifically old musicals in which people dance and hold hands. WALL•E, a determined little trash compactor on wheels, diverts himself all day finding bits of debris left behind by the humans who departed Earth 700 years ago. But really all he wants is someone’s hand to hold. WALL•E is a thoroughly charming and intensely moving film about loneliness and devolution, and how both conditions can be corrected. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece; what I do know is that it is perfection. The movie has a strong simplicity that rivals, and sometimes equals, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. It’s E.T. for the iPod generation.
WALL•E’s routine is broken one day by the arrival of EVE, a sleek robot who looks like a first-wave iMac crossed with an owl. EVE zips around the barren planet, scanning for signs of organic life. WALL•E shows her a plant, which he’d found still miraculously alive inside a refrigerator. (Between this movie and the fourth Indiana Jones film, wherein Indy rode out a nuclear bomb blast inside a fridge, it certainly is the season for this heretofore unheroic appliance.) Her directive is to take the plant back to the massive spaceship Axiom, where bloated humans suck up liquid meals and are catered to by machines. By then, though, WALL•E has already fallen hard for EVE. She nearly kills him a few times, of course, but eventually she calms down and is intrigued by this skittish, humming little packrat.
Directed by longtime Pixar animator Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL•E gets a lot of mileage from slapstick but is just as capable of almost indescribable beauty. Consider the sequence in which WALL•E and EVE float in outer space. He’s propelled by a fire extinguisher; she zooms around on her own power. Earlier, in WALL•E’s cramped hidey-hole, they try to dance along to the musical playing on WALL•E’s videotape but can only manage a clunking, floor-shaking parody. Here in weightless space, their dance becomes a pursuit-and-retreat mating ritual, and when they face each other on opposite ends of the wide frame it’s like the old scene with lovers running towards each other across a field. Stanton suffuses the movie with love of movies, and love as seen in movies. It’s a true all-around valentine.
Some have called the satire of oblivious, hapless consumers — and the corporation that dictates their lifestyles — a bit heavy-handed. I didn’t find myself noticing it much; I imprinted on lonely little WALL•E early on and never lost his emotional thread. Once he sees EVE, nothing will keep him from her. This faceless robot, with camera eyes that tilt upward in despair or wistful hope, is the most expressive character we’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer. Veteran sound man Ben Burtt is the voice of WALL•E, ringing endless joyous or crestfallen variations on one or two words; he’s matched beautifully by Elissa Knight, who as EVE manages to invest a word like “Directive” with volumes of regret and apology. I can see why some people will prefer the first third and grow weary of the more conventional hijinks aboard the Axiom; perhaps it’s because WALL•E and EVE are so magically right together that one wouldn’t mind turning the entire 97 minutes over to them cooing and bleeping at each other.
Movies by their very nature are manipulative. WALL•E comes honestly by the tears it earns, not just in the sad moments but in the moments of bliss. Past a certain point I’m not really qualified to review the film as an adult, since I quite readily regressed to about six years old through most of it. I can tell you that the six-year-old laughed and cried and was with WALL•E every step (or roll) of the way. But the adult also found things to love. Among other things, WALL•E is a testament to the human ability to improve and transcend: even 700 years after Earth became too toxic to sustain life, there’s still hope. And if you’re a stinky little trash compactor on wheels who just wants to hold someone’s hand, there’s hope for you, too. WALL•E is the most generous and romantic vision to hit mainstream movies in a very long time.