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WALL•E, this year’s summer behemoth from Pixar Animation Studios, is a bit green. Its story involves humanity’s temporary evacuation of Earth while solar-powered robots clean up the trash overrunning our planet. The plan—by a corporation so gigantic it serves as de facto government—is sending the global population on a five-year “luxury cruise” into space, during which guests are overfed, overpampered, and continue to be bombarded with ads encouraging them to buy, buy, buy. But 700 years after the launch of the good ship Axiom, its occupants are plugged-in and zoned-out in their zooming recliners, not only oblivious to the concept of face time but too fat to even stand up to greet a neighbor. Their home turf is still covered in garbage and has been deemed unsustainable, the junkyard bots long out of commission.
But don’t worry about you and your little ones getting walloped with an issues-of-the-millennium message. Because the above details are considerably secondary to the main plot: WALL•E, the only robot who wasn’t powered down and has thus continued to do his job solo for hundreds of years, is quite blue. As he tidies up an overgrown cityscape daily, the binocular-eyed, tank-tread-footed distant cousin of Short Circuit’s Johnny 5—full name: Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class—isn’t entirely alone. He’s got a cockroach companion and an expanding collection of knickknacks, from a Rubik’s Cube to a hubcap. More important to him, however, is a VHS copy of Hello, Dolly!, whose soundtrack he hums during the day and moony romance he sighs over at night. So when the Axiom sends a sleek-looking, blue-eyed research robot to scour the Earth for signs of life, naturally WALL•E falls hard.
If it all sounds too cute, it is—but in Pixar’s way of making adorableness relatable, and hence irresistible, instead of saccharine. Written and directed by Finding Nemo’s Andrew Stanton, the film is another Pixar triumph in storytelling. Before things can get gooey with the introduction of WALL•E’s crush, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), you’ll recognize in the wee machine a version of yourself: He delights over found treasure, relaxes in a makeshift apartment warmed by strings of lights and an iPod, spills from the shelf that is his bed whiny and uncoordinated when the alarm goes off. He’s highly organized, but when he brings home a spork—well, where does that hybrid belong, anyway?
As you watch transfixed, both by WALL•E’s daily routine as well as Pixar’s now-standard but still jaw-dropping photorealistic animation, you’re hardly aware of the studio’s big risk—a nearly complete lack of human dialogue. The “voices” of WALL•E, EVE, and a host of other robots that populate the Axiom have been provided by Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning sound designer behind Star Wars and E.T. And just like you somehow always knew what R2D2 was saying, here you won’t miss a blip, either, an especially incredible achievement as the relationship between WALL•E and EVE develops: With WALL•E’s saucer eyes and retro-toy shape, it’s a bit easier to inject him with a gentle, hangdog personality. But EVE—whose name her admirer mispronounces as “Eva”—is white and egg-shaped, with two LED ovals for eyes. Those peepers flatten to slits, though, whenever she’s annoyed—which, evidenced by her quickness to blow things up, is often—or amused, with Burtt even allowing her to giggle when she begins to give in to WALL•E’s advances. A scene in which he takes her to his place is a heartwarming highlight, with WALL•E presenting EVE his collectibles (for instance, demonstrating the joys of bubble wrap) like a kid showing off his room and cajoling her to dance to Hello, Dolly! (with a floor-shaking, lead-bottomed bounce, EVE’s no Barbra Streisand). These droids may not technically say much more than “WALL•E?” and “Eva?” (with the “?”s sometimes replaced by “!”s), but there’s no mistaking their human emotion.
The script’s central conflict involves EVE’s completion of her “directive” when WALL•E gives her a plant he found, not knowing that the specimen would shut his girlfriend down and send her back into space. He follows, of course, which moves the film from Earth’s hazy, decrepit landscape to the Axiom’s shiny, bustling one, its assembly-line operation reminiscent of the offices in Monsters, Inc. Other nods to classics include Sigourney Weaver’s casting as the ship’s computer, a reversal of her good-guy Aliens role, a robot-repair room that may as well be called the Island of Misfit Toys, and a serious, slightly intense 2001-inspired plot turn in which it’s uncertain whether the Axiom will ever be allowed to go home. It’s this second half of the film that trots out the ideas of obesity, technology-induced isolation, consumerism, and disregard of the planet. But it all feels like passing commentary to bolster a more important story, one of a seemingly impossibly human connection that can be summed up in two of the script’s mere handful of words: WALL•E and Eva.