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Like a lot of us, the little robot gets up every morning, gets himself together and goes out to perform a job that sometimes seems overwhelming, if not outright meaningless. Yet he finds ways to fill himself, literally. Gathering bits of junk that catch his interest, he stores them away in an Igloo container for when he returns home to categorize and catalog them. Then he settles down to watch a little television - an old VHS of Hello Dolly -- before shutting down for the night.

In short, WALL*E turns out to be very human after all. Alone on Earth for almost 700 years, apparently the last of his kind functioning, this rolling garbage compactor yearns for meaning, understanding and most importantly, companionship.

Pixar's latest film continues the studio's tradition of pushing the boundaries of film language, in some ways by hearkening back to idioms lost decades ago. Much of WALL*E owes a debt to the great silent comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, with Director Andrew Stanton staging sequences with a similar eye to those giants. Though it ties in to the musical number "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," WALL*E using a hubcap as a hat sure makes him even look like Keaton - if the Great Stoneface had been square, squat and rusted metal.

The Earth has been abandoned due to overconsumption. Life still exists, as WALL*E keeps a cockroach as a pet. And Stanton even makes the cockroach adorable without being cloying. Everything seeks community, perhaps.

In some ways, the movie also borrows from the fun but vaguely disturbing sci fi films of the seventies. Stanton's abandoned Earth has that vibe of discovering the losses we're bringing upon ourselves," like Logan's Run and Silent Running. And like those films, WALL*E offers hope above all else.

Its push, however, comes in making this animation look photo-realistic. The clips from Hello Dolly are completely live-action, and a non-animated Fred Willard makes a brief cameo as the long-dead CEO of Buy N Large, the corporation that swallowed the Earth. During the first act, WALL*E's world becomes completely believable and real.

When everything turns upside down and he encounters the cute probe EVE, it's a little jarring because of how clean and smooth she is, but even that settles down. In the second half, characters do appear that hew more closely to the traditional Pixar look, but it's not as jarring as it could be, because the story has become so absorbing. And yet, it's so simple.

Yes, there's an environmental message if you look for it, and you don't have to look very hard. It's just dressing, though, over the recognizable story of a lonely man - or rather, robot -- wanting to find out why he exists. Children might not get that, but they'll still be touched and thrilled as the underdog nebbish overcomes all obstacles for that elusive spark (somewhat literal, too) of love.

It's an amazing achievement, especially when you realize how loud it is with its quiet. Like many Pixar films, the amount of detail is astounding, and I have no doubt that each and every viewing (at least once more in a theater is a must) will reveal some new level of storytelling in the background.

Former R2-D2 Ben Burtt provides the voice of WALL*E, so it really shouldn't be surprising how affecting his performance is, but this one knocks over the R2 unit and puts it back on the shelf. An old Macintosh voice program actually serves as a starship's autopilot, and it's disturbingly effective.

The few human voices that do get used are - well, let it be a surprise. It was a challenge going in trying to figure out how staple John Ratzenberger would show up, but it's probably the least shoehorned role he's had for Pixar since his Toy Story debut.

Just see it. Right now, WALL*E stands as my favorite movie of the year. In a season loaded with fun, Pixar took the time to add a layer of care.

(Plus: Pixar introduces a new short with this, called Presto, about a magician and his hungry rabbit. It's got the anarchic spirit of a classic Bugs/Daffy confrontation, a fun surprise and slight contrast in tone before the main feature. But dang, it's funny.)


Derek McCaw

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