If there's one thing that's important to know about Wall-E, it's that it's not just a cartoon. Granted, Pixar has been making movies for a while now that are more than "just" cartoons: Last Summer's Ratatouille was as much about art and family as it was about cute rats cooking, and even Finding Nemo — written and directed by Andrew Stanton, who's also the man behind Wall-E — was a story about fatherhood that just happened to have some funny fish. But Wall-E takes that to another level. It's not an animated film — it's just a film. A wonderful, devastating, and ultimately uplifting film.
Flash ahead to 700 years in the future. Humans have evacuated Earth and are living a life of leisure on a luxurious spaceship while their former home wastes away under heaps of garbage. Left alone to clean it up is one final Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class, or Wall-E. Wall-E's mission is to scoop, compact, and stack the trash, building skyscrapers of waste. But over the years, he's developed a personality, including an affinity for Hello Dolly and a collection of treasures from the past, which he places carefully in his red Coleman cooler. His only companion is a Twinkie-eating cockroach — until the ship sends a visitor to scope out the situation.
That would be Eve, a brilliant little bot with a quick laser arm who's the instant target of Wall-E's affections. Eve is rather unimpressed with Wall-E's attempts to woo her — until he hands her a plant he found inside an old refrigerator. That clicks Eve into action: The plant signals to the spaceship above that life has returned to Earth and humans should make their way back, too. When a shuttle comes to take Eve back to the mothership, Wall-E goes along for the ride. From there, the movie branches out into several different stories: the choice the ship's captain must make to stay aloft or return to Earth; the evolution (or devolution) of humans into chair-sitting, screen-watching lumps; and, most of all, the sweet and moving romance between Wall-E and Eve. It's an ambitious film, but it works on every level. To see what I mean, just
Wall-E himself is a mix between E.T., Johnny Five, and Buster Keaton, and that's not a bad metaphor for the movie as a whole. There's a pointed critique of consumer culture, some sci-fi tropes, and a boatload of adorable slapstick moments. Wall-E starts bleak, with its shots of a ruined planet, its apocalyptic dust storms, and its near-wordless interactions between Wall-E and Eve, who communicate mostly in sighs and bleeps. But while Wall-E doesn't shy away from its darker portrayals of what Earth could become, it doesn't wallow in sadness, either. It may sound a warning — but the engine driving the film is a love story.
As always, Pixar gets the little details right. When Wall-E is fully charged, he lets off the same "bliiiiiing!" noise that Apple computers make upon startup. The spaceship's captain is a doofus of a character (imagine Family Guy's Peter Griffin, lazier but more well-intentioned) who's fascinated by this far-off Earth, asking his high-tech computer to define words that have become lost in 700 years in space — "soil," for one, and "dancing." One robot aboard the ship gets frustrated with having to wash away Wall-E's tire tracks; when they finally shake hands, the little bot scrubs off Wall-E's claw first.
But talking about Wall-E in segmented parts is almost beside the point. The true delight of the film is the way it sweeps you into its world with an almost frenetic energy, especially in its second half: Wall-E and Eve have to be together! Earth has to be saved! Wall-E flirts with a tragic ending, but the film rights itself and sends us away happy (especially if you stay through the credits, which continue the story in a particularly creative way). The enduring image is of Wall-E and Eve holding hands, a classic gesture that has rarely seemed so sweet.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures