Pixar-Disney again raises the bar on computer animation with WALL-E, surely one of the most beautiful 'toons ever.
Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) fashions a fantasy more daring than last year's Ratatouille, with a cuddly robot hero who speaks in beeps and an understated pro-environment message. The risks aren't always rewarding. They are, however, constantly gorgeous to behold.
Stanton's ambition is obvious, with a nearly speechless first act in a setting as vividly bleak as I Am Legend. WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class, tech-speak for janitors cleaning up mankind's mess and stacking compacted trash into skyscrapers. Humans deserted Earth centuries earlier, exiled on a space cruise where everyone is morbidly obese.
WALL-E happily works alone, relaxing to Hello Dolly! on videotape and trying not to squash his cockroach pal. They're interrupted when a spaceship lands and deposits the reconnaissance robot Eve. She's searching for signs of life on Earth so humans can return. Eve is also impulsively destructive, but WALL-E's in love, exhibiting all the carefree optimism he's learned from watching Hello Dolly!
That relationship has a nicely subversive, Chaplinesque feel; the emotion these faceless flirts project is a testament to Pixar's new imagineers. An entire movie about WALL-E and Eve would be nice.
Instead, WALL-E veers into outer space and social allegory about gluttonous consumerism that isn't entirely clear. The movie needs an outsider's voice to explain and express lessons about fat, polluting humans, but the WALL-E can only express himself in electronic beeps.
Stanton also makes the odd decision to have Fred Willard as Earth's former CEO appearing in the flesh. These are jarring intrusions into a fascinating animated world. WALL-E's third act concentrates on humans, led by a slothful captain (voice of Jeff Garlin), becoming something closer to Disney's space expedition Treasure Planet than a new classic.
But Stanton's movie is undeniably gorgeous, with each image suitable for framing on a sci-fi geek's wall. The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is everywhere, especially a HAL 9000-like ship wheel sabotaging mankind's return home. Thomas Newman's musical score, alternately somber and sprightly, is a certain Oscar contender.
WALL-E is undeniably art, in a genre where art and fun can coexist, as Stanton proved with Finding Nemo. But there's not enough here to deeply touch viewers. The tin man needs a bit more heart.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.