3-D animation has finally found its muse: dirt. Most often used to render shiny, rotund humanoids or zippy anthropomorphic creatures living in spit-shined environs, the technology's most striking images in the new Pixar film "WALL-E" are rusty, dusty and decaying. Unblemished, bulbous shapes are still present, but they've been usurped in splendor by dented and hole-riddled boxes, culminating in a spunky being known as WALL-E, a sort of robot janitor who bides his time on an Earth covered in heaps of corroding metal and decaying plastic.
Great ziggurats of trash and whirlwinds of filth dominate the first 30-40 minutes of the film, and far removed from the magical worlds of "Shrek" and "Finding Nemo," they're by far the most aesthetically pleasing and realistic scenery the medium has yet produced. WALL-E clicks and whirs amid this debris as the last of such robots left on the toxically polluted planet, abandoned 700 years earlier by humans who have yet to return. But WALL-E still dutifully piles little boxes of garbage during the day, at night watching a found tape of "Hello Dolly," which, although we're never told, seems to have helped him develop feelings.
While the film follows WALL-E on his regulated but lonely existence on Earth, it's a marvelous realization of current animation, a near silent film often seducing you into believing it's live action. The set pieces -- those towers of garbage that teeter next to crumbling skyscrapers, and abandoned highways leading to empty Buy 'N Large stores (a nod to Costco, Wal-Mart, et al.), whose owner (Fred Willard) once ruled the planet -- look real in a way that contrasts sharply with the pretty but fantastical shine more usual to movies of this type. The result is a more immersive, less saccharine experience. In fact, during its better half, "WALL-E" is a bit melancholy.
And so, armed with his musical and a friendly cockroach, he looks up at the stars and dreams of more, especially love, until a visit to Earth by a robot named EVE (Elissa Knight) offers hope. He'll spend the rest of the movie chasing it, taking him far from those piles of refuse and taking us from the enchantment of their dingy charms.
Smitten with the new arrival, WALL-E follows her back to the giant space cruise ship where Earth's human population now lives, a seven-century vacation while the planet gets cleaned up. An adventure ensues in a battle over the fate of those people, and while the film settles into a more typical pace, it hurtles into an action-oriented drama while retaining some of its idiosyncratic charms, like the expressions of the robots, voices composed by Ben Burtt, who created the voices for R2-D2 and E.T. You might wonder how writer and director Andrew Stanton got away with making such a familiar creature, essentially R2-D2 and E.T. in the body of Johnny 5 from "Short Circuit."
"WALL-E" has by now received nearly unanimous praise, but most mainstream reviewers have seemed so overwhelmed with its technical brilliance and the cute precocity of its protagonist that they fail to observe some fairly obvious questions. The New York Times, in a favorable review, notes that "darker implications may take a while to sink in." "WALL-E" does suggest that the planet could become too gross to live on, but there's no death, no chaos, no real dire implication to be found from the destruction of Earth except that we may have to spend a few centuries in repose on an interplanetary equivalent of Club Med. And if we choose to return? No problem. Plant some more trees!
The hypocrisy of the movie's environmental messages is more alarming. It makes fun of giant retailers and giant people alike, as if they're to blame, and I wondered how it would look to an overweight person slurping on a giant soda, thinking of taking their tot to the local Costco afterward to purchase a tie-in. What are they going to do with the cup and the plastic bag afterward?
The best message in the movie is not, as its makers and many writers have repeated, that a cute robot saves the world by looking for love. It's that he does so to the beat of his own drum, always relying on his own imagination when faced with unfamiliar challenges. It's helpful to have that lesson in a movie so successfully manipulative as this one. Love can make a great cartoon, but it can't really save a planet. (G) 97 min. ï¨«S