Pixar goes futuristic in WALL-E, an animated story about a lonely robot that looks something like a mechanical E.T. or a mini-me of the 'bot from Short Circuit. In this dystopian vision, humans have abandoned an Earth made toxic by garbage and now live in a gigantic floating space ship while sending robots back to clean up the planet.
The film is set in a further future in which even this attempt has been abandoned and the protagonist is, apparently, the last functioning worker-bee robot on Earth. WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class, and, as the film opens, there's only one functioning WALL-E left on the deserted planet, diligently performing his programmed duties by converting human refuse into neat, stackable bricks. But WALL-E has a personality too, setting aside interesting remnants of human civilization — a Rubik's Cube, a Twinkie, and a VHS of a film musical — to take back to his metallic shelter.
One day WALL-E is visited by a more advanced 'bot, Eve, sent back to Earth on a reconnaissance mission. Eve looks something like a cylindrical iBook, and she and WALL-E are well-conceived and animated creations, with distinct, relatable personalities discernable despite minimal dialogue. (There's a passing nod to silent cinema here with the relationship a kinda, sorta reworking of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights.)
This vision of a future in which cities are submerged by skyscrapers made of trash and humans have been reduced to lazy, passive, sub-verbal consumption machines is essentially Idiocracy for kids, except the evil-corporation subplot — starring Fred Willard, in the flesh — is clearly aimed at parents in the audience, and that hints at the problem.
Instead of merely following its premise into what should have been a Pixarized version of the Spielbergian wonder of movies like E.T. and A.I., WALL-E lapses into noisy, semiviolent confrontations that mimic run-of-the-mill sci-fi and action flicks for teenagers and adults. It might be a little too scary and violent for younger children, but, really, kids of all ages deserve better.
A better model for a good kids' film comes from one of the year's other animated hits, Horton Hears a Who! (or, to cite an earlier Pixar triumph, Finding Nemo, which was the directing debut of WALL-E's Andrew Stanton) — a film not saddled, Shrek-like, with would-be-clever pop-culture references or content clearly aimed over the heads of the kids who make up its alleged audience. As such, Horton won over this adult viewer in ways that WALL-E — which panders to me, though not as baldly as Shrek — couldn't and also won over my 3-year-old, who sat rapt for Horton but bailed after 10 minutes of WALL-E.
Opening Friday, June 27th