With humanity having wrecked the earth and ditched it to drift in space on an intergalactic cruise ship, WALL-E, a trash compactor with a heart of gold, builds an unpopulated megalopolis garbage brick by garbage brick. The oceans have dried up leaving domino chains of boats in the harbor and the only other living creature is a cockroach with springy antenna and a Twinkie addiction, as though Disney and Pixar dared themselves to focus their cute-o-meter beams on slashing sales of Raid. WALL-E is as appealing as Will Smith; as competing last men on earth, neither needs dialogue to hold our attention. In his off time, the bot watches “Hello Dolly!” and takes naps—hobbies that make stickler mechanics scratch their heads and everyone else coo.
When a glamorous cat-eyed machine named EVE lands on earth on a mysterious mission, once WALL-E learns to dodge her laser arm, the two embark on an intergenerational romance. She looks like an iPod bred with an egg; he’s grimy and beige yet boots up with Mac’s familiar “bong.” When they share an electrical spark, WALL-E—clutching a fire extinguisher—moans and drenches her in a pearl necklace. They’re happy for a moment, but before WALL-E can try out this odd human trick of holding hands (as mystifying to him as the spork, bubble wrap, and the mounted fish singing Bobby McFerrin that he unearthed from the dump) she finds the object of her quest and slips into hibernation mode. WALL-E’s efforts to awaken his sleeping beauty rejoin him with the humans, who after 705 years of floating around in deck chairs in their posh outer space vessel have ballooned into beached walruses. When the ship tilts sharply, they tumble out of their transportation devices and pile up as helplessly as stuffed animals in a skill crane. (Their euphemism for fat is “slight bone loss.”) Having spent generations glued to holographic video screens six inches from their face, man is shockingly ignorant. They read poorly, having learned their alphabet from corporations (“B is for Big N’ Large, your very best friend”), and not only have never seen the words “soil” and “dancing,” but haven’t even noticed the giant swimming pool in the center of the ship. The captain’s (Jeff Garlin) big moment of glory is standing.
Having spent his career making Pixar buckets of money, writer-director Andrew Stanton has good reason for liking fish, cars, toys, bugs, monsters, and now machines better than people—not that we’re faulting him for indoctrinating kids that littering blows and exercising rules. His tone is inspirational, not condemnational, cut through with enough bite that WALL-E never feels cloying no matter how many times he bats his eyes. Bracketed by a riotous cartoon about a magician and his rabbit and a credits sequence that draws on the great works of humans past from Egypt’s frescos to Crete’s mosaics, van Gogh’s sunflowers to Nintendo’s eight-bit graphics, it’s a beautiful film that makes us proud of the species that created it, even as we root for the robot who inadvertently saves us from ourselves.