The digital animators at Pixar have already brought movie life to toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, cars, and rats. Today they're adding robots to that list in a science fiction fantasy called "Wall-E." As with all Pixar pictures, "Wall-E" is designed to appeal to children, but our critic Bob Mondello says grown-ups, even film historians will be intrigued.

BOB MONDELLO: The camera descends at the start of the film from outer space to a landscape that looks eerily familiar and sort of not. The sun filters down through a brownish haze. What look at first like skyscrapers turn out to be neatly stacked mountains of trash. Stillness is everywhere, broken only by the unlikely sound of a song from "Hello, Dolly!" and a solitary figure zipping through a junk strewn cityscape.


MONDELLO: Apparently humans never changed course on pollution and consumerism and some time in the 22nd century they had to leave a planet that they had turned into a giant garbage dump. Without turning off a robot they had left behind, he's basically a trash compactor on treads, a waste allocation load lifter, Wall, earth class E; Wall-E - who has over the course of 700 years developed a personality.

He picks up junk and wonders what it's for; a Rubik's cube, a spork, an electronic key. Some of it he saves - say, an alarmingly fresh 700-year-old Twinkie - for his pet cockroach. But most of the trash he compacts and stacks, and that's his routine until one day he falls head-over-treads for a sleek robot from the stars.



MONDELLO: (Singing) At last...

MONDELLO: EVE, an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, whom he watches from afar so he won't be incinerated.



MONDELLO: She has an itchy trigger finger.



MONDELLO: The first hour of "Wall-E" is a crazily inventive, deliriously engaging and almost wordless silent comedy of the sort that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton used to make. Things turn more conventional in the last half hour, when pudgy, machine-dependent humans make an appearance, but the glow of that first part will carry you through - that and the majesty of the filmmaking: "Wall-E's" world, in all its epic decay, looks real. You can almost taste the dust. And it's emotionally real, too - enough so that a cautionary tale about the environment and about big corporations that don't take care of it and about getting so caught up in our gadgetry that we forget to look at the stars all takes a back seat to romance.




MONDELLO: Some specifically cinematic subtexts also take a back seat. Director Andrew Stanton and his animators have slipped in nods not just to "Hello, Dolly!", but to R2-D2 and "Blade Runner," "An Inconvenient Truth" and the comedies of Jacques Tati and Chaplin. More than just a nod to Chaplin, actually - Wall-E, with his workaholic scruffiness and his yearning for someone to hold hands with, might as well be Chaplin's Little Tramp. There's actually a nice parallel between this film and Chaplin's first sound film, "Modern Times." In that one, the silent clown used the soundtrack mostly for music and effects, not for speech, just as Pixar does here for most of the film. Chaplin only lets you hear a human voice a couple of times, and only on some sort of mechanical contraption - say a TV screen - to emphasize its artificiality. It was his way of saying to the sound world, okay, everybody's doing this talking thing now, but look how much more elegant our silent world is.

F: by only letting you see them on video screens, and they look flat and washed-out compared to the digital world around them. But there's a difference. Chaplin knew he had lost the battle. Silence was finished. Sound had won. In today's Hollywood, digital is what's taking over, and Pixar's animators - bless them - are at the forefront, insisting that imagery created on computers does not have to be soulless. "Wall-E's" images are filled with emotion, just as silent film's images were. The film is being sold as a futuristic fantasy, but I have to say I am just as gratified that "Wall-E's" filmmakers looked back 70 years to silent movies as I am that they looked forward 700 years to a silent planet. I'm Bob Mondello.

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