Pixar has never had a flop. Since 1995, the animation studio has released eight consecutive hits, racking up $4.3 billion in worldwide grosses. Now comes opus 9, perhaps the riskiest yet: a nearly photorealistic, almost dialogue-free love story set in 2805, about a lonely garbage-compacting robot, WALL-E. Left behind on a refuse-covered, water-depleted Earth after mankind evacuates to giant spaceships orbiting the planet, WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class) has toiled for 700 years, making cubes of compacted trash. When the story opens, he has only a cockroach for company, though an exceedingly cute cockroach. (”It’s our version of Jiminy Cricket,” says director Andrew Stanton.) Then a sleek, white-shelled probe droid called EVE shows up, and WALL-E is smitten. He courts her incessantly, following her when she’s recalled to the human race’s mother ship, where a mystery unfolds about her mission.
As for that dialogue-free thing, there’s a huge asterisk involved. There’s actually plenty of talking — it’s just not always in recognizable language. WALL-E, EVE, and the group of misfit bots they encounter on the spaceship communicate mostly in beeps and boops concocted by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, who devised the ”voice” of Star Wars’ R2-D2. (There are also animated human characters, including a ship captain voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin.) While it may seem like a gamble to expect kids to sit through such an unorthodox feature, Stanton knows a thing or two about holding the audience’s attention. His last film, 2003’s Finding Nemo, is the highest grosser in Pixar history. So far, early WALL-E footage has some online commenters carping that the lead character looks too much like that little robot from 1986’s Short Circuit. But Stanton swears the inspiration came from a pair of binoculars he was playing with at a baseball game. ”It didn’t dawn on me until later that there are other robots that have binocular eyes,” he says. And they can see a hit coming a mile away. (June 27)