There’s a way to measure how well an animated film takes over your imagination. Do you forget, during the movie, that you’re even watching animation? Do the textures and settings, the fantasyland characters, become — for lack of a better word — real? That, or something close to it, is what happened to me during WALL-E, the puckishly inventive, altogether marvelous new digitally animated feature from Pixar. The movie sets us down in a rusty, postapocalyptic urban desert, all glaring sun and junk-heap skyscrapers, where the only living thing, or at least the only thing that moves, is WALL-E, a cute, squat robot with droopy binocular eyes whose name stands for Waste Allocation Load-Lifter Earth-Class. That’s a very fancy way of saying that WALL-E is a roving trash compactor — and, in fact, he’s the last of his breed. Hundreds of years after humans fled the earth, he’s still doing what he’s been built to do, molding scrap metal into bricks and piling them into neat towers.
For a while, WALL-E is nearly wordless, and the director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), stages the early scenes with a gentle, unhurried mystery that is unabashedly Spielbergian. He forges a world that’s casually amazing in its tactile metallic grandeur. In Toy Story, computer animation perfectly reproduced the waxy sheen of plastic playthings, and here, in a comparable way, you feel as if you could reach out and touch all the metal detritus. As a character, WALL-E is like R2-D2 gone Charlie Chaplin in the land of The Road Warrior. Almost everything he does is something he’s been programmed to do, but after centuries he’s developed stubborn wisps of individuality, like his penchant for plopping in a scratchy videotape of the 1969 Hollywood version of Hello, Dolly! WALL-E uses several of that film’s musical numbers (in particular, the gorgeous ”It Only Takes a Moment”) in a way that’s at once tenderly romantic and almost Kubrickishly eerie.
After a while, a spaceship lands, and WALL-E meets EVE, a frictionless white pod with cathode-ray eyes who’s been sent to earth to search for organic life. (Her name stands for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator.) These two don’t talk, exactly, but they hold hands and burble each other’s names. It’s love at first mechanized heartbeep.
WALL-E is a movie you want to discover, but without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the early ”silent movie” section, quietly enticing as it is, is merely the prelude to an eye-boggling future-shock adventure. WALL-E himself is an antique mascot lost in a digital universe; it’s up to him to save a spacebound colony of humans who’ve ”evolved” into hilariously infantile technology-junkie couch potatoes. Yet even as the movie turns pointedly, and resonantly, satirical, it never loses its heart. I’m not sure I’d trust anyone, kid or adult, who didn’t get a bit of a lump in the throat by the end of WALL-E, a film that brings off what the best (and only the best) Pixar films have: It whisks you to a new world, then makes that world every inch our own. A