Domo Ariagato, Mr. Roboto

I'll tell you right off the bat what I like about Pixar - whilst all the other CGI animation houses out there (as if there's any other kind anymore) are busy cranking out one Talking Animal Picture after another, those fine Emeryvillains just keep trying new things. I wasn't the biggest fan of Cars, but it had the virtue of being something different. And while, yes, last year's Ratatouille did, indeed, feature talking animals, you have to admit that it was a Talking Animal Picture of a very unconventional sort. While the other studios are busy with crap like Kung Fu Panda and Space Chimps, Pixar's out there taking risks. I mean, you've got a lot of virtuoso filmmaking to do if you want to make the idea of rats in a kitchen appealing rather than repulsive. But on the other hand, you can make an animated rat pretty cute, and the target audience - kids - have a pretty natural empathy with animals (thus, the glut of T.A.P.s, but I digress). So it's a risk, but not necessarily a huge one. On the other hand...

Let's say you're pitching a movie, and you're not Pixar, and the chief of the studio you're pitching to isn't John Lasseter. So you say, "Okay, the basic idea of the movie is that it's about a robot left behind on Earth to clean up after the human race has turned the whole planet into a landfill and abandoned it, and the robot is lonely until a girl robot comes along - and before you ask, no she's not a sexy humanoid-ish kind of robot with rivets on her ro-boobs where the nipples would be, she's kind of just a flying egg with wings. Anyway, the clean-up robot is obsessed with a Barbara Streisand musical, but he's straight anyway, and he falls in love with the flying egg girl robot. There's almost no dialogue in the movie, the only songs are going to be from that aforementioned Barbara Streisand musical, and the whole thing is pretty much a satirical take on modern consumer culture. Whaddaya think, boss?"

Few studios would go for it, I think - the pitch doesn't exactly scream "big summertime commerical hit." But the Pixar crew loves taking risks, and thus, WALL-E.

Roger Ebert has a short list of movies he describes as out-of-body experiences. The theater disappears, the smell of popcorn fades and the rest of the audience vanishes. The movie is real, and happening, and the real world doesn't exist for the duration of the movie's running time. WALL-E worked like that for me. The sneak preview crowd, noisy and filled with children raised on home video who have no understanding of the manners of going to a movie as it was, simply vanished, and the world the movie created was the only one that existed for 90 minutes or so.

The movie drew me in instantly, with a beautiful starscape and the opening lines of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! I laughed, amused by the odd musical choice. Within moments, though, I understood it, as it became clear that this was not merely soundtrack but source music. WALL-E is listening to it as he works, creating tiny cubes of garbage and stacking them into enormous, horrifying and yet oddly beautiful towers, each the same size as the skyscrapers in the inundated city in which he works.

It is after the arrival of EVE - the flying egg girl robot - and her subsequent departure back to the mother ship (followed by WALL-E) that the movie really kicks into high gear. Wall-E encounters the remnants of humanity aboard the Axiom, in which the species originally fled from their own mess, and what a sorry lot we've become. People are shapeless, blubbery masses, drifting around the ship on floating chaise lounges, communicating exclusively through video screens, accomplishing everything they do by pushing buttons that activate robots, and consuming all sustenance through a straw ("Don't forget to get your complimentary cupcake in a cup," the captain announces in commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the 5-year cruise). Everywhere the passengers look (if they glance up from their video screens), they are surrounded by advertising. The job of the ship's captain is primarily to listen to the ship's computer's daily status report and make the daily announcements to the passengers.

Every moment of this movie is simply beautiful to behold. Pixar's movies have always been visual delights, but here, they've completely outdone themselves. Every corner of every frame contains something to look at. The garbage mountains are astounding, the starship is breathtaking. Every moment of running time, right down to the end credits, is a visual feast.

WALL-E himself is a strikingly charismatic and appealing lead. In visual terms, he owes a little something to the robot from Short Circuit - my dad, who clearly doesn't have the same memory I do for important information like terrible mid-'80s Steve Gutenberg/Ally Sheedy comedies, thought from seeing the ads that it was meant to be the same character. In terms of action and personality, well, I just can't imagine the hours the animators must have spent studying the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. For they, rather than "Johnny Five," are clearly the true inspiration for WALL-E. His face, such as it is, is at once impassive and yet oddly expressive, much like Keaton's. He explores the comedic possibilities of every prop he comes across, much like Chaplin. And like the great silent film comedians, he's escapes by the skin of his proverbial teeth in ever-mounting peril, against an entire world that's bigger and meaner than he is.

There is, of course, no small irony in a giant mega-corporation like Disney releasing this movie, with its wry take on giant mega-corporations (a conglomerate known as Wal-Mart Buy-n-Large is primarily responsible for both the trashing of the Earth and the sorry state of humanity). There is also no small irony in the certainty that this summer blockbuster, with its appealing robot characters just screaming to be turned into Happy Meal toys, is certain to be heavily licensed and merchandized, unleashing another tidal wave of cheap plastic crap onto the world. But maybe, just maybe, a few smart kids out there will see this movie, understand it, and just maybe decide not to scream to Mom about how they just neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed the fully-articulated WALL-E action figure on the family's next trip to Buy-n-Large.