When Toy Story opened in 1995, it was heavily marketed as the first-ever full-length computer-animated film—essentially, as a novelty. Anyone who saw the film, of course, knew that it was anything but a flash-in-the-pan or a gimmick, as Pixar's technical innovation was overshadowed only by the movie's exemplary storytelling. And ever since then, with each new film they've produced, Pixar has delivered on the promise of that first movie time and time again, both in terms of technology and storytelling excellence—strangely, though, as the technology has gotten better and better, it is talked about less and less. Perhaps it's because Pixar's success spawned such a wide slew of sub-par imitators; perhaps it's because their standards of animation are so consistently high, it's simply pointless to even try coming up with new superlatives.
It's more than a little ironic, then, that the studio's greatest achievement to date is a movie that is, on one level, about technology—and that the picture it paints is not a pretty one. WALL• E, from director Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo, is arguably the purest work of hard science fiction to appear on the big screen in ten or fifteen years, and the world that it creates is bleaker and more dystopian than in any American animated film you care to name.
In WALL• E's world, Earth is no longer inhabited by humans; they fled the planet over 700 years ago, having rendered their home world unlivable. Now, mankind floats through space in a giant space station/spa/shopping mall called the Axiom—a race of fat, stupid, lazy and lethargic slobs, too bloated to even stand on their own two feet as they cruise around in hovering lounge chairs. Their planet is in ruins—literally—but they don't care; they're too busy shopping … from the mega-retailer Buy N Large, which seems to have a monopoly on everything. George Orwell would have had nightmares had he seen such a vivid rendering of unchecked consumerism.
But that's just the backdrop. The real story here is WALL• E himself, a small, lonely robot—indeed, the only functioning bot left on Earth—who spends his days compacting garbage, with a faithful cockroach as his only companion. WALL• E (a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is marvelous, perhaps Pixar's greatest character yet—a (mostly) silent film star who is as expressive, as empathetic and as multi-dimensional, as an animated character can be … and this despite the fact that he doesn't speak a language other than the beeps and blips and other cutesy "bot talk" one might hear from R2-D2 or Luxo Jr. (Pixar's little lamp mascot). WALL• E is an amazing feat of character design and of animation.
But his loneliness doesn't last long. His world is soon invaded by another robot called EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who is as graceful and elegant as WALL• E is homely and awkward, as thoroughly sleek and modern as he is rusty and outdated, and as dangerous as he is harmless. He is immediately taken with her (who wouldn't be?). And what develops between them is a love story so small and simple, one is inclined to call it a fable. They may be robots, but their affection for one another is genuinely moving—much like the film itself. Had Walker Percy not used it already, you could call this film Love in the Ruins.