2008-06-27 (General release)

At last, an answer to the celebrity voicing in animated movies! No dialogue.

For much of WALL∙E, the titular robot speaks not a word, but instead whimpers or exclaims, his language an assortment of expressive erps and eeps (courtesy of Ben Burtt). When he does offer up language, it tends to variations on the name of his beloved, another robot named EVE (who responds with similar murmurs by Elissa Knight). Their meeting and his insistent, optimistic courtship take up the film’s enchanting early portion, revealing the superfluity of words for communicating plots or points.

To be sure, WALL∙E is lonely before he meets EVE. Left behind on earth when humans abandoned it in 2010, the solar-rechargeable machine persists daily with his “directive” to collect and compact garbage, piling it high and repeatedly. Having been at it for some 700 years, WALL∙E’s achievement looks from the air like a huge hodgepodge of skyscrapers. Each morning, for centuries, WALL∙E heads out to work, his mechanical treads taking him past the remnants of the people who devised him and his mission, the landscape dotted with logos for BnL (Buy ‘n Large), the corporate entity that essentially governed the planet out of inhabitability.

The last of many such robots (the name stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class”), the sole survivor plugs away, keeping for himself assorted bric-a-brac (a Rubik’s cube, Twinkies, light bulbs, iPods, lighters, spare parts from other WALL∙Es so he can repair himself when something goes wrong) that he arranges in bins and on shelves back at the trailer that serves as his home base. At night, he watches a videotapes of the film he loves most, Hello, Dolly!, imitating the dance steps and longing for a hand to hold while humming along with “It Only Takes a Moment” (“… To be loved a whole life long”). Adorable and vivacious, WALL∙E brings home a cockroach he finds, another unkillable creature who in the Pixar universe is capable of wordless self-expression (that is, loyalty to the new friend who feeds him a Twinkie).

WALL∙E’s encounter with EVE changes his routine. Delivered to the planet via a gigantic space ship amid fiery jets, EVE is all sleek, white, and Mac-y, hovering rather than grinding, swift and lovely. Also lethally armed and an ace shot, EVE slowly warms to the ancient robot’s Chaplinesque entreaties, their vast differences overcome at last by their reciprocal loneliness, WALL∙E committed to the precious image of hand-holding in his memory bank.

Just as they look about to connect, the discovery of vegetation alters their embryonic rhythm, as EVE must deliver the evidence back to the human ship that has sent her forth. This disruption of the robots’ romance jars the film into a second half, which includes futurized people — obese, riding on hover-chairs, fixated on media screens ever before their faces, all aboard a BnL ark (the Axiom), riding around in space for 700 years, waiting for earth to become inhabitable once again. Defined by reduced bone mass and their eternal diversion, the humans barely notice time passing, let alone what’s happened to their bodies and minds.

Even as the humans’ cartoony corpulence offers an abject object lesson per 21st-century pollution and carelessness (this especially compared to WALL∙E’s inveterate industriousness), they are granted a glimmer of hope, embodied in their captain (Jeff Garlin). Initially as sluggish as his charges, the captain is roused to a sense of mission when he discovers through a bit of computer-assisted research that earth was once a site of hoe-downs and pizzas (apparently BnL overran the planet using U.S.-labeled product). Challenged by his strangely tenacious auto-pilot, the captain is suddenly determined to find his way back “home,” literally standing up to change the dire fate of his race.

While the captain provides the movie with something like a human hero (with fewer blubbery mishaps than you might expect to see exploited for “family movie” humor), he is never so compelling as his robotic counterparts. And if the captain and WALL∙E both end up with the same “directive” in mind — to recover the plant that proves earth can again sustain life — it is the robot who provides the film with poetry and uncanny elegance.

At first glance, this only reaffirms what has been true of all the new-generation animated entertainments, that the human characters never muster the same energy, charm or humanity as the toys-sharks-machines-monsters-rats. But the film also pushes this notion to a next step, revealing that even human vocals — especially celebrity vocals — have become so much unnecessary, if headline-grabbing, clutter. That said, WALL∙E provides a most excellent exception to prove the rule, Sigourney Weaver as the ship’s serene, supreme computer voice: Mother’s Revenge or Mother Refracted. Either way, she offers an alternative ideal for the animated celebrity, invisible and resonant.

RATING 7 / 10