WALL-E is a sort of mobile trash compactor – his name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class – and he's the last robot left on a desolate, crumbling Earth, 800 years in the future. WALL-E has a squat yellow metal body and sturdy pincers for hands. He doesn't say much. but his eyes, two lenses perched atop a virtually nonexistent head like a set of binoculars, suggest the all-too-human anxiety he suffers: He has the perpetually worried look of the young Woody Allen.
Although there are no humans left to avail themselves of his services, WALL-E still dutifully goes about the business he was built to do, scooping up scraps of trash and metal, forming them into solid, compact cubes, and stacking them high: He's surrounded by faux skyscrapers made of these blocks, as if they were comforting artifacts for this lonely little robot, mementos from a time when he was surrounded by life.
As WALL-E roams this forlorn landscape, doing his job simply because he has no idea what else to do, he picks up small treasures, bits and bobs that he thinks (if robots can think) might one day come in handy, and brings them back to his lair: The mishmash includes a Rubik's cube, strings of Christmas lights.
WALL-E has one friend – an elegant-looking art-deco-style cockroach who communicates mostly by clicking and cocking his antennae – but we can see he longs for something more. Stashed in his cave is a talisman that WALL-E values more than anything else in his possession, an object that he goes back to obsessively, hoping to unlock his secrets. It's a scratchy videotape of "Hello, Dolly," although only small portions of the tape appear to be functional.
And so WALL-E spends his evenings trying to parse the secrets of human connection through musical numbers like "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment." He's bewitched by these fragments of pop art. For him, they're mysterious primers on what it means to dance, or to hold someone's hand. When the music kicks in, it's shaky and faint like a cue beamed in from a far-away galaxy, a place where people used to understand the pleasure of one another's company, or even just the joy that could be found in a throwaway musical number.
There's very little dialogue in the early part of WALL-E, and that section's near-silence only enhances its aura of mournful obsessiveness: Scraps of pop culture that are expendable to us (who ever even thinks about "Hello, Dolly" anymore?) are precious to WALL-E, and they begin to have even greater potential meaning when a lovely girl robot named Eve -- shaped like a sleek white bullet, she resembles a cocktail shaker from a '70s bachelor pad -- comes to Earth on a mission of her own.
However, there's more to WALL-E than just a love story, and therein lies the movie’s biggest problem. If Michael Moore or Oliver Stone had crafted a feature film that was a thinly disguised political broadside portraying Americans as recumbent tubbos who moved around on sliding barcaloungers with built-in video screens and soft drinks always at the ready, WALL-E could not be more blatant.
It’s as if the writer’s didn’t know how to resolve the love story and in desperation resort to dragging in AL Gore-ish environmental scare tactics to give the film a wrap up and a message: The same message we’ve seen before in such message films as Happy Feet and Bee Season – all humans are fat and stupid and don’t care about the environment, so very sensitive penguins, bees, or robots (who are all victims of the mean humans) have to teach us a lesson.
This is all well and good, but it’s not the reason I went to see WALL-E. If I decide to go and see An Inconvenient Truth I know exactly what to expect on the screen. But WALL-E’s trailers promise of clever humor and an evening’s entertainment is false advertising at its worst.
WALL-E takes a surprisingly firm stance on the uselessness and unlikability of humankind, showing us a future world in which humans -- fed largely on junk food -- have become so fat they look like old-fashioned rubber dollies bloated to obscene proportions. They're obese partly because they're lazy: Instead of walking, they've gotten used to coasting along on floating chaise lounges, and robots cater to their every whim. Instead of talking to each other face-to-face, they chat with their friends on computer screens that appear to be permanently affixed just a few inches from their faces – even when their friends are sailing along right next to them.
WALL-E also takes on corporate greed and political corruption: The president of the multinational megacorporation that's largely responsible for the demise of humankind is also the president of the whole world. He's played by Fred Willard, who appears as a hologram spreading false optimism and lies.
WALL-E, however, ultimately backs away from both its romanticism and its bitterness; its ending feels like a tacked-on remnant of manufactured hope and goodwill. There's plenty of antic action in the middle, including a chase sequence involving a bunch of rogue robots. But the action doesn't feel integral to the plot – it's more like a forced effort to make sure the kiddies don't get bored, which they inevitably do.
Toward the end of WALL-E, the movie tries to circle back and recapture some of the wistful magic of the early scenes, but the spell doesn't take. WALL-E gives us a hero who, by culling through the masses of junk that we so casually throw away, becomes a repository for human memories, a living (though not breathing) creature who has more feeling than actual humans do. Then it shows us actual humans – lazy, fat, brainless ones who have squandered and abused their free will – and asks us to forgive their foibles. The gloss of preachiness that washes over WALL-E overwhelms the haunting, delicate spirit of its first 30 minutes. This clearly isn't a movie made by a robot; the drag is that it ends up feeling so programmed.