Actors may not like the idea, but the most touching, believable, and heartfelt performance in Disney-Pixar's latest animated masterpiece, WALL-E, comes from the work of a veteran sound designer. Ben Burtt, who voiced R2-D2 in Star Wars, is responsible for creating the wordless squeaks of WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), an abandoned robot who discovers true love 700 years after mankind has been forced to desert Earth. Someone forgot to switch him off when they left, and WALL-E has been dutifully going about his daily junkyard ritual, collecting remnants of life on Earth as it once was before environmental disaster hit. One day a spaceship lands carrying EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a spiffy, sweet search robot that the lonely (except for his pet cockroach) tin dude immediately falls for. What follows is a surreal comedy, a dire warning for Planet Earth, and, first and foremost, a love story.
Oh, and did we mention there is virtually no dialogue for the first 40 minutes or so? Welcome to the silent movie from a company that keeps pushing the envelope 'toonwise, taking chances to advance the art and science of animation. Pixar has done it again with this unexpected detour from the usual talking-creature brand of CGI cartoons so popular these days. Whereas companies like DreamWorks and Fox load their similar films with big-name stars from Jim Carrey to Angelina Jolie, Pixar, as in its 2007 Oscar-winning Ratatouille, is finding success sans superstars, letting the characters speak for themselves. Yes, there is the usual array of voice actors on board the outer-space mall in the film's second half: Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, and Sigourney Weaver. But this is an acting showcase for the sound wizards and animation artists.
The movements of EVE, WALL-E, and the misfit robots he meets when he hitches a spaceship ride to EVE's world are state-of-the-art. Director Andrew Stanton (Oscar winner for Finding Nemo) is largely responsible, but Burtt's vocal work is also extraordinary. We really feel we understand everything these inventive characters are communicating (special mention also to Elissa Knight's creative work as EVE).
Best of all are sequences in which WALL-E tries to show off his obsession with an old (about 800 years) videotape of the 1969 movie musical Hello, Dolly!; the Barbra Streisand flick is what drives his romantic longings and colors his understanding of what love truly means. The robot gracefully aping the movie's choreography is priceless. WALL-E's resurrection of this semiflop could give it a whole new life.
With its strong environmental message and its steadfast resistance to dumb down the material in search of obvious audience hooks, WALL-E marks one more step for Pixar and a giant leap for animated mankind.
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Starring (voice cast): Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Sigourney Weaver, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy