The first teaser trailer for WALL•E took us back to 1994, to a lunchtime meeting between Pixar's head creative talents John Lasseter, Pete Doctor, Joe Ranft and Andrew Stanton. It was the year before Toy Story arrived in cinemas and completely changed the landscape of feature animation, and these four men, the trailer told us, were already thinking about what to do next. At that meeting they threw around ideas that eventually grew into A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and the company's newest creation WALL•E, which Stanton has directed. In the 14 years that have passed since that meeting, Pixar has grown into one of the biggest names in film production but, in the most crucial ways, they've hardly changed at all. The films produced by this studio are built upon strong, original stories, populated by vivid characters and avoiding lazy pop culture references, and the marvellous technical innovations they make with every picture are there purely to serve the central narrative. These were the fundamental ideals that made Toy Story an instant classic, and they hold just as true for this remarkable movie about a lonely little robot's space odyssey.
Set some 700 years into the future, WALL•E takes place on earth, but it's not an earth we recognise. With of levels trash and pollution spinning out of control, human beings have long since abandoned this planet, instead moving to gleaming space stations run by the "Buy n Large" corporation – the same company, incidentally, whose logo adorn almost all of the garbage that made earth uninhabitable in the first place. While they scarpered, the clean-up operation was left to a number of small robots known as WALL•E's (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class); and while most of the machines have since fallen into disrepair, one single WALL•E continues to trundle enthusiastically amid the wreckage, scooping up garbage into his compactor stomach, and piling the trash cubes into towers that stand alongside the empty skyscrapers.
What makes WALL•E different to his fellow machines is the sense of curiosity he displays. While he has spent 700 years dutifully doing the job he was designed for, he frequently takes time out to examine odd little trinkets his explorations turn up. At various points in the film, he is intrigued by a Rubicks Cube, a lightbulb and a bra, having no idea what their true purpose might be, and he takes anything particularly interesting back to his makeshift home, the back of an abandoned truck in which he neatly stores and categorises all of his findings. He can't, however, find the one thing he most desires: companionship. The only other living creature in the vicinity is a cockroach who follows WALL•E around like a pet dog, but he wants the kind of affection that he sees when he plays an old videotape of Hello, Dolly!. When he watches the two humans on screen holding hands, his sense of longing is palpable, and astonishingly moving.
The reason we are so touched by WALL•E's situation is because of the superbly detailed work that has gone into his characterisation. At first sight he is a just a rusty old robot who looks a bit like Short Circuit's Johnny Five, but I think he bears a closer resemblance to Spielberg's ET. With his enormously expressive eyes and cooing noises of curiosity, he explores his world with a childlike sense of wonder, taking great joy in the oddest discoveries (when he finds a diamond ring in a box, he chucks the contents away and plays with the box, like a kid at Christmas). It's a joy to watch him at work, but when the picture starts to explore the abject loneliness of his situation, it's almost too much to bear. There's a bleakness and a sense of melancholy about WALL•E that is extraordinary for a mainstream animated film, and Stanton strikes a vital balance between developing this sense of isolation while offering up sight gags and instances of physical comedy that ensure it doesn't get too dark.
Then, all of a sudden, WALL•E isn't alone anymore. A spaceship touches down, deposits a sleek-looking robot, and then leaves, while the white, bullet-shaped machine starts scanning the landscape. This is EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), sent to earth to ascertain whether it is inhabitable, and WALL•E is instantly smitten, although he finds it hard to get close to this new arrival at first due to her unfortunate habit of shooting anything that crosses her path. Could this, finally, be the companion WALL•E has been pining for? Someone to hold hands with at last? Their courtship is beautifully done, with WALL•E introducing EVE to the various treasures he has collected, and the pair learning to recite each other's names. "Eeee-va!" WALL•E screams when the ship that brought EVE into his life returns to spirit her away, and he desperately clings onto the rocket as it blasts into space.
So begins the distinct second part of WALL•E, and I must admit I didn't find it quite as enchanting as the first. In contrast to the vast emptiness of earth, with only WALL•E, EVE and a cockroach wandering about, life on the Axiom – the ship in which earth's population now resides – is hectic and cluttered. Humans, who have become immobile fat slobs after a life of inactivity and convenience, fly around on chairs that they never have to leave; their every whim is catered for by Buy n Large, and an army of small machines is always on hand to take care of the most menial tasks. It's a despairing look at humanity, and a fascinatingly cynical touch coming from a studio that has rarely been so explicit about its satirical or thematic concerns. WALL•E is a damning indictment of society's excessive, consumer-driven life of laziness, but it's to Stanton's credit that these ideas aren't handled in a heavy-handed fashion, they just exist as part of a story that never loses sight of its two main characters.
This second half of the picture is more conventionally entertaining than the first, though, and as the pace quickened I found myself missing the unusual atmosphere of the film's early scenes, and the delicacy of WALL•E and EVE's burgeoning relationship. There is one lovely moment in the later stages that sees the two companions embark on one of the most beautiful space flights since Kubrick's 2001, but I couldn't help feeling that all of the highlights in this picture has been front-loaded into the film's opening hour. I was deeply moved by the scenes in which WALL•E obsessively cares for EVE after she has shut herself down, it's like watching a mourning man tend to the corpse of his dead lover, and the rest of the film didn't have anything up its sleeve to match that impact.
Even if WALL•E gives itself too much to live up to with its incredible opening hour, the film has enough invention and skill to ensure it doesn't fall too far short of the mark. From the trash piles of earth to the star-filled beauty of space, the picture looks absolutely gorgeous (Roger Deakins acted as a cinematography consultant here), and the outstanding visuals are complemented both by Thomas Newman's score and the sound design by Ben Burtt that invests WALL•E and EVE with such charming personalities. By anyone's standards this is brilliant filmmaking, but what's really great about WALL•E is the way it pushes the envelope in terms of what animation can be; exploring complex ideas, finding new and daring ways to tell stories, trusting the intelligence of its audience, and reaching emotional depths that seem far beyond the grasp of the studio's competitors. Yes, Pixar hasn't changed a bit – here's hoping they never do.
**As a sidenote, WALL•E, like all Pixar features, is accompanied in cinemas by a short film. In this case it is Presto, a blissfully funny film in which a magician's act is destroyed by his uncooperative rabbit. It is absolutely wonderful; a madcap wordless tribute to the spirit of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, with each hilarious joke being immediately topped by the next. It made me laugh more in five minutes than most comedies have in the past five years, and it's the perfect curtain-raiser for WALL•E.