By Brad Cook | November 18, 2008

You have to give Pixar credit for consistently refusing to play by the rules. While other film studios spend their enormous animation budgets on safe subjects — such as talking animals, more talking animals, and flies in space — Lasseter and company aren’t afraid to try something new each time they find themselves staring at a blank slate. Last time, they went with a rat who loves to cook; this time, they opened with a first act starring a robot who doesn’t speak.

In case you vacationed on a desert island this summer, here’s the lowdown: WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class) is the last robot still cleaning up the Earth, which becomes so choked with our junk hundreds of years from now that we have to leave — with the help of the Buy ‘n’ Large Corporation, who, of course, made sure we got into the mess in the first place. While humanity has all its needs taken care of in deep space, the robots who were left behind start compacting all the trash into neat cubes that they stack so high that soon the piles become skyscrapers. Eventually, though, all the robots break down but one.

WALL•E, like R2-D2 and other trailblazing robots before him, stubbornly sticks to his mission, and the film spends the first 10 minutes simply showing us who he is and what he does every day. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, the sequence could be the equivalent of watching paint dry, but under the direction of Andrew Stanton, it’s the wonderful setup of a child-like character. The plot quickly kicks into second gear, however, when WALL•E finds a plant and a sleek robot named EVE arrives to scan the environment. WALL•E falls in love with EVE, despite her disinterest in doing anything but carrying out her mission. Thus WALL•E abandons his prime directive to pursue EVE, who in the course of the story must also learn that there’s more to life than just her prime directive.

Other than the robots’ attempts to say each other’s names, the film continues sans dialogue as WALL•E tries to court EVE. When she finds the plant, however, her programming kicks in, and she shuts down to wait for a ship to pick her up. WALL•E’s steadfast refusal to leave her side is poignant, and we’re not surprised when he hitches a ride on the side of her ship. Soon we learn that humans have essentially become children themselves, after several hundred years of allowing robots to take care of them. The pace of the story accelerates as something tries to thwart EVE’s attempt to fulfill her mission, and she and WALL•E have many adventures as they try to complete the simple task of getting the plant to its rightful place so that the humans’ spaceship, the Axiom, will return to Earth.

I’ve read some complaints that the film loses its way aboard the Axiom, as the narrative shifts some of the focus to the captain, but I didn’t have a problem with those scenes. We need to sympathize with the humans’ plight, as personified by the captain, so that we can understand why it’s so important for WALL•E and EVE to succeed; otherwise, they’re just robots doing a job whose importance neither of them understands. My problem with that part of the film concerns the antagonist, who is weak. Villains are at their best when they’re carrying out plans that make sense from their point of view, as opposed to simply following orders, like this one does. However, the antagonist isn’t so weak that he completely derails the second and third acts; I just wish he was more devious and conniving.

This three-disc Special Edition includes a platter with a digital copy of the film, so you can import it into iTunes and watch it on your iPhone or iPod. (Shhhhh: Hollywood realizes you don’t want to buy a movie again just to watch it on a portable device, but they also don’t want you to know about Handbrake.) On disc one, we have an audio commentary with Stanton; he does a nice job of giving us the big picture view, choosing to talk more about the film’s development and his philosophies toward storytelling, rather than focusing on what’s on the screen at any given moment.

Disc one also includes a pair of Easter eggs that aren’t hard to find (my trick is to put the DVD in a computer and mouse around the menu screens, looking for things that highlight when I pass over them), the theatrical short “Presto,” a new short, “BURN•E,” based on a scene in the film, a pair of deleted scenes that were nearly finished (a rarity in animation, where cut footage usually consists of moving storyboards), and a featurette about the movie’s sound design, which includes quite a bit of input from the legendary Ben Burtt.

Over on disc two, the centerpiece is “The Pixar Story,” a comprehensive 90-minute documentary about the history of the company, which I reviewed earlier this year. It’s a must-watch for all Pixar fans. A series of six featurettes, totaling nearly another hour, covers various aspects of the movie’s development, including its look, the musical score, the intensive process that goes into each shot, and more. We also have two deleted scenes from an earlier version of the story — they’re shown as moving storyboards — as well as five amusing shorts that reveal more about the B ‘n’ L Corporation.

Disc two also features an area aimed at kids, with five minutes of WALL•E and friends doing funny stuff, information files about the robots, and a storybook.

If you’re curious what Pixar is up to next, disc one includes a teaser for “Up,” a movie that looks like it will also break the animation mold.

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