WALL-E spreads the robot love

If you thought Nemo and Buzz Lightyear were cute, brace yourself for WALL-E, one of the most endearing characters, robotic or otherwise, ever to grace a movie screen.

With its newest CG-animated creation, Disney-Pixar has outdone itself. The fact that WALL-E, a robotic trash compactor left stranded on a future Earth, can communicate so much emotion without real facial features or even a speaking voice, is an impressive feat.

Much has been made of the risk the filmmakers took in producing a movie with almost dialogue-less main characters. But the lack of chatter felt refreshing and let the gorgeous visuals and emotive actions of its characters tell the story.

The action takes place in intricately appealing landscapes, including a dazzling trip through the galaxy. Even the bleak future Earth, almost devoid of life, is packed with visual details such as the Christmas lights and garden gnome in WALL-E's treasure trove of a truck.

When we first meet WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth Class), he is a forgotten robot left behind on an abandoned Earth. While humans have gone off to live in luxury on a floating cruise ship in space, WALL-E spends his days compacting trash back on the desolate planet as he was designed to do.

Over the years of collecting left-over human trinkets and watching a video of Hello, Dolly! on repeat, WALL-E comes to long for companionship beyond his squeaky sidekick — a cockroach.

When EVE, the Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, lands to scan Earth for signs of flora or fauna, it is love at first sight — for WALL-E, at least.

Thus begins a quest through space as WALL-E chases EVE back to the human's hideout — a giant ship where people are so pampered and lazy, they can't even walk and must be transported around on floating inner-tubes.

In this vision of a future, it takes a robot to remind humans of their humanity.

When WALL-E arrives at the human outpost, he meets the eclectic gaggle of robots keeping the ship in working order.

All the robots in the film retain their robot-ness — the animators never resort to sticking googly eyes or a grinning mouth on a machine to give it a personality. Nonetheless, each electronic critter brims with uniqueness, purpose, and emotion.

Jason Deamer, the film's character art director, recalled how the team figured out ways to communicate WALL-E's feelings.

"Andrew [Stanton, director/co-writer] came in one day with the inspiration for WALL-E's eyes," he said. "He had been to a baseball game and was using a pair of binoculars. He suddenly became aware that if he tilted them slightly, you got a very different look and feeling out of them. That became one of the key design elements for the main character."

For research, the filmmakers and animators went to robotics conferences and visited NASA scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To imagine what humans would look like after atrophying for hundreds of years in space, the team talked to NASA experts about the effects of zero gravity on the body.

The film includes many nods to science and science fiction. When WALL-E escapes Earth by hitchhiking on EVE's spaceship, he bumps into Sputnik and copious space debris on his way out.

Later scenes with the human spaceship's automatic pilot, named Auto, were reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a gesture of recognition to the 1979 film Alien, the producers cast Sigourney Weaver as the ship's computer.

The idea for WALL-E started with the question, "What if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off?" Stanton said. "I became fascinated with the loneliness that this situation evoked and the immediate empathy you had for this character... I was immediately hooked and seduced by the idea of a machine falling in love with another machine. And especially with the backdrop of a universe that has lost the understanding of the point of living."

Ultimately, the movie explores how loneliness and love are both universal.

When WALL-E flexes his scoop fingers and reaches out for EVE's hand, even Romeo and Juliet would be hard pressed to rival the romantic gesture.

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