Once in a great while, the cinema is graced with the works of a pure poet, for whom filmmaking is less about storytelling than about conjuring the most breathtaking visuals and surreal environments that they can muster (Jean Cocteau is the standard example.) More often, however, discerning movie-goers are left to hunt for sparse parcels of poetry in more traditional "commercial" cinema offerings. Of this, Pixar studios is perhaps the reigning champion. The majority of their nine feature films (from Toy Story up to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles) all feature beautiful landscapes, artful storylines, and at least one supremely sad sequence. Pixar may have hit critical mass in this trend, however, as it's hard to imagine how a G-rated film could incorporate any more heartbreak, foreboding and despair than WALL-E does and still somehow remain fun. But WALL-E is fun.

And that's not all it is. The film has broken new ground for Pixar (and for family films) in several ways perhaps never to be breached again. Consider the elements. Our hero, WALL-E, is a robot. Right off the bat, Pixar has denied the kiddies something soft and cuddly, the plush doll they can ask for for Christmas. No, WALL-E was not commissioned to be a Happy Meal toy. Cute as he is, there's no snuggling up to this dingy, dented little dude. Call that Strike One. The film opens on a desolate landscape, barren and dry, with mustard-discolored soil whipping up and swirling around in the wind. Not a word is spoken. WALL-E enters alone, spins, shrieks, beeps, jumps, and so on, but he doesn't speak. Thus, there's no words for the kiddies to listen to. No catch phrases, no "To Infinity, and Beyond!" Strike two. Then, the story follows WALL-E as he is unwittingly caught up in the battle over (*gasp*) ..a plant. Who cares about a stupid plant!? That's gonna save the world? Strike three. And just like that, the kiddies, I suspect, are back to their Wiis and their text messaging. But not so fast, mom and dad. Don't pop that Blu-ray disc just yet. Even if the kids don't get it, sit back and let it spin. It's really quite good. Romantic, too. And very beautiful.

So what is WALL-E, anyway? Actually, you'd better ask 'who,' as Pixar endows WALL-E with the full spectrum of human emotions; fear, longing, a sense of pride in his work, etc. Take equal parts Johnny Five, R2D2, and E.T., and you'll have a pretty good idea of his demeanor. He's been outfitted with a quaint little cargo hanger for a house, filled with shelves of bric-a-brac he collects with wonder from the heaps of rubble just outside. He's even somehow found a working VCR (!) and a tape of "Hello, Dolly," which sends him into little robot fits of forlorn longing as he sings along and blips around the room. He's the last left of his kind, and apart from his cockroach buddy (ha ha), his is a lonely life. Until, at last, a ship lands, depositing EVE, a robot on a mission. EVE falls for the sheepish little WALL-E, of course (I will not attempt to detail their courtship, as it is best experienced with rapt wonder and disbelief). And after that pesky little plant arrives on the scene, WALL-E gets caught up chasing EVE through space and onto the Axiom, the massive space cruiseship which now harbors the former human inhabitants of planet earth.

WALL-E is absolutely dripping with barely-buried eco-socio-political commentary. It's not overbearing, but it's kind-of unrelenting. The Axiom is a full-out attack on the lazy consumerism of America, and it's a bulls eye. Basically, if Costco built a flying shopping mall/cruise ship and launched it into space, it would be the Axiom. It's passengers all float around on hoverchairs, complaining about the food, fat, lazy and unquestioning. Just the way they like 'em. Indeed, the act of depicting a story where robots, not humans, are the heroes, exhibiting emotions, saving the day, shows a remarkable dissatisfaction and separation from the human race as a whole. WALL-E never really comes right out and states it, but the implication is clear as day; this is the world that could exist if all these experts predicting grave consequences for the future of Earth are correct. This, children, is what could happen. It's almost become fashionable to include (or base a film on) grave prophesizing about the pitfalls of man, but no film has yet put it in terms such as these, and no film has targeted this message to those who will need to hear it most: future generations.

Progressive and forward-thinking as the film is, it does shy away from a few punches it could have landed. I wondered at first if Pixar might have the balls to leave gender out of the equation in the romance of WALL-E and his paramour, Eve. Alas, his maleness and her femininity are made very clear. It's a slight shame that they didn't, as I can't think of a better way for Disney to make it's first tiny step into acknowledging non-hetero relationships without having to really own up to it (robots ARE genderless, are they not??) Even so, in the end it's hard to argue, as the play of the two robots is irresistible, even downright romantic.

WALL-E is as memorable as Toy Story, as thrilling as The Incredibles, and somehow even more beautiful than Finding Nemo ( it cost nearly twice as much.) Got a Blu-ray player and a nice big TV? Buy it. It's beauty is simply unparalleled. This is perhaps the first film that even die-hard fans of old school hand drawn animation cannot deny to be absolutely stunning, a work of art the equal of anything in the Disney canon. It is, however, somewhat less fun and certainly more cerebral than it's older siblings, and perhaps less attractive for the little ones. Though I feel certain that any thoughtful, attentive young movie watcher will find themselves just as glued to the screen as I was.

The films of the Pixar studios exhibit a wonderful old-fashionedness found almost nowhere else in current family entertainment. This is most likely a credit to John Lasseter and his cabal of talent, who possess a childlike sense of wonder which seems totally out of step with today's fast-paced youth culture. It's as if they cradled the spirit of classic Disney, carefully and lovingly extracted it from that studio, took hold of it and raised it up once again as their own. Today, Pixar IS Disney. The torch has been passed, and Disney proper has become something else.

Pinning down exactly what makes WALL-E the best Pixar film yet (and perhaps the best movie of the year) is nearly impossible. To say that it is a combination of irresistible charm, tender budding emotion and effective commentary is to barely scratch the surface. WALL-E screams and demands to be experienced. It took a huge leap of faith to make this film, as seemingly unpalatable and uncommercial as it is. And its bigger ideas will not be lost on many. What does it say about us as a society, that we are able to produce great art such as this about our impending demise, yet still somehow seem unable to prevent it? While every Pixar movie succeeds in being some degree of wonderful, WALL-E is perhaps first that can be called not only essential, but also truly important.

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