Dir. Andrew Stanton
(G) ★ ★ ★ ★

WALL-E is a singular achievement in filmmaking, animated or otherwise, and the film to beat as the best of the year. It references 2001: A Space Odyssey and the works of Charlie Chaplin and is worthy of those references. It opened my imagination like Dark City, A.I., and the Lord of the Rings films. It contains ideas expressed with images of stunning eloquence. I was overjoyed by this film. It’s a masterpiece.

The director and co-writer is Andrew Stanton, best known for his previous film, Finding Nemo. This is a hell of a followup. He’s downright brave to borrow from silent film for a kid’s movie, where his target audience will be oblivious to his allusions. His main character has no dialogue at all, except his name (WALL-E, which stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-Class”) and the name of his love interest EVE. But how expressive he is! With large, sad eyes and a mechanized body — fingers, arms, wheel treads — that quivers with anticipation and wonder. There is a shot of WALL-E with EVE, and his eyes reflect the flame of a pocket lighter; it’s one of the most romantic shots in memory.

WALL-E was built by the Buy-N-Large corporation, which suggests Wal-Mart run amok. Buy-N-Large controls every aspect of life, including government, and now that the human race has abandoned Earth, WALL-E is left to do just what he has been programmed to do: allocate waste. There is virtually no dialogue in the first act, so most of the exposition is accomplished visually. WALL-E compacts garbage into cubes, and we are shown vast skyscrapers he has created out of them; concisely and beautifully, these shots tell us all we need to know about how mass consumption has overwhelmed the planet.

EVE is a probe designed to locate vegetation; if Earth can once again sustain plant life, it will be time for the human race to return. Lonely WALL-E forms a connection to EVE and follows her back to the Axiom, a cruise ship of sorts that is celebrating the 700th anniversary of its five-year voyage. There, we see what has become of the human race: they are fat and virtually formless, floating around in fully automated chairs that do everything from brush their teeth to change their clothes. We don’t need to be told how this lazy, sedentary species is connected to the wasteland Earth; Stanton’s images speak for themselves.

The social commentary is apparent. I am reminded of how very recently I criticized Happy Feet for its failure in approaching the same theme: conservation. I stand by those criticisms, now more than ever, because the poetry of WALL-E’s scenes is a direct rebuttal to the amateurish preaching of Happy Feet’s hapless penguins. Stanton doesn’t preach. He doesn’t set his titular robot on a mission to save the environment or redeem the human race. Rather, Stanton vividly shows us the world, and his images express his ideas with such clarity that we don’t need them explained for us, and with such beauty that we are emotionally enthralled by them. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; any one frame of WALL-E is worth a thousand of Happy Feet.

The film’s best moments are among its simplest. Note the expression of a woman whose communication device is inadvertently damaged by WALL-E. Taking in her surroundings for perhaps the first time, she experiences wonder. A similar scene comes later, when a man and woman touch hands. The look they share is more than just two people meeting — it’s a look of discovery. Momentarily freed from their automated machines, they rediscover what it is like to connect with another person and with the world around them. These moments are brief, but overflowing with wisdom.

I could go on and on, listing scene after wondrous scene, but I can hardly do them justice. They need to be seen to be believed.