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'Wall-E' (*** 1/2)

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Posted: Friday, July 4, 2008 10:00 pm

Pixar Animation Studios first hit their stride with 1999's "Toy Story 2" and have since released some of cinema's smartest and most endearing family fare, but the company has encountered a bit of a creative snag these past couple years. While perfectly entertaining, "Cars" and "Ratatouille" lacked that certain spark of genius that initially put Pixar on the map.

Thankfully, these passable but undeniably lower-tier works have been redeemed by "WALL-E," Pixar's most recent release that easily stands as their most ambitious effort to date. Watching it, one is once again overwhelmed by that tingle of discovery, that wonderful feeling that you're seeing something entirely new and ground-breaking. This is particularly delightful because, despite a huge budget and complex visual schemes, the film tells the simplest of stories in the most quaint, unassuming manner imaginable. "WALL-E" is technically sophisticated, but at heart it's charmingly old-fashioned.

"WALL-E" is an acronym for "Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth Class," a hard-working little robot who was left on Earth sometime in the 22nd century, after wasteful humans and their unending supply of garbage rendered the planet temporarily uninhabitable. The human population took a five-year space vacation while these robots cleaned up their mess, but, more than 700 years later, the humans are still in space and WALL-E is still alone on Earth, toiling away without an end in sight.

The first 30 minutes of the film are the most striking. Nearly dialogue-free, this segment runs so contrary to conventional filmmaking wisdom that it may be considered revolutionary, or at least experimental. We observe WALL-E during his daily routine: He "wakes up," stumbles outside to recharge his solar power source, rounds up his pet cockroach (his only companion), and spends the day compacting trash and arranging the blocks into huge skyscraper-sized piles.

He pauses occasionally to salvage odds and ends (a toaster here, a bra there) that he finds interesting, and these opening scenes immediately establish WALL-E as a hero that is both likable and sympathetic, and cute without ever coming across as cloying. His character is further deepened with the arrival of an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluation (EVE) life probe, whom WALL-E falls for and eventually teams up with in order to help the lazy and obese humans return to care for the now-inhabitable Earth.

It may sound like a message movie, but "WALL-E" is far more concerned with story and characters than with "green" environmental dogma. A heady mix of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" and Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odysse" (the auto pilot of the humans' ship is a dead ringer for HAL 9000), the film is careful in juggling its romantic and sci-fi elements, and never becomes too preachy or too silly.

In fact, "WALL-E" may be Pixar's most gentle, adult-oriented film yet, and the distinct lack of loud, crazy shenanigans may turn off some younger viewers who risk being bored by the experience. However, older audiences - and younger movie-goers who don't require a constant barrage of meaningless sensory input to be entertained - will be absolutely charmed by WALL-E's adventure.

"WALL-E" is rated G.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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