'WALL-E': Heavenly Creatures, By Kurt Loder

An animated masterpiece so real it is real.

Pixar pictures are becoming awfully same-y, don't you think? The perfectly formed stories; the irresistible characters, brimming with personality; the animation so fiendishly detailed, you want to reach into the frame and pick things up and hold them in your hands? Will this tedium never cease?

Let's hope not. Pixar's latest animated feature, "WALL-E," is one of the studio's best — which is really saying something, I know, but there it is. The story is set on a future Earth that's been trashed and abandoned by its human inhabitants, who took off on an extended space cruise 700 years ago, sending back occasional rocket-ship probes to gauge whether their rusty, dusty home orb has sufficiently recovered from ecological ruin to sustain repopulation. So far, the reports have been negative.

Before splitting, the Earthlings deployed a legion of small, self-contained trash-compacters: a species of cleanup machine called Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class. Now, the last remaining WALL-E labors alone, zipping around among the towering piles of detritus, striving mightily to tidy up. From time to time, it — well, he — comes across little treasures that catch his goggly eyes: a Rubik's Cube, a wad of bubble wrap, a string of Christmas lights. These he hauls back to his home in a big mobile Dumpster, where he wiles away the nights snacking on imperishable Twinkies; happily bleeping at his only companion, a cockroach; rerunning an old VHS tape of "Hello, Dolly!" and pining for ... something. Romance?

This is not long in arriving. When the faraway humans' latest probe ship arrives, it disgorges a gleaming white pod called an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator. EVE, as she shall of course be called, is standoffish at first, preoccupied with flitting about in search of the greenery that would constitute an all-clear for the Earthlings' return. Soon, however, her big blue TV eyes are contemplating the adoring WALL-E in a more affectionate light; and after he presents her with a small, leafy plant he's discovered and has been nurturing in a cast-off boot, he, she and it are soon hyper-driving their way back to the humans' mothership. The Axiom, as this vessel is called, is an outer-space version of the floating resorts that cruise aimlessly about the Caribbean: All wants are fulfilled, and the sated passengers — lolling in low gravity and plied with endless junk food (Cupcake in a Cup!) — have swollen into something like post-human manatees, borne about the ship in hovering lounge chairs. Can EVE and WALL-E rouse them from this luxurious squalor and lead them back to the home planet they know only dimly? Let's leave that question to answer itself.

The picture is truly brilliant on several levels. The first half is virtually wordless, and it has the spare, kinetic beauty of silent movies, tapping into pre-verbal pleasure centers we've half-forgotten we have. The characters' anthropomorphic qualities never lapse into simple-minded cuteness, but remain rooted in their mechanical nature. To watch WALL-E rubbing his clamps together in clinking concern is to be charmed beyond all resistance; and his marveling response to the vast, junk-free reaches of outer space makes your heart swell in sympathetic wonder. Pixar has once again burst the boundaries of the animation ghetto, creating a world so intricately worked-out, so ravishing, that we don't feel we're just watching it — we're visiting. And at the end, in that rarest of responses, we don't want to leave.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "My Winnipeg" and "Wanted," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "WALL-E."

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