Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger
Rating: 5 stars (out of five)

Pixar’s Wall*E continues an amazing run of top-flight entertainment marred only by the execrable Cars, a misstep already made up for with last year’s charming Ratatouille. Wall*E does right exactly what Pixar always (minus one) does right.

What’s more interesting about this film is the two specific risks it takes as the Emeryville animators continue to push themselves and their audiences.

First, the usual victories: Wall*E gives us a tale of adventure starring a likable hero whose specific travails are matched to a more universal yearning—in this case, the desire to love and be loved. Without feeling as formulaic as modern Disney animation (“and you are the princess, and you will be the two little animals or candlesticks who will provide advice and comic relief”), Wall*E hits the notes we want hit. We love the hero, we sympathize with and relate to his struggle, we are fascinated by the inventive world in which he exists. The film does not pander to the youngest audience members with a parade of fart jokes, but there’s enough slapstick and delightfully simple comedy and drama to engage the kids who will swarm to see it. And in this case, the fact that from the beginning, the desire for love is represented as the innocent desire to hold hands is perfectly heartbreaking.

So, knowing that they can provide those pleasures and wrap them in amazing animation, how does writer-director Andrew Stanton keep it interesting? Not only do they open in an ugly environment (an abandoned, trash-strewn Earth) with nothing but a robot and a cockroach, they conduct the first twenty, maybe thirty minutes of the movie almost entirely free from dialogue. There’s a bit of incidental stuff in the background that helps explain the film’s status quo, but our junky-looking eponymous hero can’t say anything more than his own name, and neither can the love interest, a more advanced robot who looks like an iPod laid an egg. That requires a little more engagement from the audience, because the film feels slower without a layer of blather topping the visuals. Considering that a very high percentage of Pixar’s audience is going to be sugared-up preschoolers and kindergartners, I’m just glad I saw this at a midweek preview and not at a Saturday matinee. The experiment with near-silent storytelling entirely succeeds, by the way.

The second experiment is with a slap of aggressive social commentary. Wall*E has been left on Earth to clean up all the junk humanity has covered it with, and we see that the last icons of human civilization is a Wal-Mart-and-a-half mega-conglomerate brilliantly named “Buy ‘N’ Large.” If that seems like a safe, oblique environmentalist commentary, strap yourselves in: When Wall*E and his automated inamorata, Eve, get to her home on a distant starship, we see what has become of humanity, we see what the continuing force of Buy ‘N’ Large has wrought. Every single human left is a 300-pound slug riding a floating day bed, staring into a holographic video screen so intently, so constantly, that they have no idea of their actual environment, and they seem to consume all food from Big Gulp cups. Linking shallow big-corp consumerism to America’s surging obesity epidemic? Considering that a fair portion of the movie’s audience will be large people slurping from 32-ounce sodas, that’s a pretty daring commentary. At least in America.

It’ll go over huge in France. None of the trailers I’ve seen, nor the any of the 75 stills posted online at sites like Rotten Tomatoes, include the human characters, and only one image hints (much more happily) at the matter of consumerism, through a bunch of billboards a la Times Square.

Worth noting: The gag is that the Earth is covered with centuries of trash. Maybe you’ve seen the clip where curious Wall*E plays with one of those paddleballs, the paddle with the little ball on a string? Proof of general quality is that there are no cheap pop-culture gags like, say, Bratz dolls, Xboxes or Tickle Me Elmos. There is exactly one subtle Microsoft joke and one Apple gag, but they’re deeply backgrounded. The only other brand-name modern product is a generation old, and used for a specific character joke. The filmmakers had the wisdom to go for timeless over short-term giggles, just as they don’t cliche with an overly girly (or humanized at all) design for Eve.

It is great to see that Pixar has picked a couple envelopes to push against, because the last thing we’d want is to see the company become like Smuckers. Those guys make flavor after flavor of very tasty fruit jam, but at the end of the day, it’s all just sugary goo. Pixar is shooting for a more diverse and satisfying menu, and I cannot wait to see what they think up next.

Thank god for Cars. Since everything else they’ve done has been jaw-dropping brilliant, that one incredibly awful movie humanizes Pixar as a company, you know?