The late, great Stanley Kubrick ("2001: A Space Odyssey") used to say that if you can turn off the sound and still follow the story, you've made a film, but if you black out the picture and can still follow the story with only the sound, you haven't.
"WALL-E," a savvy sci-fi Pixar comedy, has almost no dialogue. But with images and sound effects alone, it touches, it teaches and it tickles. It's the best Pixar film since "Finding Nemo."
If "Kung Fu Panda," which riffed on martial-arts movie conventions, was clever, "WALL-E," which absorbs, recycles and reinvents elements of "2001," "Silent Running," "Star Wars" and other sci-fi, is genius.
Some 700 years in the future, Earth is a vast wasteland. Literally. Garbage clogs the ruined streets of ruined cities, from the sewers all the way into orbit (space junk). Humans have so trashed the joint that they've abandoned the planet for a gigantic spaceship, leaving robots behind to clean up the mess.
And the last one working on this project is WALL-E, a cute little Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class. He's a trash compactor with eyes, gears, a fading finish and a job, a "directive." He compacts the trash cubes that he then stacks into vast obelisks of junk.
WALL-E has a pet roach (roaches will survive the apocalypse) and a curiosity about the people who left all these Frisbees, toasters, VHS tapes, cigarette lighters (and Luxo Pixar lamps) behind. And WALL-E is lonely.
Then a spaceship drops a probe robot, a sleek, white, floating dynamo (it's meant to look like an Apple product) with a ray gun and a temper. She's called EVE, and her "directive" is finding signs of life. WALL-E, who whiles away his off-hours watching songs and dance numbers from "Hello, Dolly!" on tape, is in love.
Events conspire to hurl them back to EVE's mother ship, where WALL-E is treated to the future of the human race. We're all clueless, zoned-out sedentary fatties, hooked on video and cell phones, sipping super-sized drinks, "consuming" whatever the mega-corp BNL ("Buy N Large") view-screens tell us to buy, floating around in our we're-too-fat-to-walk carts. It's a vision of Wal-Mart Nation run amok.
WALL-E must accidentally shake the humans out of their complacency, out of their fat-carts, back into our humanity. That's sort of the mission of the movie, too.
When you limit the dialogue (Jeff Garlin voices the ship's captain, Sigourney Weaver is the voice of the ship, "Star Wars" sound designer Ben Burtt does the robot electronic chatter), you're forced to tell your story with images, to land your laughs with sight gags, to find your pathos in a look, metallic interpretations of love, longing and grief.
Director Andrew Stanton, who made the more verbal but equally heartfelt "Finding Nemo," coordinates a flurry of funny bits that has WALL-E reacting to fire extinguishers, brassieres and car alarms, but making friends wherever he goes. And Stanton finds the poignancy in a "thing" that cares more about our world than we do.
There's a running gag — ancient video of the "President" (Fred Willard) reassures people that things are fine and that we should "stay the course." The big message, "forget that, we need to clean up our mess," won't be lost on even the youngest "WALL-E" viewers.
The idea that an ancient Hollywood musical, with its love duets and foot-tapping dance numbers, would be the thing that awakens emotions in both humans and robots, is pure genius. But so is almost everything about this fanciful, visually stunning Pixar parable.
With "WALL-E," the "Toy Story" studio ditches the chatty rat in a chef's hat and talking cars and gets back to its own prime directive — visually oriented kid-friendly cartoons with heart.
"WALL-E" is preceded by "Presto," a mildly amusing, similarly dialogue-free sight-gag driven short about a hungry bunny and the magician who refuses to feed him at his own peril.