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WALL-E: Heartbeeps 

Romance among robots in latest Pixar treat

While most other animated outfits cast their toon flicks with whichever A-list actors they can snag -- never mind if they're the best choices for the roles -- the folks at Pixar earn universal respect for picking the best people for the jobs at hand, regardless of marquee value. In WALL-E, the dialogue of the title robot mostly consists of beeps and chirps and the occasional electronically altered word -- just hire Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell for one day's work, right? Well, except that even here, studio suits followed their own instincts instead of the bottom line. It thrilled me to no end to learn that they settled on Ben Burtt, a cinematic hero of mine for the past 31 years.

Burtt, after all, is the multi-Oscar-winning sound designer responsible for creating the creature effects heard in 1977's Star Wars (yes, including R2-D2). Burtt has since gone on to work on such titles as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and allowing him to play a leading role (as well as functioning in his usual capacity as sound designer) seems like a well-deserved exclamation point on a stellar career.

What's even more gratifying is that Burtt's shining moment is at the center of a worthy motion picture, a delightful film that so far earns the crown as this summer's best release. WALL-E is a treat for the young and old alike, although, more than any of Pixar's past releases, this one might end up endearing itself even more to adults than to the small fry. And it's not just because the grown-ups will enjoy the usual asides tossed their way (e.g. a witty musical reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey; Alien star Sigourney Weaver providing the voice of a ship's computer); more significantly, it's because the central plotline itself will speak to them in a way that it can't to humans who still don't possess all their permanent teeth. For ultimately WALL-E is about nothing less than one of the tenets of human existence: the need to find a partner with whom to share life's experiences.

Of course, the switch here is that it's a robot, not a human, who's in need of companionship. WALL-E is the last of his type, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class robot who rumbles around a deserted Earth collecting and compressing trash. All of the human inhabitants have long since abandoned the polluted planet to take up residence in a gargantuan spaceship (named Axiom) light years away, and what's left down here is a wasteland seemingly unable to sustain any form of life. (Yes, it's a pro-environment cartoon, and it's no accident that our planet's Public Enemy #1, George W. Bush, is referenced via a CEO urging others to "stay the course.")

For his part, WALL-E carries on his prime directive of cleaning up, yet even though he's made up of circuitry and metal parts, he's developed enough human-like traits to know what he likes. And what he likes is collecting interesting knickknacks (like a Rubik's cube, a spork, and lighters -- lots of lighters) and watching an old videocassette of Hello, Dolly! The musical teaches him about the concept of love (especially about romantic expression through hand-holding), so when a sleek robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is dropped off on the planet to search for signs that it might be inhabitable again, WALL-E pursues her like a dog in heat. Initially, EVE is all-business, but she eventually warms to his considerable charms, and once she's ferried back to Axiom, our intrepid little Romeo determines not to let her get away.

Film is a visual medium, and director Andrew Stanton and his team drive that point home with an opening half-hour in which there is practically no dialogue. It's hard to imagine anyone (including kids) getting bored by the sound of silence, since WALL-E's exploits never fail to amuse. Once the action shifts to the space station, other characters appear on the scene, thereby opening up the dialogue and furthermore allowing actor John Ratzenberger -- who's appeared in every single Pixar offering -- to make his obligatory vocal appearance (he plays a human passenger named John). I won't reveal any of the action that takes place on the Axiom, but rest assured that the movie retains its comic invention while adding slight degrees of action and menace. And who knew that romance between robots could be so affecting?

This charming film inspires only one complaint: Until EVE's arrival, WALL-E's only companion on Earth is a resilient cockroach. No matter how I tried to view him through the prism of cuddly cartoon characters (and parents, pray your kids don't start bringing them into the house!), I still couldn't see him as anything but a filthy little pest. I had no problem with Ratatouille turning rats into heroes, but apparently, I draw the line at roaches.

THE IDEA BEHIND Robert Frost's soul-stirring poem "The Road Not Taken" can be applied to Hancock, a summer sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path "less traveled by." Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected.

The premise is irresistible, a counterpoint to all the more serious-minded superhero flicks that have been invading multiplexes in recent years. Hancock (played by Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles (he can't stop a carload of crooks without demolishing bridges, buildings and vehicles along the way). L.A. residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn't care less until the day he meets -- and saves the life of -- public relations guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). The sensitive and progressive Ray decides that he's going to help Hancock overhaul his public image, transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of love and respect. Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron), however, thinks that it's a waste of time, and that Hancock will never be able to straighten himself out.

The first half of Hancock sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that's consistently funny and inventive -- even the typically heavy-handed direction by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) can't dilute the fun. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into (in no order) a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and (for good measure) a myth-building muddle that might remind some viewers of titles like Highlander or Kate & Leopold. No movie should survive such a shift -- at least one executed as clumsily as this one -- and yet the picture manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles. Audience members willing to hop aboard this emotional roller coaster ride will respond to the resultant pathos far better than viewers wondering why the laughs suddenly went MIA.

To see the trailers for WALL-E and Hancock, go to www.theclogblog.com.

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