He is the Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class, or Wall-E for short, and he's the latest in a line of unconventional heroes - joining a cuisine-friendly rat, a self-absorbed race car, a furry monster and a neurotic clownfish - in Pixar Animation Studios' repertoire.
"Wall-E," Pixar's best movie since "The Incredibles," begins with a grim setting: the haze-covered remnants of Planet Earth in the 29th century. Humanity abandoned the planet 700 years before, leaving behind mountains of trash and a squadron of trash-compactor robots to tidy up. Our friend Wall-E is the last working robot, cannibalizing parts from his defunct brethren and keeping a collection of offbeat objects he has found - including a cherished VHS copy of "Hello, Dolly," from which he learns about romance, holding hands and dancing.
Everything changes when Wall-E meets Eve, a sleek egg-shaped robot whose elegance is a contrast to Wall-E's rough, boxy look. Eve is on a mission, and when she completes that mission, she's carried back into space. Wall-E comes along for the ride, which brings him to the S.S. Axiom, a spacegoing cruise ship where the now-obese human race has lived in overpampered comfort for centuries.
Director-writer Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") captures his characters' two worlds - Wall-E's garbage-choked Earth and Eve's high-tech Axiom - with images that are both awe-inspiring and realistic enough to touch. Even more realistic are Wall-E's mechanical moves, so authentic to robotic design that you could forget he's a computer-animation construction even when he attempts to tap-dance with a hat (OK, a hubcap) and cane.
A key to Wall-E's charm is his "voice," electronic clicks and beeps devised by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, the man who made R2-D2 talk. Burtt's ear for communicating Wall-E's optimism and determination turns this little yellow box with the binocular eyes into a living, breathing movie hero.
Just below the surface of Stanton's space adventure are a gentle environmental message and a humorous jab at corporate overconsumption, thanks to the world-dominating Buy 'n Large superstore chain (represented by a glad-handing CEO, played by a live-action Fred Willard). But "Wall-E" never feels preachy or pushy, instead letting the witty storytelling and expressive animation transport audiences to another world.
WHERE: Theaters everywhere.
WHEN: Opens Friday.
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes, plus a hilarious 5-minute short, "Presto."
BOTTOM LINE: A little robot propels this big-hearted movie, another charmer from Pixar.