Pixar's talking trash in ‘WALL-E'

Pixar has never had much use for human beings. They torture toys, imprison fish, frighten soft-hearted monsters, step on insects or fry them with magnifying glasses. Pixar's ideal world is populated entirely by shining, smiling, self-servicing automobiles.

But never before have the world's most influential animators been as bold and forthright about their dark vision for humanity as in “WALL-E,” a potent environmental message wrapped up in an irresistibly cute romance between robots. Other than a HAL-like computer with an unwinking red eye, the film has one collective villain: mankind, which has made Earth a trash dump and sailed off into space in happy ignorance of the consequences.

The film takes place in the 28th century, where the endearing title character packs mountains of New York City debris into stackable cubes. The only things that cheer him are a perky but wordless cockroach and his one relic of ancient civilization: a tape of the 1969 movie dud “Hello, Dolly,” featuring toothy Michael Crawford crooning “Put on Your Sunday Best.” (That's what he'll be remembered for? I'd have said “The Phantom of the Opera.”)

The B 'n' L Corporation (that's Buy 'n' Large), a global entity running Earth's economy, had turned our big blue marble into a big brown ball of dung 700 years earlier. Then it sent the remaining humans into space, waiting for a time when Earth might be habitable. Now it sends probes to the planet to check for plant life; one of them, sleek Eve, learns WALL-E has carefully preserved a seedling and returns to the mother ship, her new friend in tow. The ship's computer, however, overrides the captain's directive to return to Earth.

Nothing in the work of director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) or his co-writer, Jim Capobianco (“Ratatouille”), suggested so bleak a vision. Yes, there's a hopeful note at the end. The cuddly, anthropomorphic robots acquire personalities of their own, beeping and burbling and occasionally producing a recognizable word. The ceaselessly clever visual design contains the usual number of entertaining pop culture references. Yet the movie brings us to the brink of a filthy apocalypse before pulling us back one step.

The passengers on the mothership are obese, imbecilic drones who have food and drink handed to them all day, travel on air-propelled chairs and communicate via TV screens, even if the person they're talking to is nearby. (Cue “The Matrix.”) The captain can't even read the cover of an instruction manual and relies entirely on his red-lensed autopilot. When he finally fights it to the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – the “dawn of man” music from “2001” – he has to struggle up an incline in his white suit, looking like an immense diapered baby taking his first tentative steps.

For once, Pixar has hired no celebrity voices, except for Sigourney Weaver in her brief role as the ship's computer. Ben Burtt, who created R2D2's squeaks and other “Star Wars” sound effects, designed sound for “WALL-E” and “speaks” for its timid hero. Elissa Knight (who had a minor role in “Cars”) voices Eve, and comedian Jeff Garlin is the ship's captain.

The filmmakers don't want us to be distracted from the impact of the story and have been unusually true to life. I believe this is the first Pixar movie to be given an exact timeframe: The mothership set off into the galaxy in 2105, if I was reading a plaque right, so we have less than a century before we make the planet so disgusting that the only animal it can support is a cockroach. (His favorite post-apocalyptic snack, the Twinkie, has also survived. Now that's product placement.) The target audience for this film might not see such degradation if it doesn't change its ways, but the filmmakers suggest its children certainly will.

Before “WALL-E,” it was possible to distance ourselves from the mean-spirited or disgusting behavior of Pixar's human characters; we could chuckle at their ultimate humiliations or smile approvingly at their conversions to decency. In this case, only a miracle prevents mankind from tumbling into well-deserved oblivion. Laugh at that, if you dare.