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Pixar gambles on little robot in love

He is rusty, lipless, subliterate and keeps company with garbage. Worse, he's a “Hello, Dolly!” fan. This little robot, who goes by the name Wall-E — for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class – is also the newest face of Pixar.

Last year's offering, “Ratatouille,” about a cartoon rat with Cordon Bleu aspirations, seemed like a hard sell. But Pixar may have outdone itself in the weird-premises department with “Wall-E,” a $180 million near-silent robot love story inspired by Charlie Chaplin.

Andrew Stanton, who wrote and directed the film, doesn't care if the kiddies want to hug Wall-E or not. “I never think about the audience,” he said. “If someone gives me a marketing report, I throw it away.”

Stanton, 42, sat in a Toronto hotel room this month, shaggy-haired and bearded, bouncing in his chair. He seemed to embody Pixar's anti-corporate ways. Employees at the Pixar “campus” in Emeryville, Calif., ride scooters and play foosball. “It's like a film school with no teachers,” Stanton said.

Stanton joined Pixar in 1990 as its second animator. He first conceived of the robot character in 1994, drawing on a napkin over lunch.

“Wall-E” took a back seat to another project, a film Stanton wrote and directed about a fish father looking for his son: “Finding Nemo” (2003). It went on to earn $865 million worldwide. The day after the 2004 Academy Awards, in which Stanton won the Oscar for best animated feature, he went to work on “Wall-E.”

A touch of classic sci-fi

The film, more somber and less sassy than some Pixar fare, is set in 2700 on an uninhabitable Earth covered in towers of garbage. Stanton drew on films from science fiction's golden age: “1968 to '81,” he said.

Software imitated the film – mostly Panavision 70 millimeter. Casting Sigourney Weaver in one of a handful of speaking parts is a nod to “Alien.”

Wall-E, a generic robo-janitor, contentedly compacts trash into perfect cubes, until he's shaken up by the appearance of an egg-shaped search robot named Eve. This piano-key-smooth egg-bot has dropped from the sky, seeking a sign of life on Earth. Wall-E, who knows about love from a video of “Hello, Dolly!,” falls hard.

“Why can't you have a love story that just completely sweeps you up?” Stanton asks. “It happens in other movies, why not animation?”

In “Wall-E,” a mega-corporation called Buy n' Large has transported Earth's populace to luxury space ships, where the obese human race moves around in robotic loungers, drinking super-size soft drinks, placated by television and robot servants. Environmental disaster; corporate takeover; a global psychological coma: “Wall-E” starts to seem like “An Inconvenient Cartoon.” Yet Stanton dismisses talk of an allegory.

“I was writing this thing so long ago, how could I have known what's going on now?” he said. “I just went with things that I felt were logical for a possible future and supported the point of my story, which was the premise that irrational love defeats life's programming.”

Speaking a robot language

But unlike “Finding Nemo,” with its chatterbox characters, “Wall-E” feels almost like a silent film. The first 25 to 30 minutes introduce Wall-E as a Buster Keaton-meets-E.T. figure, comically rocking and shuffling.

Stanton found the key to the robot's sweet appearance at a baseball game. While he played with binoculars, Wall-E sprang into his head: binoculars on a box with treads.

Stanton enlisted the man who created the grammar of the “Star Wars” robot R2D2, sound designer Ben Burtt. Stanton wrote a conventional script – “Hi, I'm Wall-E” – and Burtt essentially translated the dialogue into robot.

Whether or not viewers give in to “Wall-E” is a billion-dollar question. “The box office from Pixar films hasn't been growing since ‘Finding Nemo,'” Price said, speaking of the domestic box office.

“Certainly ‘Cars' and ‘Ratatouille' were not as strong as the predecessor films.”

Of course there's always money to be made in merchandising. The “Wall-E” robots, sheets and Crocs may turn a profit, but the alpha success still has to be the film about a mute robot.

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