In the new Pixar feature "Wall-E", the Little Tramp has become a robot. It is the future, but it is also the past, in that our mechanical hero is Charlie Chaplin incarna....uhhh, in-tron-ate? Whatever word you might want to coin, there is anthropomorphosis on a grand scale in this animation.
Contemporary animated features thrive on physical and visual comedy, seemingly much more on the physical side than their TV counterparts. The visual comedy seems about equal in the two media. Director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") certainly knows his physical comedy, and there is more than a touch of slapstick to this film. Most of it is gentle, reinforcing the Chaplin-esque feel. Of the great silent film comedians, only Chaplin made you laugh at the subtle things. Wall-E's great achievement is its ability to do the same, especially in this age of over-the-top Farrelly/Ferrell/Sandler 'smack you over the head with a cast-iron pan' comedy.
It's not just "ohh, isn't that cute" humor. It's extremely clever, well executed and timed, and very creative. The entire first part of the film is magical, a treat for the eyes and mind. Wall-E seems to be the only functioning robot left on Earth, his job to compact the mountains of trash that we littered the planet with. We are led to believe that the only reason he still works is that he has developed a personality, thanks apparently to repeated viewings of the film "Hello Dolly". A cute idea, which I think for me would have the opposite effect. After about the 5th time, I would become an automodon, monotonously incanting "Before the Parade passes by, passes by, passes by".
Once Wall-E ventures up to the space station/cruise ship where the humans are, the film slips a bit into more of what we are used to with contemporary animated features; bad guys (the Auto-Pilot), good guys (The Captain and Eve), and your typical high speed action/chase sequence.
There are some twists on the dystopian theme. People are well cared for and well fed, but basically Manatees, barely able to walk, totally sucked into an E-world that does not give them a chance to see their own reality. It feels possible, this future. In fact it sure seems like it's a lot closer than 700 years away.
There is one strange decision, however. All people are animated except for one live action character, the Bill Gates of the story, portrayed by Fred Willard in his usual hapless, clueless demeanor. Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Paula Abdul aside, I am not big on the mixture of live action and animated characters, with the obvious exception of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit". Most of the time it just points out the unreality of the animations, and ruins my ability to relate to them.
Watching Wall-E immediately brings 2 other films to mind, "Short Circuit" and "Star Wars". R2D2 and Johnny 5 are the obvious antecedents of our hero, but Wall-E does the anthropomorphis in such a touching and gentle way, that you can't help but feel how he feels, and you identify with him the way you would with the best of Chaplin's characters. That is quite an accomplishment.