Ever since Toy Story showed the artistic—and, more attractively in Hollywood, financial—potential of CGI animated films, studios have rushed to follow, crowding theaters with CGI kids' romps that generally come packed with celebrity voices and commercial calculation. Meanwhile, Pixar—the studio behind the Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and more smash hits—has continued breaking molds, and stayed ahead of the pack largely by focusing on story and taking risks. The latest stretch comes in the form of Andrew Stanton's audaciously non-commercial WALL-E, an animated feature that adds in live-action footage, leans thematically on scenes and songs from a 1969 musical flop, and largely eschews English dialogue for half its runtime. It's Pixar's most daring experiment to date, but it still fits neatly into the studio's pantheon: Made with as much focus on heart as on visual quality, it's a sheer joy.
Opening on a trash-covered, desolate Earth, the film follows the titular boxy little robot (the name stands for "waste allocation load lifter—Earth model"), which has been compacting refuse for 700 years, developing a chipper personality and a seemingly satisfying 9-to-5 routine in the process. By day, WALL-E socializes with a friendly cockroach, sifts through garbage for interesting collectables, then packs and stacks rejected junk into monumental towers of neatly pressed cubes. At night, he retreats to a snug hideaway and moons over a battered videotape of lovers holding hands in Hello, Dolly! (A song from the movie, "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," opens WALL-E, setting its cheery, optimistic tone.) Eventually, WALL-E gets shaken out of his longtime pattern when a spaceship arrives to deposit a sleek white robot that simultaneously threatens his way of life and offers an end to his clearly telegraphed loneliness.
WALL-E is low on plot but high on incident, paced out with standalone gags, sweet character development, and a series of comedic reveals, covering what happened to Earth and humanity. (A familiar consumerist attitude and a megastore called Buy 'N' Large figure prominently into the environmental apocalypse.) Stanton, who's served as a writer, co-director, producer, or voice talent on most Pixar projects, has been able to watch his scrappy studio rack up one box-office success after another, giving him the freedom to take risks like a lovely robot space ballet completely unconcerned with ADD-addled attention spans. His audaciousness pays off in a funny, gorgeous, touching film unlike anything else in theaters—at least until it pays off and other studios follow suit. By then, expect Pixar to be heading in a new direction.