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A little robot with a big heart
WALL-E is a trash-compactor robot who has been left on Earth to clean up our mess, hundreds of years in the future.

WALL-E is a lonely, precocious little robot with a big job.

Some 700 years ago, Earth was abandoned by humans when it became uninhabitable. Everyone boarded a spaceship and took off, leaving behind WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class) to clean up.

The movie begins with post-apocalyptic views of Earth cities in ruins: highways crumbling, buildings sagging and pile upon pile of garbage and rubble. This is how the animators picture Earth if all of our consumerism and mismanagement of natural resources run rampant.

What's that you say? This doesn't sound like an uplifting kids' movie?

The genius of "WALL-E" is that Andrew Stanton and his team at Pixar take a scenario that could have been the biggest animated downer in history and make an optimistic, endearing film for the whole family.

WALL-E spends his days gathering, compacting and stacking garbage. At night, he dotes on the objects he collects for himself and watches the same sappy scene from "Hello, Dolly" over and over. His only friend is a cockroach. WALL-E may be a robot, but he is a very human-like dreamer with an unquenchable curiosity. I just dare you not to love him.

WALL-E's world is shaken up when a spaceship drops off a sleek, laser-wielding robot named "EVE." The hopelessly romantic WALL-E is immediately smitten, and when the ship later returns and snatches up EVE, WALL-E goes along for the ride to protect her.

Once WALL-E enters the ship, we begin to learn more about what happened to Earth and the humans, and WALL-E's efforts to rescue EVE take on epic proportions.

Perhaps the most daring aspect of the movie is that it uses very little dialogue. In fact, other than the few words exchanged by WALL-E and EVE, there is virtually no dialogue until we enter the ship almost halfway into the film. This style is totally unique in the world of animated feature films, and it works brilliantly. The pace is crisp and the visual jokes keep us humming right along. It never drags, not even for a moment.

The many references to other robot and sci-fi films are clever and hilarious. WALL-E looks like a cross between Number Five from "Short Circuit" and the robot Wallace and Gromit meet in "A Grand Day Out." The computer that controls the humans' spaceship borrows its eye from HAL from "2001" and its voice from "Alien" heroin Sigourney Weaver.

The movie's message does get a little cumbersome at times (wait until you see what the humans look like after 700 years of "luxury" living), but in the end "WALL-E" avoids the sermonic tone that ruined "Happy Feet." We leave with a renewed appreciation for the natural world and feel an urge not only to take better care of it, but to get outside and enjoy it.

The short film that warms us up for "WALL-E" is a tour de force of physical comedy called "Presto," about a battle between a magician and his bunny sidekick. It might be the funniest short Pixar has ever made-and that's saying something.

"WALL-E" is the best film - animated or live action - thus far in 2008, and it renews the argument over which is the best Pixar movie. Since that studio has already produced a few of the top animated films of all time, we can safely call WALL-E an instant classic.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.