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<i>WALL-E, Hancock</i>


The dialogue of the title robot mostly consists of beeps and chirps and the occasional electronically altered word -- just get Jim Carrey or Bruce Willis for one day’s work, right? Well, except that even here, Pixar suits followed their own instincts instead of the bottom line. It thrilled me to no end to learn that they settled on Ben Burtt, the multi-Oscar-winning sound designer responsible for creating the creature effects heard in 1977’s Star Wars (yes, including R2-D2). What’s even more gratifying is that Burtt’s shining moment is at the center of a worthy motion picture, a delightful film that so far earns the crown as this summer’s best release. WALL-E is a treat for the young and old alike, although, more than any of Pixar’s past releases, this one might end up endearing itself even more to adults than to the small fry. Ultimately WALL-E is about nothing less than one of the tenets of human existence: the need to find a partner with whom to share life’s experiences. Of course, the switch here is that it’s a robot, not a human, who’s in need of companionship. WALL-E is the last of his type, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class robot who rumbles around a deserted Earth collecting and compressing trash. All of the human inhabitants has long since abandoned the polluted planet to take up residence in a gargantuan spaceship (named Axiom) light years away, and what’s left down here is a wasteland seemingly unable to sustain any form of life. For his part, WALL-E carries on his prime directive of cleaning up, yet he’s developed enough human-like traits to know what he likes. And what he likes is collecting interesting knickknacks (like a Rubik’s cube, a spork and lighters -- lots of lighters) and watching an old videocassette of Hello, Dolly! The musical teaches him about the concept of love, so when a sleek robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is dropped off on the planet to search for signs that it might be inhabitable again, WALL-E pursues her. Initially, EVE is all-business, but she eventually warms to his considerable charms, and once she’s ferried back to Axiom, our intrepid little Romeo determines not to let her get away. I won’t reveal any of the action that takes place on the Axiom, but rest assured that the movie retains its comic invention while adding slight degrees of action and menace. And who knew that romance between robots could be so affecting?


The idea behind Robert Frost’s soul-stirring poem “The Road Not Taken” can be applied to Hancock, a summer sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path “less traveled by.” Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected. The premise is irresistible, a counterpoint to all the more serious-minded superhero flicks that have been invading multiplexes in recent years. Hancock (played by Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles). The residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn’t care less until the day he meets -- and saves the life of -- public relations guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). The sensitive and progressive Ray decides that he’s going to help Hancock overhaul his public image, transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of love and respect. Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), however, thinks that it’s a waste of time, and that Hancock will never be able to straighten himself out. The first half sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that’s consistently funny and inventive. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and a myth-building muddle that might remind some viewers of titles like Highlander or Kate & Leopold. No movie should survive such a shift -- at least one that executes it as clumsily as this one -- and yet the picture manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles.