The golden age of animation

Pixar makes yet another great leap forward with its latest release

<strong>WALL·E (U)</strong>

Our great-grandchildren will be so envious of us. "What was it like to live in the golden age of Pixar?" they will ask, as they huddle around the iFire on a freezing summer's night, after paddling home from school on an ice floe and downloading that evening's viewing directly into their frontal lobes.

WALL·E is the computer animation studio's latest work of genius. Yes, another one. Boring, isn't it? This film is a love story between two robots. If that précis came from anywhere else, you would run for cover. But remember, these are the whizz-kids who started out in 1986 with the two-minute Luxo, Jr, starring a pair of charismatic anglepoise lamps. Nothing fazes them.

Much of the joy here comes from the aesthetic clash between the metallic sweethearts. The grubby, custard-yellow worker droid WALL·E, who peers quizzically out at the desolate world through binocular eyes, spends his days compacting into spindly towers the waste that has made the earth uninhabitable. Colonies of overweight, romper-suited humans have fled to the Axiom, a vast cruise-ship hovering miles above the planet, where they laze around in automated hover-chairs and slurp food from cups while their offspring are tutored by the sinister Buy N Large corporation.

The planet is WALL·E's playground now. He scoops up bellyfuls of rubbish, creaming off any knick-knacks that take his fancy - cutlery, light bulbs, bubble-wrap, a fetching little box (but not the diamond ring inside it). It is these keepsakes that he parades to impress EVE, a sleek probe who glides around searching for the merest wisp of vegetation to enable the return of human life.

EVE, whose head floats serenely an inch or two above her body, resembles a cross between a hand-held fan and a ceramic bullet. The couple communicate through semi-vocalised beeps that manage to sound more expressive than most orthodox dialogue. I don't think it's churlish to say that the film loses some of its unique mystery when WALL·E follows EVE back to the Axiom, where human characters converse in drably familiar American English.

Each new Pixar film is duty-bound to make some technological leap, aside from the sophisticated storytelling and coruscating wit that cinema audiences, ungrateful pigs that we are, have come to take for granted. In WALL·E, it comes in the visualisation of two contrasting but intricately detailed worlds - the charred, photorealistic junk pile that is Planet Earth of the future, and the Axiom, with its antiseptic surfaces and multiple, yapping video screens. A Pixar film is a keeper, built not just to survive multiple viewings, but to be enhanced by them. The new picture may even be visually too complex; you need eyes as big as WALL·E's to soak it all up. But despite the majestic sweep, and the admirable environmental message, it is the intimate moments that stick with you - for instance, the sight of WALL·E rowing the sleeping EVE, who is wrapped in fairy lights, through the Stygian waters of the world that we ruined.

Another month, another documentary about the US government's refusal to play nice. Standard Operating Procedure adopts a similar tack to the recent Taxi to the Dark Side: both films explore the psychology and bureaucracy that underpin abuses by the US military. However, the focus of SOP is tighter, unpicking the specific details behind the Abu Ghraib snaps. An uncharitable viewer might argue that the director Errol Morris's true subject is even narrower - himself. He may not appear on screen, but his stylistic choices, from Danny Elfman's overwrought score to the carefully lit and staged reconstructions, place his film-making style centre-stage.

Not that Morris doesn't come up with the goods. He challenges the demonisation of Lynndie England and others who were photographed humiliating their Iraqi prisoners, and gets them to speak plainly about what happened. But the film is as much concerned with the voodoo power of the photographic image as it is with Abu Ghraib; it raises the idea that anything is permissible as long as it's not captured for posterity. The point could have been made just as effectively, without Morris's own camera screaming, "Look at me! Look at me!"

Pick of the week

City of Men (15)

Rio's gangsters ride again in this sister film to City of God.

Donkey Punch (18)

dir: Oliver Blackburn

Confident British thriller set on the Costa del Hell.

Summer Hours (12A)

dir: Olivier Assayas

Juliette Binoche in a subtle family drama from the erstwhile provocateur Assayas.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism