I have seen the future of cinema, and it is a bug-eyed, box-shaped robot.

That's not meant to be a pun about how Pixar's miraculous ninth feature, WALL·E, is set in the year 2800. Though I've certainly made worse puns. No, what I mean is that WALL·E the movie and WALL·E, the obscenely cute star thereof, represent a new order in the production of CGI animation, the first completely computer-created protagonist that I am aware of in the history of film. By which I mean, for the first time in my knowledge, the main character in an animated film has been voiced entirely through the work of a sound designer, Ben Burtt, who is my new favorite person in the whole world. Customarily, the creation of a memorable animated character is the collision of a great vocal performance with sensitive, expressive drawings/renderings/models, but WALL·E the robot is gifted with a full range of instantly recognisable emotions, despite the fact that every element of the character is digital. He was created on computers and sound boards, with nothing tactile from start to finish. If it is true that the new wave of filmmaking will be entirely computer-driven (a sad thought, but just give it a decade or two), at least we now have proof that as long as real passion lies behind the 1s and 0s, there is some hope for the future of art.

This much, at least, should not be surprising: the overpowering ad campaign for the film made it altogether clear that the robot would be exceptionally pleasing to the eye and heart of all but the morbidly cynical. And therefore I am pleased to report that the personality of WALL·E himself, however marvelous, is a somewhat ephemeral element of the film WALL·E, which continues the Pixar run of creating extraordinary cinematic delights and demolishing the technical limitations of animation, and tops it off with one of the finest single passages in any American movie since the end of the 1970s. Oh yes, I did just go there.

WALL·E has a perfect opening sequence of about 8-10 minutes, and I do not mean "perfect" as in, "everything I wanted and more" - though it is. I mean "perfect". I mean, "200 years from now, the opening sequence from WALL·E will be looked at by film scholars with the same eye that we look at the choicest moments from Sunrise, Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai". Incidentally, I love that blogging makes it hard to punish hyperbole. Here is how WALL·E begins: the camera (good Lord, is it ever hard not to think of it as "the camera") moves through space, as the chipper "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from the lamentable film version of Hello, Dolly! plays. For starters, we already have a juxtaposition of imagery and music as unexpected, and yet perfectly appropriate, as anything in the last 20 years of ironic pop song counterpoints has ever produced. Anyhow, we zoom in to a very brown version of Earth, covered in dust and giant piles of trash, and in the middle of it all is WALL·E, playing the song from a speaker in his chest as he scoops up piles of garbage, compresses them into boxes, and sets them in neat stacks.

I'd never dare give away the specifics of what follows, but it makes for a master class in how to show, not tell. In what might be literally the fewest number of shots that it could possibly take to explain, we learn everything that we need to know about the story: humanity produced so much garbage that the whole race took off in a luxury spaceship, leaving the clean-up to a fleet of Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class robots. After many centuries, only one WALL·E unit is still functioning, and all that time alone has given him plenty of chance to develop a mind, and a boundless sense of curiosity about the world around him - especially that magic thing called "love", which he only knows about from a few minutes of a battered, ancient VHS copy of Hello, Dolly!
Pixar, I think, has finally reached a point where they can do literally anything they damn well please: after effectively solving photo-realistic inorganic surfaces in Cars, and perfecting the art of synthetic cinematography in Ratatouille, the only thing left to see was what they would do with their essentially complete box of crayons. And what they've done is to make a film that would make a formalist weep in ecstasy. The compelling use of focal depth as a significant aspect of a film's narrative is rare enough even for a live-action film in these debased times, but in a cartoon? Only the second time I can ever name it being done - and little wonder, with Roger Deakins and special effects guru Dennis Muren working on the film as visual consultants. There are a great many moments, especially in the first third, when I simply forgot that I was watching an animated film at all; the "cinematography" is so perfectly textured and used in exactly the way it would be in a "real" film.

I have very little doubt that WALL·E is the most visually sophisticated animated narrative film ever produced. There is no sense, as there was in almost every other Pixar film, that the animators "solved" some problem of representation - they simply used animation as the most appropriate tool to make the film exactly what they wanted it to be. After a fashion, the film feels like the culmination of something - CGI is out of its prototype phase now. That the filmmakers had some similar idea seems likely: the end credit sequence, while lovely in and of itself (much as in Ratatouille and The Incredibles), also retells the history of Western graphic art, starting out in the style of cave paintings, moving into Egyptian iconography, all the way up to Impressionism. Then, for the final crawl, it jumps ahead a bit to the era of 8-bit video games. WALL·E isn't the ending point of the history of art, of course, but it does feel a little bit like the first gesture in a newly-perfected style of filmmaking, at the very least. And what do the animators do with this wonderful tool, but recreate the cinematic language of the late silent era, arguably the finest moment in the visual history of live-action film. So WALL·E combines the old with the new, an acute sense of history with an ambitious idea of the future.

For something very close to half of its running time, WALL·E purrs along as the most sublime visual experience that will play in a movie theater this year: WALL·E's eventual love interest, the superfuturistic robot EVE - "Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator" - is voiced by an actual human, Elissa Knight, but she's a triumph of design and animated performance anyway, and there's a zero-gravity ballet between the two robots which is absolutely gorgeous and sweet enough to make WALL·E a top-notch date movie, in addition to everything else. The rule of thumb is: as long as the characters onscreen are all robots, the film is transcendent bliss.

Therein lies the closest the film comes to having a "problem". After a time, as you all know from the trailers, WALL·E hops on a rocket to chase EVE, ending up on the very same ship where all the humans are living, and then the actual plot kicks in. It's a good adventure plot, too - I'm not going to say what - and it would be everything the film needed to stand head and shoulders with the middle of the Pixar pack. But though the adventure is robust, and the social satire is unexpectedly pointed (a more anti-consumerism Disney blockbuster you will never see), it all feels...so typical after the eye-popping wonders of the first 40 minutes and the blissful cinematic intensity of the opening sequence in particular. The "human half" of WALL·E is not the stuff of legends, it is the stuff of very high-end entertainment.

Even if that counted as a flaw, there's more than enough in the first act to effortlessly counteract it all - the dark edge to the abandoned Earth mixed with the playful Chaplinesque clowning of our hero (who at one point steals parts from a WALL·E graveyard, one of the grimmest and funniest moments in the film), and frankly the avant-garde flavor that most of it has; you can't really open a kids' movie in the summer with a half-hour wordless homage to the silent comics of the '20s that hangs most of its thematic resonance on a movie musical that almost nobody likes, can you? It turns out that you can, and that right now, WALL·E is, despite its weaknesses, a shining example of the best and bravest work that mainstream filmmaking anywhere in the world could even dream of in this day and age.