IMDB: “What do an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer have in common?” That’s what I set to find out while watching this very fun, good-looking and well-edited movie. Katy got tired an hour in, liked it for the most part but didn’t enjoy my connection-drawing game.

Dave was a lion trainer who traveled with the circus. He seems ambivalent about his career, not talking it up as a great time with his beloved lions or an exhilarating and rewarding experience, mostly going over the reasons for first wanting to be involved (he idolized and eventually worked with Clyde Beatty, animal trainer and entertainer who once co-starred with Mickey Spillane in a weird-sounding mystery called Ring of Fear) and the procedures and dangers involved.

George is an elderly gardener who creates, trims and maintains the topiary sculptures in one estate garden. You get the feeling there used to be one old woman who oversaw the garden, and now there’s nobody, that he’s gardening for himself on someone else’s land. Unlike Dave, who is helping train newcomers, George has nobody following in his footsteps, and dislikes other gardeners’ methods (using electric hedge trimmers, for example).

Raymond studies and “wrangles” insects, and has become a specialist in the naked mole-rat, a mammal that exhibits insect-like behavior. He sets up a museum installation to put their society on display, and talks about their activity and relationships.

Rodney is a robot scientist trying to innovate robotic movement and behavior by putting together bunches of small robots or processes which try to solve common tasks, instead of attempting to control them with one larger intelligent system.

There are plenty of ways to link these four guys and their jobs/interests, not a large hidden theme which is the One True Key to unlocking the film. They all work with non-human life forms, trying to study and control behavior. Some offer insights into human behavior through the lens of their subjects. All but Dave work with arrays of smaller beings (robots/leaves/rats) which work together towards large tasks (or forms). I had more but I’ve forgotten half of them… IMDB commenters mention themes of growth and development, consciousness and death, or the guys as representative of different concepts of god’s existence.

I loved the editing, the music (by Caleb Sampson, who killed himself the following year), the use of stock footage (such as old Clyde Beatty films) instead of the Mr. Death re-enactments, the pacing. The movie’s got heart… these guys are really involved in what they’re doing, care about it, and each is able to express himself and his subject in an engaging, philosophic way. It’s not the connections and differences between these guys which are interesting in themselves, it’s the way Morris encourages the viewer to discover them. Wonderful.

Just spectacular… I loved every moment of it. The politics/message are a little heavy, but it was nervy to put such anti-consumerist, green, call-to-action messages into a non-talking robot-love movie in the first place (and to declare in interviews, as Stanton has, there there are no political messages in the film!), so I’m going to forgive. Twenty years ago, Pixar would’ve been shot down as commies for making this movie (and Mike Judge would’ve been quietly executed for Idiocracy). Hopefully I’m going to see this again soon, so no need to go into plot summary.

I caught the bunch of 2001: A Space Odyssey references (evil autopilot is very HAL, some of the same music is used) but I also found myself thinking of Children of Men. Future Earth is void of new life, new life is then discovered in the belly of a female-ish character, everyone freaks out and gets excited but a bunch of sinister characters want to manipulate the situation. It all checks out. Movie is also getting compared to Alien (sigourney weaver’s voice is the “mother” ship) and Silent Running (another post-earth outer-space plant-tending movie), but not Sunshine.

Peter Gabriel, who has a history of song contributions to films about sentient critters (Gremlins, Babe 2) scores the closing credits with an obvious-sounding number about being down in the ground.

Fred “Wha’happen” Willard plays a president stand-in, the CEO of Buy ‘n’ Large. He’s not even animated – just videos of Fred Willard. If he’s the first live actor in a Pixar animation, they picked the right actor.

The opening short was Presto by first-time writer/director but long-time Pixar animator/artist Doug Sweetland. Very good, funny, fast-paced comic short about a magician and his magic hats and rebellious hungry rabbit. More of that Looney Tunes gag-based anything-goes character humor than the usual style of Pixar short (think Geri’s Game, Boundin’).