Wall-E (2008)

Shaun the Sheep

— Off the Baa (2007)

This week, here it is: the latest masterpiece from the mad geniuses at Pixar; a family film like no other and one of the year’s best films, period.

Part silent comedy-romance, part awestruck sci-fi fable, part Swiftian satire of mass-media consumerist society, Wall-E is a work of towering ambition that aims for greatness and dares to expect more from its audience, too.

The first 40 minutes are almost a featurette in itself: a poetic, nearly dialogue-free pantomime story set in a vast, uninhabited landscape of unremitting bleakness; it’s a world of urban canyons and towers fashioned of endless cubes of compressed trash. Nothing lives or grows here; nothing moves, except for a single lonely robot and the cockroach that is his only companion.

Out of nowhere, this interminable yet narrow world is ripped apart by a thunderous herald of a larger reality, an immense, gleaming rocket ship bearing a wholly unexpected passenger who changes Wall-E’s existence forever.

In the very different second act, we learn more about the fate of mankind and the history of the Earth’s sad status. 2001-like awe yields to Brazil-like futuristic weirdness as Wall-E encounters a space-age luxury liner that’s all painted lanes and neon colors and all-pervasive consumer-media saturation, with humanity asleep at the switch, but ready to be awakened to the possibility of living deliberately. A must-see.

Also new on DVD, from the creators of Wallace & Gromit, is more delightful family fare: Shaun the Sheep — Off the Baa. Available individually or bundled with Wallace & Gromit’s Three Amazing Adventures (a previous DVD Pick), Off the Baa is a collection of eight stop-motion animated shorts produced for British television.

Nearly as offbeat and quirky, in its own way, as Wall-E, Shaun the Sheep is even more emphatically wordless. In fact, like the “Road Runner” shorts, these episodes are modern animated slapstick silent films, with a goofy creativity that is all Aardman Animations.

W&G fans will remember Shaun from the third amazing adventure, “A Close Shave” (Shaun the sheep, get it? Say “shorn” with an English accent). Here we meet Shaun in a flock on a small English farm with a trio of mischievous pigs, a tolerant farm dog who tries to keep order, a stereotypically nasty housecat, and a dim-witted farmer who speaks only in mumbles.

Shaun’s best adventures include an impromptu game of football (soccer to Yanks) with a head of cabbage and a stealth mission into the farmhouse to retrieve a beloved teddy bear. Others are sillier, like a war with a swarm of computer-animated bees.

I’m a huge fan of watching silent films with children (Buster Keaton’s The General, from last week’s DVD Picks, is an ideal starting place). With Mr. Bean, Wall-E and Shaun the sheep, the joys of silents seem to be enjoying a sort of mini-resurgence in family entertainment. More, please!

CONTENT ADVISORY WALL-E: Mild animated menace. Shaun the Sheep — Off the Baa: Nothing objectionable. Both fine family viewing.