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My very favorite cartoon character turns 80 today. Happy birthday, Mickey!

David Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image has a thoughtful essay on the showbiz satires and family psychodramas of Ben Stiller to accompany the museum’s salute at their annual gala last week.

It has often been said that show business is in Ben Stiller’s genes. If that’s true, then so is a healthy–and seemingly neurotic–disdain for Hollywood glitz. Indeed, the 42-year-old star’s profound and playful understanding of the way that movies and TV shows can be both alluring and alienating is at the heart of his prolific body of work….

So what is behind this constant impulse to satirize show business, to make fun of the industry that provides Stiller’s livelihood? The answer, beyond the surface of the sheer entertainment value of his movies (and Stiller’s films have earned nearly two billion box-office dollars) is that he sees show business as the perfect arena in which to explore, in amplified form, many of the neuroses of modern life. In show business, such foibles as vanity, insecurity, pretension, ego inflation, and feelings of inadequacy are all on display in heightened, occasionally ridiculous form. Our laughter at Stiller’s characters usually comes along with a bracing dose of self-recognition. This is because the public spectacle of show business becomes the ideal forum for an intimate exploration of the most basic psychodramas.

Schwartz notes that Stiller delivers a real performance, even in the broadest comedies, and has been successful in a remarkable range of roles and genres. He concludes that Stiller “has been able to find success in Hollywood while also turning a mirror on it. He lets us laugh knowingly at show business, but he also reveals that show business is a reflection of both our dreams and our imperfections.”

700 years after the last humans left the planet they had made uninhabitable through environmental degradation, one small robot is still continuing to crunch the mountains of trash. He is a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter Earth-Class, or Wall•E. His eyes are binoculars, his legs are treads, and his torso is a garbage compacter. But somehow, somewhere, he has developed the heart of a true romantic hero. His speech may be made up of beeps and squeaks but he thinks about the trash he picks up, puzzling (as well he might) over a spork and a Rubik’s Cube. He feels affection for the only life form he sees, a friendly brown cockroach. And every night he comes back to his little home and puts on an old video tape of “Hello Dolly,” watching the big dance numbers and dreaming robotic dreams of having a hand to hold, just like the characters in the movie. Just as we always suspected, after total annihilation of everything else on the planet, the only survivors will be cockroaches, Broadway show tunes, and Twinkies (okay, the lawyers made them call it something else on the package, but trust me, it’s a Twinkie). The genius of Pixar, the most successful movie studio in history, the only one ever to make more than $100 million with every one of its releases, is that they may spend blockbuster money on a film (reportedly $180 million for this one) but hold on to the soul of an independent movie made on a microscopic budget. They are happy to take on the consumerist culture that has made their corporate owner, Disney, a world power larger and more influential than most countries. They don’t rely on pre-sold characters (fairy tales, television shows) or focus-grouped storylines with all of the risk and quirkiness squeezed out of them — along with all of the authenticity and character. Like the humble little hero of this film, they hold onto their dreams. If that makes the films more challenging, less easily accessible, good for them and good for us, too.Indeed, that is one of the themes of this film, whose robot characters have much more wisdom, courage, intelligence, and personality than the humans. After 700 years away from Earth, humans have devolved into a sort of perpetual infancy, their minds and bodies all but atrophied. They float through their space station in hover chairs, mesmerized by media screens before their eyes that block their ability to see anything else. Food and drink are constantly brought to them by robot drones and they, like their space station, are on automatic pilot. One of the lovely ironies of this story is that the machine who watches “Hello Dolly” on a broken-down videotape is inspired by it to seek companionship and intimacy while the humans’ media immersion puts them in a constant state of dazed isolation. Wall•E’s life is changed when an egg-shaped space probe named Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE) arrives. At first, they seem like opposites. He is scuffed and rusty and she is sleek and pristine. He is a romantic and she is all business. But like all great screen romances, their initial disconnections spark their affection. In this case literally. Their kiss is electrifying.Wall•E and EVE end up on EVE’s space station where her mission is revealed — and then imperiled. It is the misfit robots and one brave human who discovers that he can think for himself who must find a way to bring the humans and their home planet back to life. Just as the first courageous little tendril of a plant is willing to give Earth another chance, so the first tender stirrings of empathy, affection, curiosity, and honor in the small robots and the oversize humans inspire each other — and us.

Thanks to Betty Jo Tucker for inviting me back on her Movie Addict Headquarters radio show, at 4 pm Eastern time. You can call in with questions or comments on your favorite holiday movies at 646-478-5668. Please join us!

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