Nick Rogers: 'Batteries' is ideal DVD companion to 'WALL-E'

Nick Rogers

In the wide wake of “WALL-E,” the best Pixar film since “The Incredibles,” “Short Circuit” is the movie most mentioned as its touchstone. Both have lonely robots with a thirst for knowledge and companionship that defy directives to forge destinies. Thankfully, only one has Steve Guttenberg.

But “WALL-E’s” gentle but meaningful fable qualities are closer in spirit to “*batteries not included,” a 1987 robot film co-written by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, who wrote “Circuit” a year earlier.

This tale of New York brownstone tenants intimidated by a greedy land developer and aided by a squadron of small, self-aware spaceships carries the wistful mix of nostalgia and wonderment at which Pixar people would come to excel. No surprise, then, that “batteries” co-writer Brad Bird eventually joined their ranks to direct “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

Steven Spielberg initially developed “batteries” for an episode of his anthologized “Amazing Stories” TV series. Yet, he liked the idea so much that he executive-produced it into a full-length feature directed by Matthew Robbins (“Dragonslayer”) and starring the late Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, both national treasures whose genial natures propel the sweetness of this story.

Cronyn and Tandy play Frank and Faye, owners and proprietors of Riley’s Cafe. What once was a hot spot at the street level of a New York brownstone is now but a front to a dilapidated building.

It’s the lone obstacle to gentrifying the neighborhood into skyscraping towers, and Frank and Faye are among the five in the building who haven’t taken a developer’s buyout. Also remaining: Harry (Frank McRae), a mute boxer turned building superintendent; starving artist Mason (Dennis Boutsikaris); and the pregnant — and alone — Marisa (Elizabeth Pena).

The cafe’s destruction at the hands of hired thug Carlos (Michael Carmine) isn’t Frank’s only problem. Alzheimer’s disease has addled Faye’s mind, and Frank’s given thought to taking the money and moving to a retirement home. In exasperation, Frank asks, prayer-like, for help.

Arriving in the dead of night are two tiny flying saucers, shaped like garbage-can lids and seeking an electrical outlet for a recharge. Faye discovers them and dubs them “fixers,” given their rapid repair of the cafe, and other tenants’ many broken fixtures, overnight. (The pleased look on Tandy’s face when Faye proves the robots aren’t just figments of her imagination is priceless.)

Living in an abandoned bird shack atop the building, the robots create their own family, which also comes under threat from Carlos and his band of thugs.

“Batteries” abides by Frank’s decree that the quickest way to end a miracle is to ask why it is or what it wants. A peek at minuscule multitudes contained within the flying saucers is all that’s presented about their structure or source, and it adds to the magic. The robots restore not just the building, but the hopes and memories of its tenants to a point where Frank and Faye’s joy is infectious as they dance through their rejuvenated cafe.

Also like “WALL-E,” there’s a sense of melancholy. Like most 1980s family films, “batteries” has a physical and emotional intensity (and a brief flash of painted nudity). Yet, it supports tenacity toward creativity, maternity, optimism, family and technical aptitude.

Yes, trash-compacting WALL-E seems just a solar-charge panel removed from military machine Johnny 5. But if you crave more of the soulful input that powers “WALL-E,” pop in “batteries.”

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