We never find out the little girl's name. She looks to be about five, and she's either neglected or being raised by some seriously free-range parents in a trailer-park near a junkyard. But she's a gifted maker with a roll of scavenged tools that she uses to build ingenious junk sculptures as she passes the lonely days while her folks are at work.
Until, that is, a robot falls off a truck headed for a secret government facility whose fence she knows she mustn't cross. That robot needs a little fixing up, which is right up her alley, and some help getting its legs under it, but then it's up and running and ready to play.
At last, she has a playmate. True, they can't speak the same language, and the little girl isn't exactly sure how to be a friend — you're not really supposed to trick your friends into junker cars and then lock them up with improvised cage-doors. The robot is lonely for other robots, and it's also being hunted by some kind of killer robot that's been released from the secret facility — a remorseless mecha killer that has no mercy for kid or beast (or cat).
Comic Bastards' review compares Little Robot to a Pixar movie, and there's truth to it, given all the feels in your standard Pixar feature. But this is more like one of those amazing Pixar shorts from before the movie, those experimental triumphs that show how storytellers who aren't constrained by the conservatism of a titanic budget can rip loose.
Hatke's other work — the Zita books, especially — have their share of wordless action scenes, but nothing like this. The sheer expressiveness of the images, the way pacing and emotion are controlled with layout and art, it's an heroic achievement, a masterclass ripped from the pages of Understanding Comics.
And what emotions! For all that this is a "simple" work — at least one that is accessible by small children — the emotional notes in the story are deliciously complex and contradictory. While there's a pulse-pounding simplicity to the chase-scenes when the hunter-bot is on the girl and the Little Robot's trail, the real beats come in scenes in which the Little Robot and the little girl make each other happy, and then make each other miserable. It's a fearless pinch of salt in a sweet story that makes Hatke and Little Robot a triumph. Bravo.
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Little Robot [Ben Hatke/First Second]