Robert Downey Jr. has been replaced by a robot. As frontrunner in this summer's battle of charm, that is.

Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), the titular hero in Pixar's latest flick of the same name, is just about the most adorable and bewitching little guy imaginable. This small, boxy robot with sleepy, binocular eyes is Short Circuit's Number 5 by way of Charlie Chaplin.

And the nearly wordless first half-hour or so of Wall-E, written and directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), presents one of the most chilling and brilliantly imagined post-apocalyptic landscapes in cinematic history.

At the outset, we find Wall-E dutifully fulfilling his programmed directive as he has for the past 700 years: gathering up trash, compacting it and stacking the cubes into sky-scraper-like towers. These towers of waste, which shoot up out of seas of the same, extend like a brown blur to the horizon.

A few familiar features of 21st century consumer society poke out, too, visible through the thick, dusty air: Motionless windmills, empty high-rise condominiums and a Wal-Mart-esque megastore. The store, BnL (Buy 'n Large) was, apparently, the only company left when the world finally became uninhabitable and BnL built a massive cruise ship-like space station for humans to abscond to.

But Wall-E, though weary from the incessant and repetitive toil, is fascinated by the refuge around him. He collects things that catch his eye, returns with them to his storage container home where, after a long day of compacting, he removes his tank-track shoes, sorts his stuff (a great silent gag finds Wall-E indecisive as he looks back and forth between a pile of forks and pile of spoons, a spork clasped in his metal graspers) and watches his prized copy of Hello, Dolly!, a musical from which Wall-E learns the intricacies of dancing, romance and Earth's human past before he finally sinks into deep, dreamless sleep mode. Despite his friendship with a seemingly immortal cockroach, Wall-E is lonely.
All this changes when the curvaceous EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) arrives.

Though Wall-E falls instantly for EVE (Elissa Knight), he is shy. This is probably because she laser-blasts into oblivion anything that moves. Still, romance blooms as Wall-E flirts with EVE in a series of whistles and chirps (he's voiced by Ben Burtt, the sonic specialist behind R2-D2) that are only considered appropriate in the post-apocalypse and Latin America.

The story eventually brings Wall-E and Eve to the floating space station, which is controlled by a HAL 9000-like supercomputer, AUTO (Sigourney Weaver). The humans are obese, gimpy-limbed, perpetually supine Club Med sloths, who float around on futuristic lounge chairs, slurp their huge cups of food through straws and stare at screens that hover just in front of their faces. (As he leaned back, belly distended, and sucked down 10 trillion calories of Cherry Coke, the Screener laughed nervously.)

In a celebration of counter-cultural Freak Power, it's the malfunctioning robots who team up with Wall-E and Eve and who become the heroes, while the conformist, docile, wholly ignorant humans do little to help. This might sound overly preachy, but it doesn't come off that way. Wall-E's moral messages are handled with wit and levity and are balanced with irresistible romance and amusing android adventure.

It seemed impossible that Pixar would be able to top last summer's Ratatouille. But it's done it. Wall-E looks absolutely amazing, it's as thought-provoking as any sci-fi this side of Tarkovsky and it's by far this year's family must-see. Can Pixar possibly do it again next summer?

Directed by Andrew Stanton and written by Andrew Stanton and Jim Capobianco
With Fred Willard and Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14, 103 min., G