In 'WALL-E,' we are the machines

"WALL-E" is probably the sweetest movie ever made about humans destroying the earth.

Sweet, but not sugar-coated.

Our destroyed earth is pretty much the first thing you see - Pixar's dazzling new movie opens on the ruins of a spent, abandoned city, coated in a sulphurous haze that blots out the sky and most of the healthy light, so there is no green, no fauna, and humans are gone.

The only sign of life: a mobile trash compactor, designated WALL-E, busily fulfilling his programmed mission to bundle and stack trash, over and over again.

WALL-E is a typically vivid Pixar creation, and it's a good thing - he's so cute, the environmental calamity all around him registers as secondary. And maybe the absence of humanity isn't deeply felt because WALL-E has so much of it.

He's tireless, loyal, brave and true. He works himself to exhaustion, then flips open his solar panels to recharge so he can start cleaning up all over again.

Cynics will make the case that WALL-E is another anthropomorphic calculation, next year's Disney World attraction, but that sells the little guy short.

It may be anthropomorphic to assign human attributes to animals, but when it comes to machines like WALL-E, the deus ex machina is US. We ARE our technology, for better and for worse, and little WALL-E is the best of us, surrounded by the worst.

It begins in earnest when the devastated Earth is visited by a ship that leaves behind a mobile probe, just about WALL-E's size. She is EVE, a sleek, white, powerful thing with the near-silent purr of a perfect machine.

We see instantly why noisy, rusty, cubical, tank-treaded WALL-E is smitten, and just as clearly why the free-floating EVE is out of his league (he's quite literally a square, she's fabulously mod).

WALL-E is determined, tough, and the winning first half of "WALL-E" is given over to the little guy's dogged pursuit of this futuristic dream (it's like a boombox falling in love with an iPod). And the romance works. Not since Tramp rolled a meatball over to Lady have animated movies seen a romance as good.

You wonder what kind of movie this might have been had it stayed purely in a world of machines, but it eventually moves, with EVE and WALL-E, to a mothership of human refugees.

This portion of the movie is less enchanting, and the presence of human characters is hardly uplifting - the ship is a kind of human Ark, full of flabby, pampered people who no longer know or care why they are floating in space. It's all one big pleasure cruise, underwritten by machines that fulfill every whim and need - except the now-forgotten desire to return to Earth.

It's more misanthropy than we are used to from Pixar. Given the size of popcorn buckets and beverages in today's movie theaters, you wonder how these caricatures of bloated consumerism are going to play with audiences. On the other hand, I guess a studio that can make a hit out of rats cooking can make this work, too.

It may help that the movie picks up speed here, with an action-thriller plot that pits EVE and WALL-E against secret-agenda machines (shades of "2001") that stand against any hope of restoring and repairing the abandoned earth.

This is a serviceable story, less a factor in the movie's appeal than the incredible craftsmanship that Pixar brings to bear on its animation and design, its cinematic visuals, the imaginative sound work - all contributed by top Hollywood hands.

There is, too, the sweet, sad sensibility found in other Pixar movies, especially in those that locate the souls embedded in man-made objects.

"WALL-E" has that "Toy Story" throb of nostalgia, built around the contrast between the obsolete and futuristic, between soft-toy Woody and hard-shell Buzz, here between WALL-E and EVE.

You felt it in "Cars," with its lament about the foreboding by-ways of early car culture, or perhaps the demise of the car itself.

"Wall-E" ups the ante, conjuring a world in which it isn't merely a machine that has outlived its usefulness. It's us. *

Produced by Jim Morris, directed by Andrew Stanton, written by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, music by Thomas Newman, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.