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STRONG EFFORT
'INCREDIBLES' FALLS SHORT DESPITE SOME SUPER COMPUTER EFFECTS

THE INCREDIBLES ***

STARRING: The voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Sarah Vowell, Elizabeth Pena and Spencer Fox

DIRECTOR: Brad Bird

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

RATING: PG for action movie violence

THE LOWDOWN: A family of depressed superheroes learns the joy of being super together.

"It was awesome!" said a kid the size of a fire hydrant the minute he saw my note pad. Well, I'll go about three-fifths of the way up to "awesome" with my pint-sized little friend. (And why would he care about movie critics, anyway?) What he wouldn't report about "The Incredibles" that I will is that an awful lot of his mini-me cohorts seemed to spend a lot of the movie running up and down the aisles -- an infallible tipoff of something less than total child engagement with the movie at hand.

None of which, of course, is going to stop parents, kids and pixilated fellow travelers from battering the doors down to "The Incredibles" this weekend. After "Monster Inc.," the "Toy Story" movies, "A Bug's Life" and "Finding Nemo," Pixar movies have become the mass American rites of family moviegoing that Disney movies used to be. (Which is why the corporate divorce of Pixar from Disney helped lead to Disney CEO Michael Eisner's forthcoming demise.)

American families need Pixar movies. Pixar's computer animation is amazing to look at, and they're funny and bright and diabolically well-cast. (The career of Ellen DeGeneres began to soar after "Finding Nemo.")

Which is why those shelling out at the box office and snack bars should know these salient things about "The Incredibles": It's hugely entertaining and funny but never boffo "Shrek" hilarious and, most importantly, it's an honest-to-God animated action movie full of big malevolent contraptions worthy of "Spider-Man 2" (but also some mind-boggling visual bedazzlements that blockbuster couldn't have come close to).

The plot? It's all the lawyers' fault. It seems that all the superheroes are suffering cases of super fatigue. "Who wants the pressure of being super all the time?" moans strongman Mr. Incredible, a fellow with a Jay Leno chin and a chest the size of Pittsburgh. "No matter how many times you save the world, it winds up in jeopardy again," he grouses in Craig T. Nelson's macho basso. "I feel used."

One day, he saves a would-be suicide ("I think with counseling, you'll have to forgive me"), gets sued for his troubles and a chain-reaction of lawsuits is started. He even let's a villain slip -- a dude named Bomb Voyage. Soon, all the superheroes are being sued so mercilessly that the government puts them all into superhero relocation.

And that's where we find the Incredible family suffering the petty annoyances of the secret superhero life in suburbia -- Mr. Incredible; his wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter); mopey teen daughter Violet (writer Sarah Vowell); and speedster son Dash (Spencer Fox).

So miserable is superdad that he keeps saving people on the sly -- eventually hooking up with a blond temptress named Mirage (Elizabeth Pena) who gets him so far back into the hero's game that he even gets a new supersuit (whose designer, Edna Mode, looks like Edith Head and is voiced by director Brad Bird). The droll montage explaining why she doesn't make suits with capes is one of the comic high points.

Eventually, by means of the kind of plot complications that make writers feel deeply ashamed of themselves, the whole family is pressed back into the superhero trade on a volcanic island ruled by a very nasty superhero wannabe named Syndrome (Jason Lee, for my money the best thing in the movie).

Dad's superstrength is back in business. So is Mom Elastigirl's ability to take any shape -- and young Dash's ability to move faster than the speed of sound, as well as Violet's ability to disappear and surround her family with impenetrable force fields.

Once they get on the island, the visual wizards at Pixar pull out all the stops. A grand time will be had by all. If you ask me, the music should have been a whole lot better. And some fall-off-your-chair gags wouldn't have hurt, either. But I agree with cute young fireplug this much: It's not awesome, maybe, but it does know the road to get there.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnew.com

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