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MOVIE REVIEW

Look! Up in the sky! It's a flabby suburban dad!

Inventive 'Incredibles' may be Pixar's most family-friendly film yet

That crashing noise you hear emanating from your local multiplex is the sound of Pixar trying something different -- and succeeding magnificently. ''The Incredibles" is the first of the company's films to come with a PG rating, and it features not bugs, toys, monsters, or fish, but superheroes who fight dastardly villains and toss huge chunks of masonry around.

There are explosions, there is civic destruction, there are scary bits. But there are also such emotions as despair, confidence, joy, envy, and affection. By going out on a limb, Pixar has made an emotionally resonant, inventively hilarious movie that, oddly, may be its most family-friendly yet.

It helps that ''The Incredibles" is about an actual family. Bob and Helen Parr (the voices of Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) are a seemingly normal suburban mom and pop who are really part of the government's Superhero Relocation Program, formed 15 years earlier after a wave of lawsuits turned the general population against anyone flying around in spandex.

Bob is -- was -- Mr. Incredible, Helen was Elastigirl, and while she's now content being a homemaker, he's weighed down with the drab purposelessness of his job as an insurance claims adjuster. (Any correlation to any middle-age blues felt by audience members is purely intentional.)

Already we're deep in Pixar-land, with stinging wit in the gray sea of cubicles where Bob works and in the comedy that sets his muscular bulk against tiny desk, tiny car, and tiny boss (Wallace Shawn). For the first time, the prime creative force on a Pixar movie isn't one of founder John Lasseter's hand-raised visionaries but an outsider, writer-director Brad Bird, who brings the cheeky ingenuity and love of retro that marked ''The Iron Giant," his much-underrated 1999 debut. At the same time, Bird's knack for intelligent whimsy makes him a natural in this company.

Everything about Bob's life droops with compromise and failure: Where once he took down villains such as Bomb Voyage (a Frenchman who exclaims ''Monsieur Incroyable!" when they meet), he now gets only contempt from teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), who has the gift of turning invisible and wishes her parents would let her use it at school. Likewise, younger son Dash (Spencer Fox) has to keep a rein on his superpower, the ability to run at lightning speed. No track-team tryouts for him. (There's a baby, too, but he lacks any power except the ability to soil diapers at will.)

''The Incredibles" kicks into high gear when Bob is coaxed by the mysterious Mirage (Elizabeth Pena) into donning the Mr. Incredible suit once more for a top-secret mission on a top-secret jungle island for a top-secret employer. (I'd tell you more, but it's a secret.) Even Helen doesn't know what he's up to, which turns the movie into a computer-animated kiddie version of those foreign films about guys who lose their jobs yet keep going to work for years without telling their family.

I can say that Bob has to take on an intelligent, fluidly aggressive robot-droid that could have stepped out of ''Iron Giant," a rote Bionicle-style action sequence that is given grace and cleverness by Bird's visualization of it.

By then, Bob has had a kicky new Mr. Incredible outfit designed for him by wizened fashion-designer-to-the-superheroes Edna Mode (voiced Elsa Klensch-style by the director himself), after which Edna takes it upon herself to outfit the entire Parr clan. (Sans capes. Never capes.) So when Helen, Violet, and Dash have to go rescue their patriarch's sorry rear end, they're at least correctly attired.

As is usual with a Pixar film, what happens is less entertaining than how it happens, and how the characters react. The unstoppable droid turns out to be masterminded by a figure from Mr. Incredible's past, but you may be too entranced by the details of the jungle island to notice -- the way the monorail pod zizzes around to the lounge rhythms of prefab James Bond music, for instance. When Dash discovers he can run fast enough to cross water, the punch line is in his disbelieving guffaw of delight.

At one point, ''The Incredibles" stops in its tracks for a ridiculously pleasurable bit of slapstick in which Elastigirl is jammed in two separate sliding doors and has to cope with a number of armed guards; the scene plays out with the tactical precision of a Buster Keaton short.

''The Iron Giant" was notable for its use of visual space, and Bird similarly plays foreground against background here -- there's a gag involving a remote-controlled glove and, way off in the distance, Mr. Incredible, that makes all of ''Shark Tale" look like a 2-D doodle. The luxurious satin textures of the computer animation offer additional eye candy; not for nothing is there a credit for ''Hair and Cloth Simulation."

All right, the film's not perfect. The archvillain lacks stature. I wish we could have seen more of the other superheroes, particularly Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone (although his unseen wife gets off one of the movie's best lines after he tells her he's off to serve the greater good). There's an elevated-train sequence that's a Xerox of a scene in the recent ''Spiderman 2" -- not exactly Bird's fault -- and you get the occasional fleeting sense you're watching ''Spy Kids Meet the Powerpuff Girls."

Also, the action violence may sit poorly with some parents expecting another ''Finding Nemo" (although nothing in the movie fazed my 9-year-old daughter, a proud and thoroughgoing weenie when it comes to on-screen mayhem).

Anyway, you come out of ''The Incredibles" treasuring the characters and their battle with inner doubts and lowered expectations. This is Nelson's freshest performance in years; through voice alone, he gets you to feel Bob's disgust with a society that distrusts super-anything (again: sound familiar?). Hunter's weirdly sexy lisp is put to engaging use, and Vowell (much heard on radio's ''This American Life") is a revelation: Young teenage girls may ache with the tremulous hope Violet hides behind her fall of Goth-black hair. ''The Incredibles" is such smart, whiz-bang fun that you may not realize what it's about until you're safely home: the secret identities we all keep tucked away in our hearts.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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