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Toon In, Toon Out 

The Incredibles: ***1/2 / The Polar Express: **

Contrary to popular belief, there's no guarantee that The Incredibles (***1/2 out of four) will become a box office behemoth along the lines of Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. or any of the other noteworthy Pixar-Disney collaborations that preceded it. It's rated a cautious PG, a step ahead of the G rating usually foisted on animated yarns; it runs a full two hours, an unimaginable length for a movie seemingly aimed at tykes with short attention spans; and it's heavy with exposition, characterization and meaningful dialogue, surely kisses of death when one expects nothing but a fast pace, colorful action and the occasional gross-out gag.

All of which makes The Incredibles a rather, well, incredible type of animated adventure. Writer-director Brad Bird, whose feature debut was the critically adored but commercially ignored toon flick The Iron Giant, panders to no demographic, meaning that we're left with a unique children's film that's positively adult-oriented in its approach to its characters and the issues that affect their lives. On the surface, the movie is yet another superhero saga, as Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and other celebrated heroes of yore are whisked into the Superhero Relocation Program once a slew of absurd lawsuits turns the public against them. Years later, Mr. Incredible, now solely identified as regular guy Bob Parr and wasting away as an insurance agent, is offered a clandestine mission by a mysterious benefactor, and his decision to accept the assignment inevitably draws his wife (Elastigirl) and super-powered offspring (shrinking Violet and speedster Dash) into the fray.

The majority of the comic relief comes from superhero costume designer Edna Mode, an Edith Head caricature voiced by Bird himself; her speech about the perils of the cape as a fashion accessory is priceless. The drama comes from the Incredibles, presented as the modern American family that's expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e., blend in with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by their suburban ennui eventually give way to an acceptance of their individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members. It's emotional without being sticky-sweet, and just one of the reasons why The Incredibles, for all its kid-friendly sops, feels like one of the most mature movies currently gracing theaters.

When it comes to animated features, how human is too human? The characters in The Incredibles are wonderfully expressive, yet they remain rooted in the world of animation. The Polar Express (** out of four) takes it to the next level, using cutting-edge computer technology to place its characters within throwing distance of real life. Unfortunately, the result is rather creepy, with most of the "humans" coming off as little more than slick automatons. Just call this The Stepford Movie.

Also call it dull, derivative, and lacking the sense of magic that informs all of the great Christmas flicks. Expanded from Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's novel, the film turns Tom Hanks into Mike Myers by allowing him to provide the voices of six different characters; the most prominent is the conductor of a train that whisks doubting children -- those beginning to buy into the Santa Claus conspiracy theory -- straight to the North Pole to meet the Big Red One himself.

Action set pieces aren't usually what come to mind when we try to invoke Yuletide imagery, yet the only parts of this movie that come alive involve the train hurtling across treacherous icy terrain or zipping over mountains like the world's greatest roller coaster. The rest of the film -- a "Harry Potter meets Scrooge" hodgepodge enacted on a plateau of plasticity -- is distressingly flat. I suspect many will hail The Polar Express as a new Christmas classic, but a better bet for seasonal cheer would be a living room screening of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians under the influence of heavily spiked eggnog.

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