Aimed at a younger crowd than most recent comicbook adaptations, pic lacks the type of serious subtext that lent real or imagined gravitas to the likes of "X-Men," "Batman Begins" and "Hulk." Parents should appreciate the kid-friendly superhero extravaganza. Won't be a flameout in theatrical release, but won't clobber too many B.O. rivals, either.

Unpretentiousness counts for a lot in “Fantastic Four,” a wildly uneven, sporadically slapdash action-adventure that amuses in fits and starts. Aimed at a younger crowd than most recent comicbook adaptations, pic lacks the type of serious subtext that lent real or imagined gravitas to the likes of “X-Men,” “Batman Begins” and “Hulk.” Parents should appreciate the kid-friendly superhero extravaganza, even as devoted readers of the revered Marvel Comic title howl in protest at the liberties taken. Fox release probably won’t be a flameout in theatrical release, but won’t clobber too many B.O. rivals, either.

Predictably, “Fantastic Four” plays like a typical “genesis story” designed to kick off a potential franchise. Script by Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”) and Michael France (remembered, though not forgiven, for his hand in “Hulk”) is almost as far removed from original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comic series as recent James Bond pics are from Ian Fleming novels. On its own terms, however, scenario serves as OK intro for eponymous quartet.

Recently bankrupted scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) wants to rehabilitate his tarnished image (and return to financial solvency) by harnessing the forces of a cosmic storm in outer space. Along with astronaut buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), Reed seeks backing from billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon of TV’s “Nip/Tuck”), who conveniently owns and operates his own space station. Trouble is, Victor also employs — and ardently woos — genetic researcher Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Reed’s ex-sweetheart.

Victor agrees to bankroll the mission, but only if he can accompany the crew — and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), Sue’s hot-headed younger brother, can serve as pilot. Sue also comes along, placing her in the right place at the wrong time when the entire crew is bombarded with DNA-altering cosmic radiation.

When they return to Earth, the after-effects of the exposure gradually appears. Reed gains the power of stretching and contorting his body like industrial-strength rubber. Sue can make herself invisible and protect herself with equally transparent force fields. Johnny can burst into flames, toss fireballs and fly at will.

And Ben? His transformation is a decidedly mixed blessing. He becomes superhumanly strong and formidably huge. The bad news is, he turns into an orange, rocky-skinned ogre with a pronounced resemblance to a Rice Krispie Bar.

Reed promises to experiment in his Manhattan laboratory to find a way to reverse the mutations. (Fans will be happy to see pic retains comicbook’s famous setting, the fictitious Baxter Building.) While Ben is particularly eager to be restored to his former self — even after he attracts romantic interest of a blind beauty played by Kerry Washington — Johnny is first comicbook movie hero since Billy Zane’s “The Phantom” who behaves as though he thinks being a superhero is pretty doggone cool.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Manhattan, Von Doom is going through changes of his own. His skin is slowly becoming flexible metal, and he’s increasingly capable of generating electrical charges from his fingertips.

Throughout the relatively brisk 106 minutes of “Fantastic Four,” it’s hard not to note echoes of the cartoonish superheroics in last year’s “The Incredibles” (a pic obviously inspired by the Marvel comic series). But the free-wheeling jokiness and insult-swapping here are true to spirit to early issues of “Fantastic Four” comic (which debuted in 1961), and also serve to remind how much Ivan Reitman’s comicbookish “Ghostbusters” (1984) owed to Marvel titles.

Overall lightness of tone does much to sustain audience’s good will during displays of f/x that appear expensive and cheesy all at once. There is a rushed and slipshod feel to large swaths of pic, along with tell-tale signs of last-minute reshooting, recutting and rethinking. Among the more glaring continuity goofs: Ben storms past Johnny to go up in an elevator on his way out of the Baxter Building. Earlier, pic established that Ben couldn’t ride the elevator due to his increased weight.

Helmer Tim Story evidences little in the way of visual flair or storytelling panache — pic often comes off like a routine TV pilot — but he does encourage the four leads to develop nicely seriocomic give-and-take.

Evans gives a charismatic breakout performance that recalls Dennis Quaid’s exuberant turn as Gordon Cooper in “The Right Stuff.”

Chiklis is thoroughly credible and hilariously blustery, despite handicap of wearing face and body makeup that never looks like anything but makeup. Gruffudd and Alba appear a shade too young for their parts, but acquit themselves reasonably well. McMahon might have done better to play a little bigger as Victor Von Doom.

Inexplicably, family-friendly “Fantastic Four” has been branded PG-13, same MPAA rating applied to the darker, edgier and scarier “War of the Worlds” and “Batman Begins.” Only possible explanation: occasional shots of Sue’s underwear floating hither and yon while Sue herself remains unseen.

Fantastic Four

Production

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Constantin Film and Marvel Enterprises of a 1492 Pictures, Bernd Eichinger production. Produced by Eichinger, Avi Arad, Ralph Winter. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan. Co-producer: Ross Fanger. Directed by Tim Story. Screenplay, Mark Frost, Michael France, based on the Marvel comicbook created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Oliver Wood; editor, William Hoy; music, John Ottman; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Bill Boes; art director, Don Macaulay; supervising art director, Shepherd Frankel; set decorator, Elizabeth Wilcox; costume designer, Jose I. Fernandez; sound (Dolby DTS), Eric Batut; creature effects supervisor, Mike Elizalde; creature and makeup effects, Spectral Motion; stunt coordinators, John Branagan, Owen Walstrom, Jacob Rupp; associate producers, David Gorder, Lee Cleary, Kurt Williams; assistant director, Cleary; casting, Nancy Klopper. Reviewed at Edwards Marq*e Cinema, Houston, July 5, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Reed Richards - Ioan Gruffudd Sue Storm - Jessica lba Johnny Storm - Chris Evans Ben Grimm - Michael Chiklis Victor Von Doom - Julian McMahon Leonard - Hamish Linklater Alicia Masters - Kerry Washington Debbie McIlvane - Laurie Holde Willie Lumpkin - Stan Lee
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