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'Fantastic' Voyage?

''Fantastic Four'' has incredible trouble -- The would-be blockbuster had a tough time getting released

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'Fantastic' Voyage?

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Even in the age of hyperbole, it's risky telling moviegoers to ''prepare for the fantastic'' — especially in a cruel commercial summer and with a Spielberg-Cruise alien invasion as competition. Still, in the face of fanboy kvetching, immense pressure placed on a somewhat untested director, and incredible similarities to a certain Disney/Pixar superfamily epic, that's the tagline 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios have adopted for Fantastic Four. The extraordinary quartet may have ushered in the age of Spider-Man and X-Men 44 years ago, but today, in a marketplace crowded with comic-based action pics, it's been a superchallenge getting Fantastic Four to its July 8 opening (10 days off War of the Worlds, which pushed FF from its preferred July 4 weekend perch). ''It's difficult not to appear derivative,'' notes FF producer Ralph Winter, who produced both X-Men flicks.

It gets even harder when, deep into production, you see an animated movie that bears a striking resemblance to your own. ''Okay, I'll stay clean,'' says Marvel Studios chairman Avi Arad, when asked to recall his reaction to an October '04 screening of The Incredibles. ''Yeah, it was. . .influenced [by the FF comic]. Ahem. Inspiration is a good thing. A form of flattery. Ahem.''

The Incredibles is an openly referential homage to all things superheroic, of course, but the similarities to FF are striking, right down to the playful tone. Both movies center on four main characters: The Incredibles' patriarch Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, has superstrength, à la FF's rock-skinned fireplug Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing (played by The Shield's Michael Chiklis). FF has Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), who can stretch like rubber — much like The Incredibles' Helen Parr. FF's Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) can turn invisible and generate force fields, as can Incredibles daughter Violet. Both Parr baby Jack-Jack and FF's Human Torch (Chris Evans) ignite. And one whole scene — where the Thing shakes a cat out of a tree — had to be cut because of a similar scene in the Pixar flick.

''It left us with a certain nervous energy,'' says Arad, who attended the Incredibles screening with FF director Tim Story, but ''it was such a good movie that I felt it would only help.'' Arad can't resist an additional dig: ''In the words of [FF creator] Stan Lee, when someone asked him about The Incredibles, he said, 'You know, it feels like I wrote it.'''

Story claims he was ''kind of relieved. It meant we were making the right movie.'' But he will admit to a certain frustration. ''It's hard because the younger generation doesn't know. They'll say, 'Oh, they're just doing what The Incredibles did,' when it's the other way around. I hope kids will be corrected by their parents.''

The movie's troubles actually began long before The Incredibles hit theaters. Story, whose best-known credit was the intimate comedy Barbershop, faced some dubiousness from the faithful about his suitability as director. Fans — who had already endured Roger Corman's ultra-campy, if officially unreleased, 1994 version of FF — feared a jokey take on their sacred icons. But as Story points out, ''This is the Marvel comic that's the closest to being a comedy. It's not easy to figure out how you walk that fine line. Sometimes we'd test stuff and find out we'd gone too far. I'm not saying it's the best way to make movies, but it is the lay of the land.'' FF's script was tweaked extensively (but then again, so was X2's script). Then Fox mandated additional scenes after the December wrap, mostly to establish more ''family'' moments, with final shots wrapping in late May. And all along, Internet gossips were carping over everything from Alba's casting as WASPy Sue Storm to Chiklis' latex Thing costume (an attempt to avoid Hulk-ish CGI).

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