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Incredibles, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 November 2004
Pixar has done it again. The one studio that always seems to succeed succeeds once more with “The Incredibles,” even though it’s in a very different mode than their earlier films. Those include the “Toy Story” duo, “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” all triumphs, both in terms of quality and at the boxoffice. It’s possible “The Incredibles” won’t set any boxoffice records, precisely because it is so different from Pixar’s usual style—but it’s a hell of a movie anyway.

The trailers strongly imply that it’s a spoof of superhero movies. Nope—it IS a superhero movie, and a very good one. Written and directed by Brad Bird (of “The Iron Giant”), this takes superherodom essentially seriously—Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) is a hero. He is super-strong and basically invulnerable, and has put these gifts to work helping others. But, as the opening scenes show, that’s not always a good idea.

He saves a man bent on suicide—who promptly sues the surprised hero. “You didn’t save my life,” the grouch complains, “you ruined my death!” Lawsuits aimed at other superheroes—the world is full of ‘em—proliferate, and soon the government reluctantly has the heroes go into a kind of hero protection program, forbidden to use their wonderful gifts.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible lives under his civilian identity, Bob Parr; he’s married to Helen (Holly Hunter), once the highly stretchable Elastigirl, now a busy housewife and mother. Their teenage daughter is Violet (Sarah Vowell); she can become invisible and generate force-field spheres, but like her parents, is forbidden to use those powers. The younger Dash (Spencer Fox) is almost as swift as The Flash, frustrated because his parents won’t allow him to use his super-speed in sports. Baby Jack Jack has yet to show any super-abilities, but we know that’s a bomb that will detonate before the end.

Mr. Incredible has gotten paunchy; he’s deeply bored in his job as an insurance claims adjuster, although he does pass along ideas to his clients, ideas that save them money—but which cut into the company profits. Once a week, he gets together with Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), once Frozone, with ice-making powers; they tell their wives they’re going bowling, but they actually do good deeds on the sly: they can’t help it. They’re good people, and they think their gifts should be used. At home, Helen somewhat helplessly tells Dash that “everyone’s special.” The boy sourly responds, “which is another way of saying no one is.”
These are serious ideas sometimes addressed in comic books, though rarely in superhero movies, although the two Spider-Man moves faced down the idea. These people didn’t ask for their amazing powers and abilities; those traits can be put to good—in several senses of the word—use so why not employ them? Even the defeated-looking government agent handling the Parrs’ case wishes they and their fellows could go back to super-work.

The world where the Parr family lives seems stuck in the 1950s; the houses are flat ranch style, the décor is early googie, and the word is conformity. No one should stand out—even if you have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortals. But not only does Mr. Incredible want to help people, he has a burning desire to use his powers—and his kids are beginning to feel the same way.

But then Bob begins to be followed by a mysterious stranger who reports back to someone we don’t at first see. She eventually approaches Bob (via a clever James Bondish gadget) and has him don his old super suit—he keeps it in his office at home, along with other momentos of his superhero career—and be brought to a Pacific island. The approach comes at the right time, as he’s just been fired, which he keeps from Helen.

There, he fights a big round robot with tentacular arms—this is a test to find out if he’s worthy. Here, the script, written by director Brad Bird, stumbles a bit; based on what comes later, there’s no real justification for the trials and tests that Bob is put through. But he is delighted to be needed again; he works out (bench pressing locomotives, for instance) and loses the pot belly he developed at work. He visits Edna Mode (Brad Bird himself), the Coco Chanel/Edith Head-like black-wearing fashionista who specializes in superhero costumes. He wants a new one, but “no capes,” she insists, and offers a couple of horrible examples of the fate of those who wore capes.

But—of course there’s a “but”—all is not what it seems. Eventually, Mr. Incredible has to face Syndrome (Jason Lee), once his biggest fan, now a megalomaniac who wants to be the ONLY superhero on Earth. This leads to Helen and the kids coming to the island where their powers get very inventive, imaginative workouts. Even the sounds are right—the rapid-fire “splats” we hear as Dash rockets over water without sinking are, well, spot-on. Elastigirl’s Plastic Man-like powers are creatively demonstrated as she tries to track down her husband.

Finally, the Parr family works together trying to overcome Syndrome and thwart his plans, which include launching a robot on a big city.

The movie is dazzling—not simply dazzling, since there’s nothing simple going on here. Bird worked on “King of the Hill” and “The Simpsons” (for years); he did “Family Dog” for Amblin’; his feature debut was “The Iron Giant,” the best movie nobody ever saw. Here, he joins his college friend John Lasseter at Pixar, and moves from cel animation to computer graphics (CGI). But he hasn’t lost his expressive touch; the animation in “The Incredibles” is the best ever from Pixar, which given their past glories is no small praise. This is the first time that human beings have been at the center of a Pixar outing, and Bird was the right choice for this bold step. The facial expressions, the gestures—all the small touches are brilliantly done, very graceful, very quick. The big stuff? Sure, that’s great; the razor-edged flying saucers used by Syndrome’s minions are beautifully done, but I was more delighted by small touches, as Bob wiping at his lips after downing a slice of cake, or the fleeting expressions on Helen’s face. This is animation mastery.

As with “The Iron Giant,” there are some fleeting evocations of older movies; the ship carrying the robot to the city looks very much like the little spaceships flown by the alien enemy in “This Island Earth.” The cavernous lair of Syndrome, carved out of an active volcano, looks like it was designed by Ken Adam, the master designer of so many James Bond (and other) movies.

The voice talent is exceptional, including Jason Lee, whose skill and effectiveness surprised me. I never like the guy when I can SEE him; I didn’t expect to like him any better when I couldn’t, but I do. Craig T. Nelson is very manly—the movie approaches but never reaches parody—and yet realistic. Holly Hunter is a vocal powerhouse as Helen; Samuel L. Jackson is funny and yet truly heroic as Frozone. Both Spencer Fox and Sarah Vowell are just right as the kids.

But the funniest character in the movie is fussy little Edna Mode, who, we finally learn, lives a superhero life vicariously, through the “gods” who wear her Spandex. Bird almost steals his own movie.

Until now, Pixar’s movies have all been rated G; this one has a PG, and it means it. Bird has said that animation is a mode, a tool, a way of expressing ideas on screen—it is not a genre, and shouldn’t be. This movie is targeted at a slightly older clientele than most animated features, and that’s all to the good. It’s only in America that animation is so widely regarded as “kid’s stuff.” It doesn’t have to be, and “The Incredibles” demonstrates this truth—although any kid old enough for, say, a James Bond movie will handle this one with little trouble. When they’re on the island, hiding from their pursuers in a cave, Helen cautions her children that their foes are not like the characters they see on Saturday morning TV shows—these people will kill them if they get the chance. This raises the stakes for the movie as a whole. Yes, it may send a shudder down some kids’ backs, but that’s okay—the movie is still respectful of young sensibilities.

There are some weaknesses. The movie is too episodic; each sequence flows well, but the transitions are sometimes lumpy and even protracted. Before Bob learns that his return to superherodom, even if secret, is a fraud, there’s a long pause in the narrative. It’s filled with good stuff—the renewal of his life as a husband and father, for example—but it does go on too long. As does the movie itself. It’s rare for animated movies to run much over 90 minutes; this one is almost two hours long.

And yet the actual end of the movie—when Bob Parr tears open his shirt like his model, Superman—brought cheers and applause from the audience. This is an amazingly likeable movie—and it’s the characters who are the most likeable, not the incidents, not the design, not the songs. (There are none.) This is the kind of movie that sends audiences out dazed and happy, talking with one another about their favorite parts. This is the most entertaining movie I have seen this year.

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