Fall brings us another Pixar film, a cinematic event that’s become as predictable as it is highly anticipated.
The Incredibles marks a departure from G-rated fare for Pixar, and it’s also the studio’s first shot at creating an all-’human’ cast. There’s nary a talking fish, insect, toy, or monster to be found in The Incredibles; these stars are all people with real problems and familiar personalities. This little switch has the surprising effect of making us care far more about its heroes than ever before. You could have served up Nemo as sushi for all I care — he’s a freakin’ fish! Mr. Incredible’s got a wife, kids, and a mortgage, and his boss is a jerk. Toddlers may prefer a surfing turtle, but the rest of us are going to find The Incredibles Pixar’s best film yet.
Writer/director Brad Bird (of the cult film The Iron Giant) gives us a knockout premise to work with: Set vaguely in the 1940s/1950s, superheroes run rampant through the Metropolises of the world. There’s not just Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), whose powers are primarily super strength and incredible toughness, dozens of heroes work the trade, including Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Mr. I’s incredibly flexible girlfriend.
But society being society, litigiousness eventually rears its head. ‘Supers’ find themselves sued for neck injuries incurred during rescue attempts, and soon the heroes are forced into a sort of witness relocation program.
Flashing forward we find Mr. Incredible now humiliatingly employed as an insurance claim adjuster, living in suburban nowhere with Helen (formerly Elastigirl) and three kids, all forbidden from using their powers. The kids don’t really understand this — they are who they are — and though young Dash can run at hyperspeed and Violet can turn invisible, they aren’t allowed to do so.
Temptation finally rears its head, though, and Mr. Incredible is hauled back into service on a private engagement, which culminates in the whole family eventually getting into the act. (For fear of spoiling any more of the film, I’ll leave it at that.)
Pixar’s animation talents appear to double in quality every year. Now tackling the difficult challenge of the range of human expression and movement, the studio’s work is beyond reproach. The movie doesn’t try for photo-realism in its characters, everyone in the film is a sort of rubbery caricature, inspired by classic comic books and retro design. This works very well on the whole: Only a scant handful of scenes don’t come across properly, and the overall effect is dazzling. Even better than its character animations, though, are the sets, especially the landscapes. Foliage and cityscapes are enthralling to the point where your eye wanders away from the action from time to time, just so you can check out how many leaves they really put on a tree.
In the lead role, Nelson is surprisingly capable and, dare I say, humble. But it’s Hunter who steals the show any time her voice lilts across the screen. As Helen, she’s one of cinema’s greatest moms ever; as Elastigirl, she’s one of its ass-kickingest female heroes. Bird’s dialogue doesn’t have the hammy puns and easy, cornball humor of most of Pixar’s work, but it’s still got an inspired sense of comedy that’s driven more by the absurdity of superheroes and the situations they find themselves in than by silly jokes and sight gags. Perhaps the best cinematic moment of the year occurs when Mr. Incredible is consulting with his diminutive Euro-designer Edna (voiced by Bird) about a new costume. Her diatribe against capes (and the flashes we see of how superheroes are done in by them) is truly priceless.
Also for the first time in a Pixar film, adults are likely to appreciate The Incredibles more than the kids. At about two hours in length, the movie may outlast the attention span of younger children in the audience, and the terrible short film (Boundin’, which gives us the rhyming story of a denuded sheep that likes to dance) preceding the feature needlessly lengthens the experience. Also be warned that the feature has a fair amount of cartoon violence (not just fistfights but lots of guns and explosions, too) which could scare the little ones quite a bit.
With its Peter Gunn-inspired soundtrack, unexpected plotting, dead-on voice acting, and unbelievable animation, I’m hard-pressed to name a single flaw of any importance in The Incredibles. It’s as stylish as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow but with more depth, and as giddy as Toy Story but with more of a soul.
When’s the sequel coming out?
(Not soon enough, but here’s the DVD.) Two discs, commentary track, a Jack-Jack animated short, outtakes, deleted scenes (including an alternate opening), and endless behind-the-scenes goodness. Highly recommended.
Reach for it!