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"The Incredibles": These Four are Fantastic

by on March 11, 2005

Pixar seems to be that rarest of creatures in Hollywood: a studio that can do no wrong. It seems many are waiting for the studio’s inevitable first flop. It remains to be seen whether they will find it in next year’s Cars, Pixar’s final film with Disney, which, in a surprising and disturbing turn, seems to be playing to the NASCAR belt. It also remains to be seen whether they will sink or keep swimming after cutting loose from partner Disney. Speculation and future affinity for Slim Jims aside, however, Pixar did deliver the goods in their latest film, The Incredibles, a stunning adventure that rescued 2004 from a mediocre animated film slate just in the nick of time.

I use the word “adventure” because for the first time that’s really what Pixar has created. Yes, films like A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo contain quests and danger, but they are too preoccupied with firing off an endless stream of jokes and coddling the kiddies to generate much real excitement. Not so in The Incredibles. This an animated film that uses its PG rating for something more than fifteen fart “jokes.” Action takes center stage with dazzling and sometimes violent displays of derring-do. It is a bold move by the studio given the disastrous track record of American animated action films like Titan A.E. and Treasure Planet, and Incredibles succeeds where those films failed because it has found the right mix. Unlike compromised efforts like Atlantis, The Incredibles stays away from the children’s action formula and retains just the right amount of the trademark heart and goofiness that have endeared Pixar films to so many families.

Incredibles roll callBob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) is Mr. Incredible, superhero extraordinaire, saving the world one thwarted crime at a time. On Bob’s wedding day a rescue goes awry thanks to the interference of obsessive fan and sidekick wannabe Buddy (Jason Lee), and a flurry of lawsuits hits Bob, spreading to other “supers” and eventually leading to government regulations requiring all superheroes to renounce their powers and live as normal citizens. 15 years later we find Bob married to Helen (Holly Hunter), the former Elastigirl, with superpowered son Dash, daughter Violet, and baby Jack Jack. He works as a claims examiner at a huge insurance firm by day, and sneaks out to combat crime in disguise with longtime hero buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) at night. He’s unhappy with his job, and his wife is dissatisfied with his level of involvement in the family. One day in a moment of exasperation an inadvertent show of super strength at the office lands Bob’s boss in the hospital and Bob out on the street. Just as all seems lost, Bob receives a mysterious message offering substantial payment for his super services. He jumps at the chance to wear the suit again, and soon is battling haywire robots on a remote volcanic island for his new anonymous employer. Meanwhile Helen becomes worried about the true nature of his constant out-of-town “business conferences” and starts to investigate. Bob’s mystery boss turns out to be Buddy, now known as the supervillain Syndrome, who has amassed a fortune from selling his advanced weaponry and seeks revenge on Bob for ignoring him years ago. Syndrome plans to make people believe he is a superhero by unleashing his killer robots on cities and then saving the day. Bob uncovers Syndrome’s sinister scheme, but before he can escape he is caputred. Luckily there is a homing beacon in his suit, and the rest of the family soon arrives in support.

Bob’s character serves as a metaphor for mid-life crisis sufferers everywhere. Part debonair hero and part everyman, he is a character all men can both relate to and aspire to be. He wants to be responsible and care for his family but at the same time longs for the heady crimefighting days of youth. Bob is the best exhibit of the difficulty of everyday life for a superhero. A momentary lapse of concentration and his super strength causes all sorts of destruction. The endlessly flexible Helen is more accepting of her new role, the consummate mother who dotes on her kids. She is the typical modern sitcom wife, spunky and strongwilled but tender on the inside. Frozone is, well, pretty much Samuel L. Jackson, only with the ability to shoot rays of ice, and his character’s role is limited to a relatively thankless cameo. Dash’s hyperactive, rambunctious nature is fueled by his superspeed, while Violet’s nervous insecurity is perfectly complimented by her powers of invisibility and force fields. Some have compared the Incredible family to Marvel’s Fantastic Four, and the parallels are hard to ignore. Bob, Helen, Violet, and Jack Jack have respectively the same superpowers as the Thing, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, and the Human Torch. It’s a bit surprising no lawsuits were involved. Buddy/Syndrome is the ultimate fanboy geek, sort of a Trekkie crossed over to the dark side. It would have been interesting to have a look at his everyday existence, and for that matter all of the supervillains, but they are unfortunately overlooked. Did they also take up office jobs and Volvo stationwagons, or do they stick to lower profile sinister designs like pyramid schemes?

Syndrome gives someone the fingerThe Incredibles is animated beautifully in the spectacular-as-usual Pixar CGI that all other studios have yet to equal. The film’s colorful sixties setting is appropriate, coinciding as it does with the dawn of the modern superhero era. The gadgetry and Syndrome’s island lair further accentuate this vibe with designs heavily inspired by the James Bond films. The biggest visual hurdle The Incredibles had to overcome was its exclusive focus on human characters, which Pixar has never quite gotten right in the past. Here, though, they succeed with just the right mix of realism and cartoonishness. One would scarcely expect to see a hulking Neanderthal like Bob or willowy wisp like Helen walking down the street, but they are really just stylized versions of very recognizable body types. The Incredibles is heavy on elaborate, frantic action set pieces that look exactly like classic comic book melees come to life. Not even the superb Spiderman and X-Men films have come this close to an immersive comic book feel. There are a few instances where the integration of various moving objects is not perfectly seamless, but most of the time you’ll watch drooling with your jaw on the floor, transfixed by the awesome spectacle.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the splendid score, a jaunty, jazzy affair that again conjures up a 60s adventure vehicle. Amazingly, the usual sappy pop songs are nowhere to be found. I believe that’s a first for an American animated feature, and a welcome one. I kind of like to imagine Syndrome tossing Randy Newman into the volcano early in production.

For the first time, the best moments of a Pixar film are not the jokes but the thrills. Sure, there are some laughs to be found. In one sublime moment Syndrome loses himself in a villainous rant as he throws the helpless Bob to and fro with his power beam, then suddenly trails off when he turns around to realize he’s accidentally tossed his audience miles away. However it’s the action that will really blow you away. In one great scene an extended Helen gets caught in a series of sliding doors in Syndrome’s base, and must contend with guards via various appendages in several different rooms. Dash has an amazing set piece where he must outrun scores of lethal hovercraft in a jungle. It’s an edge-of-your-seat chase straight out of a Bond film. And the climactic free-for-all? Well, you just can’t help but smile.

Elastigirl taking namesSpecial features are deservedly in great abundance on this release. Disc 1 has two commentaries, one from writer/director Brad Bird and producer John Walker that gives interesting background on production and story development, and one from key animators that does give some interesting technical detail but often trails off on rather tedious personal tangents.

Disc 2 features Jack-Jack Attack, a mildly entertaining 4-minute short that shows what mayhem befell the Incredibles’ babysitter Kari while taking care of Jack-Jack. A second short, Boundin’, which played before the film in theaters, is also included. This is a very simple and quite bland tale about a charismatic jackalope who teaches an insecure lamb to roll with the punches in life. The deleted scenes, presented mostly in animatic form with interesting commentary from Bird, are fairly good, if not quite essential. The one real standout is a cool alternate opening that has Syndrome invading the Incredibles’ house and using Bob as a wrecking ball to demolish the place. Behind the Scenes is an exhaustive look at the making of the film that ably covers all areas of interest. There is also a neat art gallery displaying dozens of images of various kinds of artwork from character designs to backgrounds to color schemes and more. Finally there are amusing data files on all the heroes in the film, big and small, and what is probably the special features’ highlight: a hilarious and supremely cheesy Clutch Cargo-style short featuring Bob, Frozone and rabbit sidekick Skipperdoo (!) in action, with funny Mystery Science Theater-type commentary from same.

The special features are also chock full of easter eggs, which are usually easily found by waiting on menu screens until a little icon appears in the corner. Most of these are very short and arguably not worth looking for, but at least they are fully animated. You get to see Bob boogie down a little, Dash torment his teacher, and more. The best may be a marvelously concise 3-minute performance of the film done entirely with sock puppets.

The Incredibles is tons of fun, and is possibly the best comic book action experience ever put on film. Viewers expecting a typical Pixar picture may be surprised, since the jokes do get second billing and the characters, in their relative realism, do not leave quite the same indelible mark as fascinating oddballs like Buzz Lightyear and Mike Wazowski. Make no mistake, though. This is a visual thrill ride that no superhero lover should pass up. Even if you’re not the crazy, obsessed, make-your-own-costume type like Buddy.

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