by Sean Collins-Smith
I have a couple distinct memories from seeing The Incredibles in theaters.
One of them is being downright giddy at the excitement of the action scenes, the likes of which I had never seen before in an animated feature. I think I was laughing at how amazing (nay, Incredible!) they were. I thought: if Pixar can do this with animation, what can they do with live action?
Another memory I have is being astounded at the amount of death we’re privy to during the film’s lengthy 115 minute running time (the longest Pixar film at that point). It was Pixar’s first PG-rated film, and this suggested Parental Guidance is earned, baby: there are more brutal (offscreen) ending-of-lives than any other five Pixar movies combined.
Yet The Incredibles never forsakes its family-friendly Disney moniker or its infinite sense of wonder for humdrum action. It’s a deft combination of exhilarating B-movie action scenes and A-quality writing, as it analyzes an atypical family that encounters fairly typical trials: the monotony of marriage, the suppression of uniqueness, and a desire to relive the Glory Days. It’s a fantastical foray into the mundane event known as Midlife Crisis.
That dual-natured drive makes it not just a great flick, but one of the best superhero films you’ll ever see. It’s at once familiar and fresh, taking a concept we all know – heroes – and molding it into a concept new enough to be interesting.
The story goes like this: Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and a plethora of other heroes known as Supers used to be something special. They’d save the world one crisis at a time, with the concrete backing of the U.S. Government and the idolization of millions. Then, after a series of lawsuits, these heroes are quietly relocated and forced to keep their powers under wraps. Their days of saving lives are over.
Fast-forward fifteen years. Mr. Incredible is married to Elastigirl, they have three kids, and Mr. Incredible, who has the hilariously un-incredible name of Bob (sorry to all the Bobs out there, but you know I’m right), also has an un-incredible job as an insurance salesman. He’s bored and bitter, mad at the world for shunning not just his super powers, but those of his kids: his son, Dash, is quicker than lightning, and his daughter, Violet, can create forcefields and become invisible. (They’re youngest is a baby named Jack-Jack, whose powers have yet to show).
But, as usual with Pixar, the dual meanings here are myriad. The family’s powers aren’t random, they’re reflective of each Super’s personality. Dash is an overly energetic little boy, Violet is insecure and shy, Bob feels pressure to be the man of the house (and protector of the world) and Elastigirl, whose real name is Helen, plays the part of the mother for her children and wife for her husband – in other words, she’s stretched thin.
And all that metaphorical and symbolic creativity never rings superficial or overwrought: it’s merely one of the ways the magicians at Pixar add depth to the surroundings, and it works wonderfully.
We eventually see that Mr. Incredible is secretly going out at night with his longtime Super friend Frozone (voiced flawlessly by Samuel L. Jackson) and seeking out people that need saving. Soon after one of these outings, he is contacted by a woman who offers to pay him handsomely if he’ll get back on the saddle and start superhero-ing full time again. It’s here that the movie really takes flight.
Because, let’s face it, the first 30 minutes of The Incredibles can seem slow. It’s one long setup for what comes later, and while that’s not necessarily a problem – hell, it’s the basic definition of a First Act – it’s sometimes taxing. Director Brad Bird makes it necessary, though, because at its heart, the film is about family.
It’s part of what makes The Incredibles have more at stake than, say, Sucker Punch. You care about these people because you’ve gotten to know them during the first half hour, and their individualism is just as important as their contribution to the whole. We find Mr. Incredible’s solitary antics to be funny, but we know he’s got real doubts about his identity. Likewise, Elastigirl has an emotionally solid core, but her love for Bob makes the moments when he’s in danger seem that much more palpable.
And when the action starts, it never lets up. Dash’s sequence in particular, dubbed The 100 Mile Dash, is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Mr. Bird, who also served as the screenwriter, has a knack for orchestrating original, breathtaking action set pieces, and he’s outdone himself here. His next film, the fourth installment of the Mission: Imossible franchise (dubbed Mission Impossible: Protocol), will have a lot to live up to if it wants to rival The Incredibles, both in emotional resonance and pace.
Add to that some great sub-characters (the evil Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee, is a hilarious satirical take on superhero villains, and Edna, who furnishes the superhero wardrobes, steals every scene she’s in) and a fantastic score by composer Michael Giacchino, and you’ve got an enjoyable Pixar-perfect package.
In the Pixar lexicon, The Incredibles may be more conventional than, say, Wall-E or Monster’s Inc. For a great while, it’s an action vehicle revolving around superheroes, and those aren’t exactly a rarity these days. But it’s got that Pixar spark that undeniably sets it apart from other standard fare, and it reminds us that whatever the folks at Pixar decide to do, they’ll do it well. What more could you ask for?
I give it 4 1/2 stars out of 5