Friday, November 12, 2004

The Incredibles

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Anticipation. This movie has more anticipation and expectations attached to it among a certain audience than any movie without the words "Star Wars" in its title (and, heck, a kick-ass trailer for the Revenge of the Sith is playing with a lot of prints) - it had a keen teaser in front of Pixar's last film, Finding Nemo, a year and a half ago, and Pixar hasn't made a bad film yet. Animation fans, though, may remember writer/director Brad Bird talking about The Fantastics five years ago, when his brilliant The Iron Giant was just released; it was to be his next cel-animated movie for Warner Brothers Feature Animation.

Well, for whatever reason audiences didn't go for The Iron Giant, Warner wound up shuttering its feature animation department, and it looked like we wouldn't get to see Bird's story about a family of superheroes. Fortunately, Pixar knew talent when they saw it, and after a name change to avoid confusion with The Fantasticks, it was back on track. And that's good for everyone.

Does The Incredibles live up to the reputations of its predecessors? Pretty much. The only possible reason for complaint is that The Incredibles is excellent as opposed to the sheer genius of The Iron Giant and Toy Story. It's a big, exciting adventure that at times is structured more like a live-action tentpole picture than Pixar's previous animated family movies.

It's a blast, too - while most of Pixar's other movies are set in some corner of our world that isn't normally accessible to us, The Incredibles is set in a fantasy world of superheroes and supervillains, in an environment that combines the sensibilities of the 1950s and the present day. The character designs are cartoony and exaggerated, placing Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) in the same scene with a fashion designer about a third his height. The combination of the simplified character designs and the detailed environments sometimes tilts the look a little in the direction of a video game, especially when the big action scenes start up.

Parents of very young children may be a little concerned about some of those action scenes - the difference between the PG rating that The Incredibles was given and the G rating Pixar's previous films received is frequently meaningless, but compared to most American animated films, there is a lot of stuff blowing up here, with pilots inside. Superheroes are shown as mortal, both in a darkly comic explanation of Why Costumes Shouldn't Have Capes and in a more sinister look at the villain's plans. There's also some very mild innuendo, tame enough for anyone who's old enough to recognize it.

This is part and parcel of the superhero genre, though, and it's clear that writer/director Brad Bird loves those stories. Where The Iron Giant referenced Superman explicitly, The Incredibles clearly owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, from the specific superpowers (though the Four don't have a speedster, they've got a stretchy person, someone who can take a beating, and a girl who can turn invisible and create force fields), the family theme, and the character Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger gives voice to at the end. One can only hope that Tim Storry finds the right blend of family ties and grand adventure that Bird manages here.

That the film will be wonderfully rendered is a given with Pixar; while I'm not sure they really nailed the character designs (save the Wallace Shawn-voiced Gilbert Huph, Mr. Incredible's boss in his secret identity; making him an apparent caricature of MLB commissioner Bud Selig conveys weasally greed well), everything looks great in motion and the big action sequences are a kick and a half. Check out speedster son Dash running on water and try and say it doesn't look perfect.

The voice acting is equally impressive; while other studios have gone with big names, Pixar mostly relies on unknowns and quality actors who may not necessarily be able to open a movie themselves - Nelson, for instance, and the perfectly-cast Holly Hunter as Mr. Incredible's wife, Elastigirl. The one big celebrity voice is Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone, a superhero whose ice powers fit right in with being as cool as Samuel L. Jackson. The movie also has a fantastic, score by Michael Giacchino - an upbeat, playful, James Bond-sounding thing that keeps the action going and never feels the need to stop for a pop song.

I admit, there had been a certain amount of trepidation along with my anticipation - just because Bird and Pixar had both been responsible for fantastic animated films didn't mean they'd necessarily work well together. They do, though, and I eagerly anticipate whatever they come up with next.

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