All right, so, let’s talk Incredibles.
I saw Pixar’s new movie The Incredibles Friday night—I was actually pleasantly surprised to realize that it had opened, as I’d lost track of the date it was supposed to. Needless to say, I hit the movie theater right after work. So now I’m going to provide my impressions, in a very general way. I’m not going to provide any specific spoilers beyond what you’ve already been able to figure out from watching the trailers. You should go into it knowing as little as possible.
The Incredibles represents a number of firsts for Pixar. It’s their first non-G-rated film, and their first film to have a non-Pixar writer-director (Brad Bird, who also directed The Iron Giant) at the helm. It’s also the longest all-CGI animated feature film yet made by anyone, clocking in at 115 minutes (and that’s not even counting the Pixar animated short with which it opens—last year’s Academy-Award-nominated (and annoyingly twee) Boundin’).
You already know the premise, if you’ve seen any trailers for it at all—retired superheroes are raising a family, but their domestic peace and tranquility (such as it is) is interrupted by the emergence of a new supervillain. It’s world crisis and mid-life crisis all rolled into one. Like Pixar’s earlier films, there is a mixture of comedy and drama, but The Incredibles falls more toward the serious end of the spectrum (though still quite close to the middle) than Pixar’s previous efforts.
In a story that blends two themes—a superhero adventure and a family crisis—there is plenty of room for things to mess up. The demands of one theme (the “A” plot) could lead to the second one (the “B” plot) getting short shrift. It’s so hard for any one film to be both a floor polish and a dessert topping that very few films actually manage it; they end up being merely a floor polish that smells like a dessert topping, or a dessert topping that looks like floor polish. But Brad Bird has done a remarkable job of not only balancing the two themes but weaving them together so flawlessly that they not only balance out, they synergisticly harmonize with and reinforce each other so that they are both better together than they would have been alone.
Another balance the film strikes is in its treatment of the superhero genre. The vast majority of modern (or perhaps I should say post-modern) parodies or satires only work as parodies or satires, because they’re too busy snarking at the genre to actually make effective use of it. I guess you could put it down to a post-modern idea that when you make fun of something you have to distance yourself from it, otherwise you feel like you’re making fun of yourself, too. But The Incredibles isn’t like that. The Incredibles pokes gentle fun at some of the commonly-known tropes of superherodom, but never in a harsh or mean-spirited way, and it’s not ashamed to make full use of those tropes while it does so. It’s both a send up of and a love sonnet to comic books of bygone days, and manages to laugh at and laugh with them at the same time.
Aside from being a superhero film and a family film, The Incredibles has a level of allegory or parable about the pressures toward conformity in today’s modern world. You can see this even in the secret-identity name of the Incredible family—Parr, a homonym for “par,” which is often used to mean “average.” As the Slashdot review (warning: contains spoilers) puts it, he used to be Incredible—but now he’s just Parr. It’s a testament to Brad Bird’s writing skills that the movie delivers its message without seeming preachy at all.
No review of an animated film would be complete without talking about the animation and the voice acting. For the animation, I have to pay it the ultimate compliment: it’s unnoticeable. That may seem like an odd thing to say, but it’s true. It’s needless to say that the animation is Pixar’s best yet; given how tied to ever-advancing technology their animation process is, every Pixar-animated movie will be its best animation yet. I’ll let other reviewers talk lovingly about water and fire effects, or animated hair, and so forth; what I’m going to say is that once you’ve adjusted to the style, the animation gets out of the way and lets the story be told. It’s kind of like that persistence of vision effect where if a picture changes often enough you don’t notice it’s made up of a lot of still images: in The Incredibles, the animation becomes totally transparent so you can get involved in the story instead of the technology. Many animated movies aspire to this, many achieve it to some extent, but few have ever gotten it quite this right.
The voice acting is excellent, too; this is the sort of role that Craig T. Nelson was born to play. He nails the role of Mr. Incredible aka Bob Parr—nails it with a neutronium hammer. Holly Hunter is the perfect foil as his wife Elastigirl, Samuel L. Jackson has a wonderfully funny but underused part as Bob’s old heroing buddy Frozone (“Wheeeeere’s my super suit?!” is going to become an all-time classic line), and the children and supporting characters aren’t bad either. Wallace Shawn (Vizzini the Sicilian from The Princess Bride and the Ferengi Grand Nagus from Star Trek: The Next Generation) deserves special mention for his part as Bob Parr’s pint-sized overbearing boss, but it’s the director Brad Bird himself who gets one of the best roles of the film—playing the diminuitive superhero fashion-designer-cum-gadgeteer Edna “E” Mode, who steals every scene she’s in.
The Incredibles grooves to a sixties vibe—a sort of return to the good old days, taking everything that was good from superhero adventures, spy movies, and family life in that golden era. The score reflects this, as well—composer Michael Giacchino’s score, very heavily influenced by the works of Henry Mancini and James Bond composer John Barry, harks back to the glory days of the 1960s. Giacchino explains in an interview:
“It was a chance for us to say ‘Hey, let’s go back to that playground of orchestral jazz music!’ which you rarely hear anymore and if you do hear it these days, it’s used as a way to make fun of something. It’s kind of turned into this kitschy thing. It’s something that I look at and say ‘No, I loved that stuff. And I think it’s as valid today as it was then. It’s just not being utilized in the proper storytelling sets.'”
The music and the design aren’t the only things influenced by Bond movies; with its PG rating, The Incredibles is just about as violent as one. There are a couple of onscreen and a few just-barely-offscreen deaths or injuries, some of which are played for laughs; as with any PG movie, it may not be suitable for the youngest children. Pixar seems to be aiming The Incredibles squarely at the teen/young adult market—which is, as I have said in a previous entry, hazardous territory for most filmmakers. Films like Heavy Metal 2000 or Titan A.E. bombed at the box office because a young adult audience is a hard audience for whom to write an animated picture.
Most ostensibly young-adult animated films tend to resemble a roast cooked at too high a heat—as such a roast might be raw on the inside and scorched on the outside, young-adult animated movies tend to be kiddie stories with a few “mature” elements like violence and nudity slapped on as an afterthought. And neither a badly-cooked roast nor a badly-made young-adult film is palatable to most people.
But with The Incredibles, Pixar once again seems to strike just the right tone. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and the audiences seem to be enjoying themselves; we’ll just have to wait for the weekend box office figures to come in to know for sure.
And so, for my overall recommendation, well, my good friend Eric Burns said it best: “I beg you, in the name of all that remains being good in this world, go see The Incredibles. Right now.”