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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004
We can be heroes
As a critic, these days, it's often tempting to give in to feelings of despair after sitting through an insult to the brain like "Catwoman" or "Van Helsing." As you sit there poised to drop the blade -- "one star, or two?" you ponder before hitting the send button -- you pause for just a moment as the dark thoughts gather: Are you out of touch? Too elitist? Too critical? Are these films really that insipid, or is it just you?
So thank heavens for Pixar, who come along every other year or so to prove the point that, yes, it is possible to make films that are clever, inventive, funny and totally mainstream. Even films about superheroes.
Yes, superheroes. After "Daredevil," "The Punisher," "Spiderman" et al., it would be hard to find a genre that had worn out its welcome so completely. But along comes Pixar with "The Incredibles," a curious hybrid of The Fantastic Four and "The Simpsons." It manages to work as both a sly parody of superhero comics, while also delivering the goods with some slam-dunk chase sequences, fueled by the sort of hyperspeed mayhem that only cartoons can deliver.
"The Incredibles" features a retro-future look that exudes the sleek techno-fantasies of the early 1960s, mixing the super-spy tropes of the 007 movies or "The Avengers" with a dollop of early Marvel comics. Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) is your standard costumed crime-fighter, as quick to take on bomb-wielding supervillains as he is to rescue a little old lady's kitten from a tree. (One of the film's best gags.) But his do-gooding days are brought to an end by a series of lawsuits; being saved from certain death just isn't enough for some people.
The government outlaws superheroes and puts its former champions in new anonymous lives under the "Superhero Relocation Program." Mr. Incredible thus becomes Bob Parr, just another working schmuck in suburbia, albeit one who puts dents in his car if he leans on it too hard. His job, ironically enough, is at an insurance company, where his natural tendency to help people gets him in trouble with his boss, Mr. Huph (with the wonderfully weaselly voice of Wallace Shawn.)
At home Mr. Incredible has a loving wife, Helen (Holly Hunter), previously known as Elastigirl, and two super-powered kids, Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell). Domestic bliss is fine, but it just doesn't give the same rush as saving the world, so Mr. Incredible sneaks out at night with his pal Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to do a little low-profile crime-busting. When he gets a message from a slinky and mysterious femme fatale named Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), Mr. Incredible jumps at the chance to take on her offer of battling a runaway robot. But a trap awaits . . .
Pixar films have always been quite sly in how they aim their films at kids with furry monsters and talking toys, but keep a parallel line of humor and irony to tweak the adults. "The Incredibles," however, is quite an achievement: a children's film about a midlife crisis. Mr. Incredible's general air of dissatisfaction, his sudden desire to work out, his susceptibility to interest from a younger woman, his need to prove he's still got it -- this is the sort of stuff usually tackled by films that don't sell a lot of dolls or action figures. Separation has been the root childhood anxiety that drives much of Pixar's work, from "Toy Story 2" to "Finding Nemo," but rarely has the reality of familial breakdown been as frankly addressed as it is here.
Not that you'd necessarily notice, because the film keeps you laughing in amazement. Director Brad Bird gives himself the best role as Edna Mode, a diminutive fashion-diva designer of indestructible costumes who has an XL-size attitude. ("I never look back, daahling -- it distracts from the now!") Jason Lee, the current king of cranky kvetching ("Almost Famous," "Chasing Amy"), gets some great rants as Syndrome, the rejected fan-turned-bitter enemy of Mr. Incredible. And the sight gags are particularly well done, whether it's the rubbery Elastigirl getting stuck in multiple sliding doors or the perfect "camera angle" used as two of Syndrome's henchman get whomped by a large object.
Of course, these aren't really "camera angles," because there aren't any cameras. But Bird pushes 3D to its limits, employing lighting, tracking shots and densely detailed sets to sell the illusion. Unlike many digitally rendered films -- both "Matrix: Revolutions" and "Gladiator" spring to mind -- that get all fuzzy in the background, Pixar doesn't cheat in the details; whether it's the dense jungle of Syndrome's island lair where Dash and Violet elude a squadron of flying rotary saws (a sequence that actually might be a bit much for the youngest viewers), or the walls in Mr. Incredible's den, covered with plaques and old newspaper clippings of his glory days, Bird gives you an eyeful in every scene.
Two final points that nudge this film ever closer to five stars: one, no songs, not even one! The soundtrack is filled with clever riffs on vintage James Bond/Peter Gunn sounds. Two, Pixar has studiously avoided the tendency of competing animation like "Shrek 2" and "A Shark's Tale" to rely on a grab-bag of pop-culture references for its jokes -- stuff that will date as quickly as a "Kerry/Edwards '04" bumper sticker. By mining superhero themes that have been in the popular imagination since at least the '40s, "The Incredibles," like Mr. Incredible himself, will surely age well.