The Incredibles (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today in November 2004.
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Kids are going to love The Incredibles, and it’s possible their parents will love it even more. I’m betting a lot of dads and moms get action figures of Mr. Incredible and his wife Elastigirl in their stockings this year, and they’ll be proud to display them at home or at work. While The Incredibles looks like a movie for the kid in all of us, the storytelling of writer-director Brad Bird is aimed straight at the concerns of grownups. The film makes as many key points as a presidential candidate on the campaign trail, and yet it does so with such seamless, exhilarating big screen entertainment that the profound convictions driving the action barely register until we stagger smiling from the theater.

It doesn’t matter which scale you use to measure The Incredibles’ success. As a comedy, a family film, a social commentary, a superhero movie, and as an animated feature, this movie excels. Just as Mr. Incredible and his nuclear family prove they’re equipped to save the world from evil, the “dream team” of Brad Bird, the brain behind the overlooked masterpiece called The Iron Giant, and John Lasseter, director of both Toy Story movies, looks poised to defend family entertainment against mediocrity through what we can only hope will be a long-running franchise. The joy they find in working together is obvious, and it brings radiance and vitality to every frame of this film.

The story begins in a metropolis where the populace, like Bird and Company, are nostalgic for the simple valor of a bygone era of bold heroes who could save the world, unfettered by criticism and litigation.

Mr. Incredible (voiced with impressive range by Craig T. Nelson), a hero with a chin to make Jay Leno feel threatened, used to save the world as part of his daily routine. He took pride in casually wielding a tree as a crime-fighting weapon, and yet he was humble and patient enough to first remove the cat stuck in its branches. During that time, his central principle—”I work alone”—was challenged by a pretty piece of Silly Putty called Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, milking that quirky Southern accent for all its worth), who married him and taught him that family commitment requires one to be “more than flexible.”

But those glory days came to an end. The general public, suffering from inferiority complexes, ran out of “tolerance” for the Supers. They filed lawsuits taking superheroes to task for the collateral damage of crime-fighting. The nation’s saviors were driven into a “protection program,” forced to blend anonymously into the daily grind, repress their powers, and support the illusion that everyone is comfortably equal in strength.

Now, working a mind-numbing day-job as a claims adjuster for Insuracare, Mr. Incredible has receded into the hulking slouch known as Bob Parr. Bob suffers under the harassment of a whiny supervisor (Wallace Shawn), even as he looms over him. Then he goes home to his wife Helen and finds her patience—and her limbs—stretched to their limits by two tempestuous super-spawn. Violet (Sarah Vowell) is a waifish, willowy teen straight out of Tim Burton’s sketch book. At school, she feels invisible, probably because she is invisible whenever a cute boy looks at her. At home, when her turbocharged little brother Dash (Spencer Fox) gets on her nerves, she just puts up a force field, which stops short his speedy approaches with a clang!

In this environment of talent-repression, humdrum routine, and excessive nostalgia, Bob starts sneaking out to perform covert hero-work with his icy super-buddy Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. “Frozone.” That’s enough to last until he gets a mysterious invitation to wrestle an un-friendly iron giant, an offer he can’t resist. Mirage, an exotic seductress, bastes him with compliments and serves him up like a Christmas turkey to Syndrome (Jason Lee), a nasty supervillain with a grudge. Before long, the whole family is drawn into the excitement, and they’re forced to come to terms with the abilities they’ve stifled for so long.

You may have noticed that this does not sound like the typical tot-friendly Pixar fare. It’s not. This is the studio’s first PG-rated film, and it earns that rating with a surprising barrage of gunfire, explosions, bad guys who get vaporized, good guys who stop in front of the mirror to admire their sexy backsides, and some action that will have youngsters diving under their theater seats. Helen warns her kids that their enemies “won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you.”

But don’t worry—Pixar’s focus on the family has never been stronger. Packaging The Incredibles as family fun, Bird baits grownups into the cinema for a big fat serving of family therapy. He packs in observations about identity, family dynamics, the dangers of praising mediocrity, and the consequences of cultivating a lawsuit-happy culture (where heroes like doctors and teachers live in fear of offending trigger-happy patients and parents). “Valuing life is not a weakness,” one brave soul defiantly declares, “and disregarding it is not strength!” There’s even a message for potential adulterers, with a not-so-subtle suggestion that Mr. Incredible might pair up with a sexy new partner. Bob, Helen, Violet, and Dash learn to stretch their faith in each other, growing from a sullen, spat-prone clan into a rejuvenated and—if you will—purpose-driven family.

Bird accomplishes all of this without ever letting the momentum of his virtuosic storytelling stumble. What is more, his movie never stoops to crass punchlines, never flaunts any extraneous pop music in order to sell a soundtrack album, and avoids cheap pop culture references. It exposes the Shrek films as sophomoric and vastly inferior.

As an animated work, The Incredibles lacks the beauty and grace of Finding Nemo, but it has a different agenda. Here, Pixar takes digitally generated mayhem to new levels, offering us the most expressive human characters ever created by a computer. Pixar’s animators impressively adjust their style to match Bird’s designs, which have more in common with the frenetic exaggerations of Looney Tunes than with Toy Story. (Syndrome looks like an homage to that classic villain from The Year Without a Santa Claus, the Heat Miser, his bright red hair flaring up like a flame from his matchstick head.)

What you see is only half of the fun. The sound design is enthralling, and, like his work for TV’sAlias, Michael Giacchino’s nostalgic score echoes classic spy-flick themes. Characters and voices are perfectly matched, the best of which belongs to the Incredibles’ costume designer, Edna, who looks like famed Hollywood costumer Edith Head. She’s voiced—believe it or not—by Bird himself.

The Incredibles’ only weakness is the familiarity of its superhero genre. The family’s super powers are surprisingly standard stuff, although they do use those powers with staggering cleverness. (In the most riotous sequence, Helen demonstrates that mothers really can fight several battles at once.) Many action sequences merely revise things we’ve seen before. Indiana Jones outran a boulder; Mr. Incredible outruns a smart boulder. The Skywalker twins fled from stormtroopers on speeder bikes; the super-kids dodge Velocipads, speeder discs with tree-cutting bumpers. Syndrome probably bought his volcanic fortress at a James Bond auction. One violent crisis so closely resembles a scene from Spider-Man 2 that it must be an unfortunate (but uncanny) coincidence.

But Bird knows he’s in familiar territory, so he has fun tweaking the conventions. There’s a hilarious tangent about the impracticality of superhero capes. And later, Syndrome interrupts a gloating speech about his evil plans to chuckle, “Now you’ve got me monologuing!”

Is The Incredibles Pixar’s finest achievement? That all depends on your units of measurement. For this Pixar fan, The Incredibles is not as moving or as visually pleasing as Finding Nemo or Toy Story 2. It is, however, a stronger “Episode One” than Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. It’s also more ambitious and complicated, and the spectacular antics run a full 115 minutes—the most generous Pixar flick yet.

And thus, this wholehearted recommendation.

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