In a time when we’re being absolutely flooded with superhero movies, it’s hard to imagine there’s much originality left out there to be captured by the genre. We’ve had heroes who can fly, heroes who stick to walls, even a hero who fights crime with his blindness. In a landscape littered with men in tights, The Incredibles is fresh and compelling not because writer/director Brad Bird (whose last film was the wonderful but overlooked animated feature The Iron Giant) came up with original powers for his characters, but because he’s more concerned with having his audience connect with them as people than he is on showing off the latest CGI technology. Visual wonders are just a mind-blowing bonus in a film which uses character-driven hero stories to make something incredibly smart.
The film opens with a whiz bang action sequence, in which a young Mr. Incredible leaps tall buildings to save the city from evil. He swats down one problem only to be called in to solve another. No matter how many times you save the world, it always seems to get back into trouble again, or so philosophizes the big hearted Mr. I. Things explode, Mr. Incredible saves lives, but in doing so people invariably get hurt. He stops a man from committing suicide, only to be sued for injuring the jumper in his rescue attempt. He stops a train from being derailed, only to find himself in court up on charges for giving all the passengers whiplash. The can of worms is open and soon the superheroes of the world are faced with billions of dollars in litigation brought by petty people swatting them down for helping.
When the world no longer wants heroes, Mr. Incredible, his new wife Elastigirl, and the other super-beings of the world are all forced underground. Fifteen years later, Incredible and Elastigirl have started a family and are living in hiding. Mr. Incredible works a morally dubious job as an insurance adjuster, where he tries to help his clients get their claims paid, only to be screamed at by his boss for treating them fairly. Mr. Incredible, who is now Bob Parr, is disinterested in his life. “They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity,” he laments. Their son Dash wants to try out for team sports, but can’t, for fear doing so may reveal his inherited superpowers. Dash can run really really fast. Daughter Violet is of the shrinking variety, and uses her invisibility to hide from boys, grappling with teenage angst and throwing out force fields in the house to torture her super-fast little brother.
But after fifteen years Mr. Incredible feels lost. He sneaks out for late night adventures with his buddy Frozone, under the guise of going bowling. He sits at the dinner table and stares off into space, ignoring his family in the midst of a constantly depressed malaise, a hero who can’t do any saving. When he’s approached by a mysterious individual with one more mission, of course he can’t resist.
Pixar Studios is at the top of their game in the animation department, the look of this movie is by far their best work to date. Granted, the characters are somewhat cartoony, but that’s by design. They aren’t going for realism here; they’re going for character depth. The characters are designed to allow a maximum amount of performance from each little pixel. Their world is one filled with lush jungles, massively populated cities, raging hot volcano lairs, and quiet dinner tables where the family sits around and bickers. It’s an absolutely beautiful movie. True, it’s an animated feature, but also one of the most stunning looking things I’ve seen on screen all year. The Incredibles is high concept superhero design, right down to the tiniest details of bad guy Syndrome’s massively planned evil jungle lair. Brad Bird’s imagination is on serious over-drive in creating this thing, and not a single frame is wasted on tired repetition.
As things snowball, the movie moves into seriously big action moments, but remains staunchly character driven. I was blown away by the high paced excitement, and crushed by quiet moments of sadness and fear. He’s thrown in every aspect of superhero filmmaking you can think of, and maybe even mixed in a touch of James Bond with his super-villains. To make that work, The Incredibles needed superior voice work to bring its characters to life. Bird gets it from people like Craig T. Nelson, who’s pitch-perfect as the voice of Mr. Incredible. He’s almost unrecognizable as that guy who worked on “Coach” and casting him as this sort of character to me is a bit unexpected. But when he gets super-mad in the film I love the way his voice changes and takes on a hard and almost frightening edge. It’s made all the more so because throughout the rest of the film Nelson does such a great job of making Incredible seem like a congenial guy. There’s more to the character than just a father stuck in an insurance office cubicle.
I’m not usually a big fan of Holly Hunter, she’s done some nice acting work, but she’s not the sort of performer who I’d go out of my way to see. She’s managed to become someone else entirely to bring to life Elastigirl. For me, the character of Elastigirl actually seems like the most complex. On one hand she’s the one trying to hold her family back from being “super”, yet on another she feels just as lost as everyone else. There’s a brilliant moment when she screams at her daughter to use her powers to save them, clearly pushing Violet way beyond what she’s capable of, and Elastigirl loses it. I love the complete panic in her voice as she desperately tries to protect her children in the midst of absolute insanity.
The two kids, Dash and Violet are voiced by unknowns, Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox. That’s always been one of the great things about Pixar movies; they don’t care if they hire people with big names for major roles. They try to find the right voice instead of looking for the right name. As a result, I think Violet is actually my favorite character in the film, filled with angst and teenage uncertainty. She’s stuck with a major self-image hurdle to overcome and using her powers, being allowed to truly be who she is without shame, is sort of beautiful to watch. Violet has several really goose-bump worthy moments as she starts to accept who she is. Dash is her exact opposite. He’s completely in love with his superpowers, the way any kid would be if he knew he could run at the speed of sound. He’s crazy for adventure, drunk with the idea of being a hero and for him The Incredibles is one fantastic game where he’s finally allowed to run as fast as he can.
Brad Bird wanted to cast Frozone with the coolest voice he could find, so of course he hired Samuel L. Jackson. Frozone’s role isn’t huge, but when he’s there he’s a treat. He fits in as part of a great cast of supporting characters like super-hero costume designer Edna Mole, who in any other movie might not get much attention but in The Incredibles gets pumped up with all kinds of unique character details. In that non-family pack of character’s, for me it was Jason Lee’s work as Syndrome that most stood out. He doesn’t fall back on doing Jason Lee shtick and manages to bring a lot of life to a character that could easily have been a one note-evil villain without the right talent to give him to life.
Though it is a PG rated family movie, The Incredibles doesn’t shrink from death and injury as a consequence to violence. The explosions are huge, the danger feels real, and you’re so invested in Bird’s characters that you’ll find your heart tangled up in what happens to them. In the mix with all of that is some pretty smart satire about modern life. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t resort to a superhero origin story to get that done. In fact, the film never explains where any of its superheroes get their power. Their abilities just come naturally and we accept them as is.
The Incredibles has everything you could possibly hope for not just in a superhero movie, but in great filmmaking. Pixar was already home to some of the brightest group of filmmakers working today, but Brad Bird has shaken things up and managed to take them to an even higher level. Like his previous film, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles has a kind of magic delicacy that’s unique amongst its competitors. He’s made a modern classic that’ll be hanging around for generations, a film that you won’t be finished with until you’ve seen it more than once. The Incredibles is one of the best movies of the year; take your kids or if you have none take yourself.