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Animate This

The latest triumph from Pixar: a buoyant, heartfelt, hilarious superhero action-comedy.

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Courtesy of Pixar Creative Resources

Since all movies about superheroes are automatically aimed at two, sometimes mutually exclusive, audiences—filmgoers out for a good time and animation fans aiming to geek out—let’s divide up this review of The Incredibles a bit, shall we?

First, the General Audience Review: The sleek beauty, crafty wit, family warmth, and impeccable slapstick suffusing The Incredibles immediately vaults it to a new, higher level of entertainment. If you found the live-action Spider-Man films surprisingly tender and endearing for special-effects costumed-weirdo movies, please know that this computer-generated animated extravaganza is richer, deeper, funnier, and more moving than Tobey Maguire in full doe-eyed, sensitive-boy-man mode.

At its shiny core, The Incredibles is about credibility—about how, as one character puts it, “your identity is the most important thing you have.” We first see Mr. Incredible (voiced with basso bombast by Craig T. Nelson) in his glory days, rescuing citizens from petty crooks and runaway trains. Then some recipients of Incredible largesse get the all-American idea of suing him for distress, and the “supers,” in writer-director Brad Bird’s terminology, lose their government sponsorship. Flash-forward fifteen years, and Mr. Incredible, his wife, Helen (the former Elastigirl, twang courtesy of Holly Hunter), his teen daughter, Violet (the sour-ball-voiced Sarah Vowell, from NPR’s “This American Life”), sparky son Dash (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack are living in the Midwest ’burbs, anonymity courtesy of the “Supers Protection Program.”

Bob is miserable, his massive upper torso gone flabby and crammed into the cubicle where he works as an insurance-claims adjuster. Of course, a supervillain comes after the family, forcing all but the baby to snap into shape as fightin’ Incredibles: Violet the self-conscious teen can become invisible and throw out protective force fields around everyone, while Dash can run really, really fast.

If those last two powers-echoing-personalities suggest obviousness, The Incredibles is anything but. Bird, best known for 1999’s heartwarmer The Iron Giant, is also, more to this point, the creator of Family Dog, a marvelous 1987 short cartoon that displayed a vast mastery of toon archetypes combined with an unusual commitment to avoiding easy jokes or sentimentality. Here, Bird rejects current clichés: the wisecracking-sidekick characters of Shrek and Aladdin, and Shark Tale’s soggy pop-culture references. (Well, there is one terrific inside joke: The ’Creds’ crimson costumes are made by Edna Mode, an imperious ringer for film-costuming legend Edith Head, who is voiced by Bird himself.)

The Incredibles’ action scenes are stunningly clever and ceaseless; my favorite was Elastigirl, squeezed noodle-thin along a long hallway of metal doors slammed shut on her, using her distended limbs to continue fighting bad guys she can’t see. As a storyteller, Bird has rescued family values from crap like the mega-moral VeggieTales. The reason The Incredibles is Pixar’s first PG movie is because Bird earned it—by placing a family in peril, he stages urgent, primal emotion as action, asserting that love can defeat enemies like jealousy, vindictiveness, and the whims of a remorseless universe. In this, Bird’s Incredibles is as uplifting and wise as Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

Now some quick geek critiquing. The Incredibles has triggered much online speculation, most of it about whether the movie’s hook—a family of superheroes—resembles Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Let’s be clear: No way. The Incredibles gets most comic-booky in the way it follows up on that classic X-Men theme of outsiderhood: The heroes—’scuse me: “supers”—are fear-inspiring pariahs to normal folks. Buddy Pine, a pathetic Incredible groupie who becomes the villainous inventor-brat Syndrome, is a spoof of fan-boy obsessiveness as incisive as Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, for which Bird is a longtime “executive consultant.” (Am I the only one who thinks Syndrome looks more than a little like an adolescent version of Harry Knowles? Has the AintItCoolNews.com pooh-bah enthused about this yet?)

What else? The masks the Incredibles wear are little stuck-on things, just like the ones worn by comic-book god Will Eisner’s the Spirit. The movie’s history of capes on superheroes throughout time, how they just get in the way, is spot-on nerd scholarship. (The cape stuff really pays off at the climax, too; no spoiler, don’t worry! I’d type reassuring smiley emoticons here, but that would be carrying this too far.) Bottom line: lotsa action, laffs, and the chicks are so real-looking they’re hot. (Or do geeks find curvy animated women hot because they aren’t real? Please post.) The Incredibles makes me proud to be an American capitalist. Mega-marketing? Bring on the action figures and DVD-plus-extras! I’m so there.

The Incredibles
Directed By Brad Bird. Disney. PG.


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