The Incredibles” lives up to its title. This grand adventure yarn about a retired family of superheroes getting its groove back is in several ways the most ambitious and genre-expanding entry in Pixar’s extraordinary run of innovative and monstrously successful computer animated pictures. Writer-director Brad Bird’s highly anticipated follow-up to his much-lauded 1999 “Iron Giant” delivers the sort of excitement, imagination, wit and panache that will make it enormously appealing to a wide spectrum of audiences around the world. A muscular marketing push will launch this penultimate Disney release of a Pixar feature into high and sustained B.O. orbit, with merchandising and ancillary sure to keep the profits rolling in for a long time to come.
As deliriously smart escapist fare, “The Incredibles” is practically nonpareil. But strictly on the commercial side, there are some factors that could hold the film back a bit from the record-breaking numbers of its Pixar predecessors. Conceived as a deep-dish entertainment for adults as well as for kids, pic runs nearly two hours and is the first company title rated PG. These factors, along with the exclusively “human” cast of characters (no animals, toys or creatures), abundant plot elements and dominance of sophisticated humor over laugh-out-loud gags, might cede the youngest end of the age demographic and perhaps limit repeat viewings compared to previous Pixar fare.
But studio was on sure ground bringing in Bird as the first “outside” filmmaker to be entrusted with a Pixar feature (Bird and studio creative topper John Lasseter were classmates years back at CalArts). Like “Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles” reveals a deft hand at elevating ordinary life with extraordinary developments, and betrays a resonant connection with the the-sky’s-the-limit ethos of late-’50s-early-’60s America.
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While zooming along without a bump in recounting the rehabilitation of a ’50s superhero and his gifted family, the film is strongly invested in a compelling theme: an impassioned rejection of mediocrity. The slyly serious subtext here is that American society of the past 40 years or so has become increasingly tolerant of lower standards to the extent that those driven to excel, such as superheroes, have been discouraged, even put out of business.
Such is the case with Mr. Incredible (voiced with red-blooded gusto by Craig T. Nelson), who, after a vigorous display of all-in-a-day’s work super deeds in the smashing opening sequence, is sued for rescuing someone who didn’t want to be saved and, along with his equally capable bride Elastigirl (a smart and tart Holly Hunter), is banished to the government’s superhero relocation program.
Fifteen years later, in what looks like the JFK early ’60s, the couple lives quietly in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr, he as a beleaguered and overweight insurance salesman shuffling claims across a tiny desk, she as a harried homemaker and mother to moody pubescent daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), full-of-beans son Dash (Spencer Fox) and infant Jack Jack. With the exception of the latter, the whole family is blessed with super powers of various kinds: broad-shouldered Bob is as strong as Superman, Helen can bend and stretch like Silly Putty, Violet is able to surround herself with an impenetrable force field bubbles, and Dash can run as fast as Road Runner, a talent he is frustratingly obliged to conceal while competing in school track meets.
But, like a druggie who needs his fix, Bob is addicted to doing good, and sneaks out some nights with buddy Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), a former fellow superhero known as Frozone, to listen to the police scanner and lend anonymous help.
Although Bob and Lucius’ middle-age restlessness stems in part from wanting to relive their glory days, the film goes deeper. “They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity,” Bob complains to his wife, who has submerged her super ways more thoroughly than has her mate. In this new world, the excellence represented by superheroes now seems like a lost and ancient cause.
After being fired for excessive sympathy to his insurance clients, Bob is summoned back into action by Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), a mysterious woman who jets him to a tropical island for what turns out to be a test battle against a ferocious tentacled robot. Back home, Bob gets his lumpen body back in shape and, in one of the film’s numerous priceless scenes, goes to diminutive fashionista Edna “E” Mode (wonderfully voiced by Bird himself) to have a new costume designed, one that, at her insistence, will not feature an annoying cape.
Before Bob fully resumes his career as Mr. Incredible, pic sketches a surprising and satisfying picture of the variable nature of the Parr family’s life — the adults’ enforced acceptance of lowered expectations, their frisky intimate relationship, Bob’s chafing at restraints domestic and professional, the children’s possession of skills they’re not allowed to use and therefore don’t know how to channel. When the group ultimately unites on the volcanic island to battle evil together, there is a genuine sense of family solidarity that gives the climax an extra dimension.
Mr. Incredible’s nemesis turns out to be Syndrome (Jason Lee), a flame-haired creep who in his youth was the strong man’s biggest fan. “You can’t count on anyone, especially your heroes,” Syndrome announces as he embarks upon his plan to destroy Mr. Incredible, then launch a menacing robot into a major city, only to arrive to save the day himself and be proclaimed the greatest superhero of all.
Syndrome and his island sanctuary would be right at home in a James Bond film, and “The Incredibles” has great fun playing with ’60s spy film archetypes, perhaps nowhere more so than in the fabulously John Barryesque score by Michael Giacchino, the composer for TV’s “Alias” and “Lost,” as well as numerous videogames, here making a smashing feature debut.
Dismayed upon learning that her husband has surreptitiously reclaimed his former career, Helen is persuaded by the scene-stealing Edna to do the same, whereupon the picture kicks into high gear.
The physical contortions of which the reborn Elastigirl is capable, notably the amazing elongation of her limbs, are eye-popping, but the highlights arguably belong to little Dash, for whom the lifting of speed limits results in a hilariously fast trip to the island and whose pursuit through the rain forest by razor-edged manned flying saucers out-does similar “Star Wars” scenes.
Design-wise, the film reinforces its ’60s orientation with its Miesian cityscapes, horizontal suburban box houses, retro-futuristic architectural motifs and jazzy end credits. Always colorful and enjoyable just to look at, pic has less outright showbiz pizzazz than the previous Pixar features but all their visual polish and finely honed storytelling skills. Script is so packed with wit and imagination on multiple levels that viewers of all ages will feel in on the joke.
Voice talents excel across the boards, with Nelson underlining the he-man heroics with latent vulnerability and frustrated aspirations, Hunter adding a sexy edge to the housewife and Lee lending lip-smacking glee to the twerpy villain who thinks his day has finally arrived.
Driving it all is the artistic impulse to live up to one’s potential and not be cowed by perceived or imposed limitations. Fortunately, it’s a sentiment conveyed without the slightest sanctimoniousness, and one lived up to by the filmmakers and conveyed with rambunctious glee to the audience.
Feature is being preceded in theatrical engagements by a new five-minute Pixar short, “Bouncin’,” an engaging musical Western starring a jackalope and a shorn sheep that is most memorable for its amusing Dr. Seuss-like rhyming word schemes.