is unique in the Pixar canon for being the work of single writer and director, and it shows. Brad Bird, who honed his satire of suburban domestic life on The Simpsons
(as well as writing and directing the best American animated film of the 1990s, the criminally under-seen The Iron Giant
), redirects the focus of this satire from the everyday average working fa
mily stereotype to the everyday average superhero stereotype, and broadens the dark satiric humor to a smooth, consistent, and warm cleverness. Without the legroom of a long-running series, Bird is forced to refine his scenario to generalities and The Incredibles
sometimes teeters on the line revealing how out-dated smug postmodern popular culture can be, but Bird and his film are far to smart to cross the line. The film shines visually from its astute direction in a way that moves beyond the technology show that was Finding Nemo
, and likewise streamlines its fairly everyday content into messages, humor, and action that is continually inventive and a remarkably fun watch.
The film begins with only the first of a seemingly unending amount of narrative and visual cleverness, a man saved from a suicide attempt by Bob Parr a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson)
sues the superhero because he wanted to die, beginning a legal backlash against the world’s crime fighters. Forced to go into a government protection program, Mr. Incredible’s family-his wife Helen a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), introverted daughter Violet, unruly son Dash and their infant child-is forced into the repressed, restrained pattern of suburban life. Bob, quickly getting fat and bald in the suburban boredom, longs for the excitement and spiritual fulfillment of being a hero, and his halfhearted attempts at moonlighting to relive the “glory days” with fellow retiree Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are sad expressions of his midlife crisis. An offer to freelance his repressed superpowers for a mysterious entrepreneur on a secluded volcanic island injects fervor and energy into his life, but leaves his wife suspicious and his children neglected.
Set in an indeterminate time, probably somewhere in the late 60s, The Incredibles
pokes easy fun at suburban life, the masculine dissatisfaction of apathetic stasis, and the domestic worries of unfulfilled, domesticated women. But this is just thematic superficiality and ignores both Pixar’s brand of bright, well-communicated positive messages and Bird’s gifted cinematic vision. With a script finally written by a single individual, The Incredibles
is drained of the peripheral detail
that enlivens the worlds of Pixar’s previous films but leaves their stories anecdotal and distracted. Refined to a handful of characters, each is beautifully sculpted in Pixar’s usual talent of making old stereotypes fun and energetic. The miniaturized Edith Head-like fashion designer Edna Mole (voiced by Bird himself), an aging, modish woman whose hip clothing is used by all the famous superheroes, is a shining example of the studio’s ability to shamelessly use conventional characters to new and engaging means. Craig T. Nelson’s booming voice and Hunter’s Southern sweetness similarly make The Incredibles
’ slick, briskly conventional ride warm with feeling and imaginatively cheerful. Little touches like the murmuring, introverted voice work of Sarah Vowell as Violet and the quirky, faux-retro mechanic design of the villain’s sci-fi inventions grace the film with a plethora of touches that feel intimately personalized inside a pleasurably, knowingly clichéd plot.
Bird’s widescreen visualization of his story reflects the imposing, spartan Bond-era production design of Ken Adam (the film seems informed as much by James Bond films as its superhero roots, and I’m pretty sure I detected some John Barry in Michael Giacchino’s fun score),
whose clean, spacious interiors were grand setting for the epic battles of important individuals. Bird extends this design from the lair of the film’s villain to the posh minimalism of Edna’s mansion, the family’s plain suburban home, and Mr. Incredible’s cramped bureaucratic day job. Smooth and slick, Bird’s clean look refines the visual content of the film so the audience can fully enjoy the cleverness of The Incredibles
’ action, which, in its beautiful choreography and emphasis on ingenuity, is the film’s focus Delightfully exploited the most is the remarkably fluid animation of Elastigirl, whose quirky talent is used in action-function as a parachute and motorboat but also has lovingly crafted moments that shine with Bird’s ingenuity: the sexiness of her body gracefully looping over the rooftops, and the superpower’s draw backs where, in one of the film’s best sequences, her sneaky flexibility get each of her limbs caught in a series of automated doors. Bird’s direction shows a restraint rare in action movies, taking advantage of gizmos and superpowers only when the visual result will snap with the energy of a splendidly smart punch line.
Placing an emphasis on fun over the character dynamics of Pixar’s Toy Story
masterpieces, Bird hones his themes to a simplicity reflected in the film’s design. Avoiding (and in fact mocking) the eye-rolling standar
ds of superhero’s everyone-is-special thematics, and similarly sidestepping the political analogies the likes of the X-Men
films, understanding one’s strengths, other’s limitations, and the image one projects from these strengths and weaknesses is all The Incredibles
is concerned with. It is a nice thematic blanket, spreading easily over the teamwork of the superheros, social appearance, the love within a family, and empathy between spouses. Not required to spend as much time pining for the hearts of parents in the audience, The Incredibles
injects brilliant spark into the talented, but lagging possibilities of Pixar’s beautiful computer animation while still retaining the positive messages at the heart of all the studio’s endeavors.