The Incredibles is the latest computer-animated feature from Pixar Animation Studios, and is a departure from their previous films in two ways: First, it stars human beings rather than toys, bugs, monsters or fish, and second it's a PG-rated film, and deservedly so as it features violence rarely seen in Disney-distributed animated films.
I approached the film with some trepidation. The early trailer for the film featured the star hero, Mr. Incredible, struggling to get into his old uniform as he's called back into action after some years of retirement and resulting weight gain. It was funny and suggested that the film would be a send-up of the superhero genre. But later information about the film indicated that its premise is that all superheroes retired after a rash of lawsuits against them. This was one of the premises of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen, and opens up a whole realm of social exploration of the ramifications of superheroes (which Moore mostly finessed by limiting the "super" in his heroes). Would The Incredibles tackle this head-on? How could it not?
Pixar's previous films have worked in part because they demand a suspension of disbelief about their key elements, and achieve this through either sheer ludicrousness (sea turtles as surfer-dudes) or by taking one of the ramifications of the premise and making it a key point of the hilarity (Buzz Lightyear believes he's real!). But superheroes are not just another sort of "funny animal", they're a significant part of our culture, and are a sort of modern mythology. While I am admittedly a tough audience in this genre, I worried that The Incredibles had bitten off more than it could chew.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) was the foremost superhero of his age. Strong, tough and fast, he selflessly worked to save others, even the day of his wedding to the charming-and-tough Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). But then a wave of lawsuits beat down the heroes, and the government declared amnesty for the heroes providing that they went into hiding in new identities which the government provided. It was the end of an age.
Today, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are Bob and Helen Parr. Bob works on insurance claims (his boss looks like a short Bud Selig, which should be sufficiently frightening for baseball fans out there), and they have three children: Super-fast Dash (Spencer Fox), invisible Violet (Sarah Vowell), and powerless infant Jack-Jack. But Mr Incredible still feels the obligation to use his powers to help others, and spends nights listening to a police scanner with his friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), despite the risk of capture.
After he loses his cool at work and is fired, our hero is contacted by Mirage (Elizabeth Peña), the assistant to a mysterious man who seems to be running an underground superhero network. Earning his keep by defeating a combat robot, Mr. Incredible is recruited for further missions, works to get back into shape, and even buys a new super-suit from designer Edna Mode (voiced by writer/director Brad Bird), while telling his wife he's moving up in the company. But when things go horribly wrong on the remote island where he's based, his wife and children come to the rescue to save him and help stop a villainous plot by the evil Syndrome (Jason Fox).
My feelings about the film are mixed. When you get down to it, I enjoyed it. The action is terrific, and there's genuine emotion to be felt in many scenes (when Dash discovers a new implication of his powers - 48 years after Barry Allen made the same discovery - it's a truly exciting moment) The animation is sharp, and the humans a lot more believable-looking than the unfortunate renderings of Princess Fiona in 2001's Shrek. Pixar's great animation has become de rigueur in their films, and it's pretty much ceased to astonish me. I was kinda disappointed in the family's orange-and-black outfits, which I felt were less visually interesting than, say, Mr. Incredible's original outfit.
I realized about two-thirds in that The Incredibles is, in fact, not a superhero film. It's really a spy film. (It's been compared to Spy Kids and I suspect it has some of True Lies in it, though I've seen neither of those films.) It's essentially about a retired agent who finds that he has no life having come in from the cold, and is recruited by a new agency, but can't separate his family life from his professional life. And despite all the action, it has plenty of sneaking around and infiltration, too. In a way, it's the best James Bond film since For Your Eyes Only (only without the sex, and with superpowers).
Unfortunately the premise doesn't really hold up under a minute's scrutiny. For instance:
I think writer/director Brad Bird missed several pretty good bets. He could have had the heroes voluntarily retire ("you people are all ingrates!") and have Mr. Incredible be the one hero who felt that the move was wrong. Or he could have gone the lawsuit direction but had a genuine underground superhero network for them to join, rather than the plot device we have here. Or just gone for the out-and-out wackiness of the washed-up hero who refuses to retire (as the aforementioned trailer implied).
- If all the heroes have retired, what happened to the villains? We only see one, but there are surely others.
- Wouldn't the heroes have had secret identities before they were driven underground? Why the need for the "hero relocation program"?
- Wouldn't the government have come up with a more productive use for powerful resources like the supers than insurance claims handlers?
Having decided not to deal with the social implications of the premise, we're mainly left with the action/espionage film, which to be fair is handled well. Elastigirl's ability to infiltrate a well-defended base is very well done, with some good yuks along the way. The lengthy fight scenes are great (providing you don't mind the abrupt termination of a number of henchmen - which I don't, as it seems perfectly realistic), and the family's escape from their penultimate trap doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence ("Hmm, is that really going to hold... nope, it ain't").
The story is also about the Incredible family - sorta. The main quartet are really not much more than stereotypes, Elastigirl having slightly more depth than the others. There's not really a profound moral underpinning here - just that it's important to be true to yourself, and that taking a man out of the work he feels is his true calling isn't going to make him a very good husband or father. Worthwhile messages, but not enough to raise this above the essential "action flick" nature of the film.
In summary, I'd describe The Incredibles as "a weak idea done well" - a syndrome unfortunately common to superhero films (c.f. Superman and Batman for other examples). This doesn't make it a bad film, but given the opportunity to craft a deeper and more complex world than in previous Pixar films the studio doesn't answer the call, which is disappointing.
That said, if they have the chance to give it another try with a sequel (depending on their relationship with copyright holder Disney), then I'd see that one with an open mind.
By the way, if you enjoyed The Incredibles, then you should definitely give Kurt Busiek's great comic book Astro City a try. I'd recommend starting with Life in the Big City and go from there. Many plot elements in Astro City storylines show up in very similar form in The Incredibles, and it is overall a very different sort of superhero comic, with great art and heartwarming character-driven stories. Check it out.
Oh yeah, The Incredibles was prefaced with a preview of Pixar's next slated release: Cars. And I have to say, based on that preview, that I have about as much interest in seeing it as I have in seeing White Chicks. A buck-toothed old-model pickup, gross-out humor, and a pointless sequence of cars on a race track. Not a good indication that it can better the charming Chevron Cars by Nick Park, or the classic cartoon "One Cab's Family".
I never thought I'd see a preview of a Pixar film that made me think, "You know, that looks terrible..."