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The Incredibles   B+

Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Brad Bird
Writer: Brad Bird
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Elizabeth Peña, Wallace Shawn, Brad Bird.

Review by Rob Vaux

If Pixar announced they had the cure for world hunger or a clean renewable energy source, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. They certainly seem incapable of making a bad motion picture. The Incredibles confirms their indelible gold standard -- that's six in a row for those keeping score -- and gives director Brad Bird another chance to display his talents. Bird helmed the marvelous Iron Giant for Warner Bros., and The Incredibles owes as much to that effort as it does to Pixar's earlier films. Then again, The Iron Giant would have been right at home in the studio's stable, and Bird's work here feels like a natural continuation of their previous modern classics.

One of the keys to Pixar's success is to not treat animation as a genre unto itself, but rather to use animation as a tool for telling any kind of (admittedly family-based) story. The fastidious care with which they invest their medium is on full display here -- its gorgeous palette and fast-moving action is unparalleled, save perhaps for last year's Finding Nemo -- and their willingness to let Bird take his core concept and run with it heartens the soul. The film's central notion of a superheroic family has its basis in classic comic books, but its visual motif is more James Bond than Clark Kent: complete with '60s fashions, art-deco jungle fortresses, and a plethora of gadgets and vehicles that any Q Branch would die for. It's all gloriously rendered in Pixar's incomparably punchy style, and as expected, it soon sucks us completely in.

This undercover universe -- tailor-made for secret agents and big rockets with ominous countdowns -- finds room for Bird's larger-than-life superheroes through an immensely funny plot device. The spandex-clad do-gooders are sued for damages by the people they saved, forcing the government to hide them like mob witnesses. That's where we find fallen king of the hill Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), now stranded in suburbia and working a drudging job at an insurance company. His wife, the once and former Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), has accepted domesticity, but their kids Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) have also developed super powers and are itching to try them out, torch-bearing mobs be damned. The Incredibles bases its subtext on the tension between those two desires -- the need for safety and conformity versus the need to explore your gifts to the fullest -- and Bird adroitly develops it with only a bare handful of awkward hiccups. Like The Iron Giant, the characters are faced with a choice as to who they wish to be, and their acceptance of that choice is both quiet and beautifully realized.

On a simpler level, of course, it's a colossal hoot -- especially when villainy appears in the form of Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), who was Mr. Incredible's biggest fan as a child, but has since transformed his geeky adulation into a tool for globe-imperiling evil. Pixar's signature wit comes through in Buddy's plot to destroy his former idol, which balances clever dialogue and imaginative sight gags into an irresistible combination. To it, Bird adds a pinch of iconoclasm, poking fun at the superhero and spy genres while still evincing a warm affection for their time-honored stereotypes. His dedication extends to the principle characters, who are rendered with thoughtfulness and grace, and The Incredibles has fun marrying their personalities to the world they inhabit (the shrinking Violet, for example, uses her powers of invisibility to hide from boys she likes). Fast-paced excitement and imaginative action pieces ensure that the proceedings never slow down, and a few elements speak of pure unfiltered genius -- most notably Edna Mode (voiced by Bird), an owl-eyed fashion diva whose obsessive glee and puttering mannerisms steal the show from under everyone's nose.

That The Incredibles is so polished and assured comes as no surprise. The question is, will Pixar's formula ever get old? As long as they keep using smart, creative people like Bird and don't rest on their laurels, it's doubtful. They have the resources to spin out a thousand variations of their previous ventures -- each with a different concept and development, but each exquisitely rendered and possessing the same sharp appeal. It's possible that this movie could have done more with its central idea, but the people behind it never settle for second rate. The thought that they could botch it -- or that The Incredibles would fail in any way to deliver the high-caliber fun it promises -- is inconceivable. Six films and counting: that's a feat even Mr. Incredible would envy.

Review published 11.05.2004.

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