The Incredibles (2004)PG

CapeCapeCapeHalf a capeHalf a balding headHalf a wrecking ball

Pixar out-Disneys Disney again.

The Walt Disney Corporation has been embarrassed over and over by Pixar, which is nominally a partner (for one more film) but is increasingly, and rightly, seen as a threatening competitor even before the partnership is ended. In a splendid example of corporate denial, the Disney bosses recently took a look at the performance of Pixar and Dreamworks computer-animated movies vs. their own hand-drawn animations, and concluded that audiences don’t like hand-drawn animation anymore, so Disney should go all computer animated. And nobody is willing to mention that it isn’t the newer animation technique that audiences want, what audiences want is movies that don’t suck. Because that is the core difference between Pixar movies and Disney ones: they largely follow the same formula, except Pixar keeps the level of suction much lower than Disney does these days.

(Maybe Disney is learning its lesson now that Valiant, the first of their new computer animation efforts, is coming out: judging by the TV ads, it looks pathetic — like they totally failed to hire away any of the people who are capable of doing 3D animation with any real skill and craft.)

In short, Pixar is making the movies that Disney should be making, if they had any art left in their souls instead of Microsoft-like vertical marketing paradigms. And Pixar movies deserve both the same kind of praise and the same kind of criticism that Disney movies have traditionally received, but they don’t get the latter because their inferior competitors siphon it off.

Pixar talks a lot about how it likes to stretch and expand and move forward all the time, but to me they seem to be in a bit of a creative rut, falling into a repetitivity and formulaicism much like Disney’s. And this is, in many ways, a Disneyish movie, except with more violence. (It’s rated PG). But, that said, The Incredibles is a lot of fun. To me it’s definitely Pixar’s best film, and I can’t personally name any recent animated project that’s better. Um, except for some of Miyazaki’s work. Let’s say I can’t name anything better that’s in English.

I don’t normally review any animated films here, but for this one I had to make an exception.

The plot is taken in part from Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen, in which superheroes have to hide out in normal society, concealing their powers. But, with funny. The title family consists of two superhero parents and their kids, and are mostly an homage to the Fantastic Four in their mix of powers. And the settings seem to be an homage to James Bond. (The bad guy has a bond-villain lair that is appropriately, uh, capital-intensive. Even the score is done in a Bondish style.) This is a rather odd fit with the other elements of the film, but one that works pretty well — they don’t make it very obvious, but the film is actually a period piece, set in the fabulous futuristic sixties that never were. Bond-villain lairs certainly belong in that milieu.

Anyway, being forced to hide their powers and act like normal suburbanites makes all of them depressed and grumpy. But then, naturally, shit happens........................

This movie has got humor, family drama that feels pretty realistic and meaningful, and action. Yeah, there are actually some quite exciting action sequences. And they’re rather rough for a kids’ movie — I was surprised to see enemy hench-guards mown down so numerously and impersonally, in true James Bondian fashion. They’re quite good at showing the superheroes use their abilities smoothly and naturally, the way any of us use our normal powers. (Too many of the less ept superhero representations show them using a power as if it were a gadget they had to pull out of a pocket and push buttons on.) And kudos for Pixar on their snappy action timing, especially in comic scenes; a lot of other computer animators, especially earlier ones such as the losers who made Casper, did very poorly at this. (Disney is not very good at it these days either.) Add it all up and it’s just a wonderful good time at the movies.

Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible somehow sounds exactly the same as the guys that Pixar and Disney always get to voice square-jawed heroes, like Buzz Lightyear and Tarzan. He gives a completely solid, creditable performance. Holly Hunter as Elastigirl (Mrs. Incredible) is adorable; I could listen to her all day. Samuel L. Jackson as Frozone (a super-colleague of Mr. Incredible from the old days) is pretty funny; as someone who is getting rather sick of Samuel L. in bloated Mace Windu type roles, I heartily recommend to him that he do more comedy. (And stop jawing about your goddamn golf on talk shows, okay?) All in all, a pretty good bunch, though nobody in the voice cast is as funny as Ellen Degeneres in Finding Nemo, except for Sarah Vowell when she’s being herself instead of in character. (The one DVD extra worth making an effort to watch is ten minutes of hanging out with Sarah Vowell.)

I hope that next time Pixar does human characters, instead of animals or talking factory products, they reconsider their approach of how to balance realism vs. cartoonishness, because I feel that their present approach, which was established way back in Toy Story, has outlived its time. They make their characters’ face and body designs very stylized and cartoonish, while making their environments very lifelike, and keeping those unreal body designs very realistically solid and stable. This creates an aesthetic clash and draws too much attention to the unrealism of the designs; you start to really notice things like how the characters’ ears don’t have an opening in the center. It’s time for them to either move on to more lifelike human designs, or alternatively, to fully embrace cartoonishness by making their figures as surrealistically distortable as a Tex Avery or Robert McKimson character. Some other computer animators are starting to embrace this latter option, such as in the recent film Madagascar.

Addendum, 2014: Pixar has now made eight more feature films since this one, but for my money, though there’s plenty to like about some of them, none are quite as good as The Incredibles. Unless they have another really good run, which seems unlikely now that they and Disney have merged... I think for my money, this superhero story has to be the one that goes down in history as their best film.