To understand why Pixar Studios has moved so far beyond other animated production houses, one has to look no further than "The Incredibles."
This captivating tale of domestic superheroes is another slam dunk for the relatively young company, which has created a body of work to rival Disney's run during the 1930s and '40s. This latest effort joins Pixar's "Finding Nemo," "Monsters, Inc.," "A Bug's Life" and the two "Toy Story" films as further evidence why the studio is light years beyond its competition.
Among the lessons that can be learned from Pixar:
- The story is more important than the visuals.
- Voices should be cast based on quality, not how famous the actors are.
- The production must be equally concerned with action as humor.
In "The Incredibles," the valorous Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) has proven himself the city's most reliable protector. On the evening of marrying Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), he once again is called away to battle evil and serve the public.
"No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again," he says "I feel like the maid: 'I just cleaned up this place. Can't you keep it clean for 10 minutes?'"
But then a string of lawsuits strike Mr. Incredible and the other costumed do-gooders of the world. The crimefighters are forced to retire from their trade and go into a government-run program similar to witness protection.
Flash forward 15 years, and Mr. Incredible is simply Bob Parr, an insurance salesman and family man. Still married to the flexible Helen, he now has three kids: the fleet-footed Dash (Spencer Fox), invisibility-prone daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and baby Jack-Jack. While living a modest suburban life, Bob often teams with his old sparring partner Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to secretly thwart crime. They hide these excursions from their wives by pretending it's bowling night.
When a foe from Bob's past named Syndrome (Jason Lee) begins targeting all the dormant superheroes, Mr. Incredible is compelled to come to the rescue ... only this time the wife and kids tag along.
"The Incredibles" is less a parody of superheroes than it is a genuinely rousing comic book tale with a slight twist. Writer-director Brad Bird ("The Iron Giant") isn't afraid to take time setting up the back story that places these exceptional individuals in various mundane environments. These early scenes help establish a believable family dynamic, so once the action kicks into high gear, the conflict takes on an added level of significance.
Much has been made of the fact this is Pixar's first PG-rated effort. The designation is important, because it allows for an element of danger. Unlike TV cartoons such as "X-Men," in which it's apparently verboten to show anybody getting harmed (thus when Cyclops blasts an enemy helicopter there is always a shot of the henchmen jumping to safety), there are real consequences in "The Incredibles." Syndrome hunts down and KILLS the other masked heroes. His minions DON'T evade Bob when he smashes their vehicles into flaming rubble.
Whereas projects such as "The Tick" or the movie "Mystery Men" went out of their way to create warped heroes and villains who sport outlandish powers, "The Incredibles" is rather conservative in this regard. Its characters are iconic (almost generic) superheroes -- three of the four Parrs have the same abilities as members of the Fantastic Four, while Dash is no different than the Flash.
But their prototypical powers are used more as a commentary on their personalities. Teen Violet is at the awkward age when she feels invisible to boys. Dash is the typical hyperactive middle-schooler. Helen is the malleable mom who thinks she has to be in two places at once. Bob is the Parrs' pillar of strength.
Incidentally, the image of the brawny Bob hunched uncomfortably in his compact car is one of the year's funniest sight gags. As is a skirmish between Helen and Syndrome's hordes in which her resources are stretched thin thanks to a series of locking glass doors.
Like Elastigirl, Pixar shows it can be pulled in many directions and snap back into shape, vanquishing any challenger that stands in the way.