Wednesday, March 23, 2005

That's Incredibles!

I finally made time today to watch The Incredibles. It was every inch as excellent as people had told me it was, though it surprised me in a number of ways.

Understand this: I'm not a great lover of computer-generated animation. I often find it difficult, even unpleasant to look at -- I left the theater with a screaming diz-buster of a headache after viewing the original Toy Story way back when. (I've since come to admire the film very much, though I believe its sequel is lightyears -- no pun intended -- better.) I also find CGI rather cold and artificial, lacking the warmth and humanity of traditional hand-drawn, ink-and-paint animation.

The Incredibles won me over almost instantly. I loved the device of opening the picture with aged-looking interview footage featuring the main characters, and pretty much everything that followed. I wasn't enamored with the character designs -- to me, they looked like the CGI equivalent of Gerry Anderson's Marionation puppets, and that's not intended as a compliment. But what director Brad Bird did with these characters charmed me unfailingly, and more than made up for the awkwardness of their appearance.

Having enjoyed and admired Bird's The Iron Giant, I expected The Incredibles to be both mature in its intelligence and childlike in its sense of fun, and it is. What surprised me a little was the film's rambunctious energy. The Iron Giant is a brilliant motion picture, but its pacing is deliberate and measured. The Incredibles, though about a half-hour longer than Giant, zips right along. It takes plenty of opportunity for intimate moments and thoughtful conversation (both rarities in American animation), but always without slamming the forward pressure of the narrative into a brick wall.

I was also surprised at the film's obvious antecedents. I expected a superhero film, and I got one -- one remarkably knowledgeable about and faithful to its source genre, unlike many other superhero movies that make one wonder whether anyone involved in the production ever actually read a comic book -- but I also got an animated retooling of Spy Kids, another film I deeply admire. (My admiration ends with Spy Kids 2, which is decent but lacks the freshness and wonder of the original, and leaves the building with Spy Kids 3-D, an agonizingly bad film made unwatchable by a dull script and a scenery-scarfing Sly Stallone.) The similarity between the two films is so striking it cannot have been accidental.

Most of all, I appreciated Bird's depiction of a family in which, despite their unique superpowers, none of the members is an idiot of a freak. Bob and Helen Parr (alias Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) are a genuinely loving couple brimming with affection for one another and their children that they express in heartfelt, non-cloying ways. Their two older children, Dash and Violet, behave like bright kids would in their situation and at their respective ages. None of the characters is perfect, but their quirks resonate with authenticity and their expression of them seems plausible.

I got a kick out of Frozone, the family friend and fellow superhero voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, and Syndrome, the geeky grownup fanboy who's the villain of the piece. And I found Edna, The Incredibles' version of James Bond's Q, absolutely hilarious -- she's voiced by Bird himself in a bizarre accent that blends equal parts Peter Lorre, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and every pretentious, self-important fashion designer you've ever seen.

When I first heard, years ago, that Brad Bird was directing a film for Pixar, I was concerned. I feared that John Lasseter and company -- amazing though they are -- would try to shoehorn Bird's unique vision into the standard Pixar parameters. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that The Incredibles, though 100 percent Pixar, is also 100 percent Brad Bird.

If you've not seen The Incredibles, you owe yourself this treat. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is just a kiddie flick -- it's a mature, lovingly developed film that will appeal to smart viewers of all ages. And if you love comics, or Spy Kids, or Bond films, or all three, you'll be making a new best friend.

I remain curious, though, how Disney and Pixar pulled off using the name of an actual comic book superhero. The original Elasti-Girl first appeared in the classic Doom Patrol series in the '60s. Her superpower, however, was not stretching -- Elasti-Girl I simply grew to gigantic size. Also, her last name was Farr (only one letter different from the surname of the heroic family in the film). Food for thought.

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