Incredibles, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Incredibles may become the first Disney/Pixar film not to dominate at the box office. That statement has nothing to do with the film's quality - in fact, The Incredibles is among the best of Pixar's digitally animated movies. However, it's going up against The Polar Express, which has a number of advantages, not the least of which are its built-in audience and seasonal appeal. More than anything else, The Incredibles is likely to be a victim of bad timing. Don't shed any tears for its makers, however. The film will still keep the cash registers ringing until it attains "blockbuster" status, although it won't be the runaway hit that Pixar's last production, Finding Nemo, was.

As the crop of digitally animated films becomes more abundant, audiences are likely to demand increasingly more from such movies. The early efforts mostly had everything: beautiful visuals, great voice acting, and superior writing. But, as more of these pictures reach screens and they become "routine," it's natural to speculate whether there will be a slip in quality. Fortunately, such a trend (if it ever develops) is not in evidence in The Incredibles. As with Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Pixar has again struck gold. The Incredibles isn't just fine family entertainment, it's superior family entertainment.

One thing immediately noticeable about this picture is that it is markedly more mature in tone and approach than any previous digitally animated movie (excepting Final Fantasy, which was intended for - and did not reach - an entirely different audience). That's not to say that kids, even young ones, won't enjoy The Incredibles, but it appears that writer/director Brad Bird composed his film with older children and their parents in mind. Also, because of the long running time (nearly two hours), boys and girls prone to restlessness may have trouble sitting through everything.

The Incredibles confronts the midlife crisis of a once-popular superhero. In his prime, Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) was beloved by millions. Saving the world wasn't just his job; it was his passion. ("No matter how many times you save the world, it always gets in jeopardy again.") But things changed. People began filing lawsuits against the superheroes (starting with a suicide victim irate that his life was saved), driving them underground courtesy of the "Superhero Relocation Program," which offered a new life in return for a promise never to act as a superhero again. At first, Mr. Incredible and his beloved wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), were happy to live as Bob and Helen Parr, and raise their children, speedy Dash (Spencer Fox); shy, shrinking Violet (Sarah Vowell); and baby Jack-Jack. But, as his job at an insurance company becomes increasingly abrasive, Mr. Incredible yearns for the old days. Some nights, he and his old buddy, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), listen to the police scanner, then give the cops a little unexpected aid. But it's not enough. Then along comes a mysterious woman (Elizabeth Peña) with a job offer, and Mr. Incredible sees a chance to regain his self-confidence and convince himself that he can once again make a difference.

With its amazing variety of locations (the streets of a city, under the sea, a tropical island, etc.), The Incredibles may be the most visually daunting animated film to reach the screen to-date. And it's close to flawless. Only the people are rendered more like cartoons than reality, and that's a conscious decision. (If you want to see almost-real humans, The Polar Express is the closest you're likely to get at this time.) Digital animation has become so commonplace that we take its detail for granted, but a little consideration of the needed effort will result in a reaction not far removed from awe.

Although The Incredibles has plenty of action (including chases and battle scenes), its strength is that it makes the characters and their relationships more important than the fights and pyrotechnics. This is a close family - they just happen to possess some rather unusual abilities. Think Spy Kids, only animated. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are still in love, even after 15 years of marriage (although she has adjusted better than him to domestic life). The children have believable love/hate relationships with their parents. Dash is willful and disobedient because he's bored - he wants to use his super-speed to excel in sports. And Violet has entered that gawky stage of life when her body becomes uncomfortable to inhabit. She uses her invisibility to spy on a boy she likes without being seen.

The film's director is Brad Bird, who fashioned the uncommon The Iron Giant, a traditionally animated effort that has developed a large following amongst adults. For his latest outing, Bird keeps the same audience in mind. Where some animated movies attract adults using pop references and sly one-liners, Bird keeps older viewers interested by not dumbing down his screenplay. It's inevitable that some of The Incredibles' themes (such as that of a middle-age crisis) will go over the heads of kids, but it won't hurt the experience for them. They'll still thrill to the action scenes and laugh at the jokes. And they'll get the overall message about parents being the most important superheroes. But Bird's approach makes this a richer and more worthwhile experience for the over-18 crowd. No need to don a trenchcoat and sneak into this movie.

No review of The Incredibles would be complete without mentioning the men and women who lend their voices to their cartoon alter-egos. Craig T. Nelson (known best for his TV work in "Coach" and "The District") is wonderful, blending the occasional pomposity of Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear with more human qualities. Holly Hunter's voice is perhaps a little too recognizable, but it doesn't take long for us to forget the actress as the character comes to life. A similar comment can be made about Samuel L. Jackson. And Jason Lee abandons his fatuous live-action reputation to play the villain Syndrome, a character who is equal parts pathetic and dangerous.

Ever wonder whether retired superheroes are subject to widening midsections and bad backs? Do they have problems with male pattern baldness? Wonder no longer. Those are just a few of the lighter questions that The Incredibles answers. Bird's feature is appropriately titled - it describes how most viewers will react to this exemplary mixture of top-notch storytelling, visual razzle-dazzle, accessible humor, and involving action. The Incredibles is without question one of 2004's most accomplished and enjoyable family-oriented films.

Incredibles, The (United States, 2004)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-05
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1