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The Incredibles, written and directed by Brad Bird, 2004, 115 min.

Computer-animated movies are becoming more and more common. The graphics capability of the industry is getting more and more powerful. Despite these two trends, the storytelling power of the people making these movies seems to be on the decline. I realize that I'm in a distinct minority of people who didn't care for either Finding Nemo or Shrek 2, the two big blockbusters recently in the field. However, I did have high hopes for The Incredibles, considering the solid storytelling in Brad Bird's traditionally animated The Iron Giant. And the movie does not disappoint: it's got action and tons of computer-animated eye candy, but it all works because of the carefully structured narrative and the intriguing characterization.

The movie begins with a pseudo-documentary segment, in which we meet Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, two superheroes in their prime. Both have names that suit their powers: Mr. Incredible is very strong, and Elastigirl is very stretchy and bendy. Next we find out what brought about the downfall of the superhero age. Mr. Incredible saves a man from a suicide attempt, foils a robbery, and meets an eager, young fan. Of the three things that happen to him, it's the first that provokes (or is possibly just symptomatic of) the backlash. Legal suits mount up, suspicions fill the mind of the populace, and all superheroes are rounded up and sequestered under the Superhero Relocation Program.

The main part of the movie picks up fifteen years later. Mr. Incredible is now known as Bob Parr and he works in a soul-deadening job in insurance. Elastigirl is Helen Parr, mother of three kids in a suburban setting. Violet is an introverted teenager, with the added burden of not being sure of her powers of invisibility and projecting a force-field. Dash is the opposite: he's a young boy who's only too eager to use his super-speediness. The baby of the family, Jack-Jack, is a mystery at this point, powers-wise. Mr. Incredible can't stand this life, in comparison to how things used to be, so he sneaks out at night to listen to the police scanner with his buddy Frozone (another apt name -- his powers are just what his name indicates). The situation gets a lot more serious when Mr. Incredible is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage. He starts taking superhero work from her, and it looks an awful lot like flirtation. There's also the matter of the shadowy corporation that Mirage works for. Why is this company situated on a tropical island hideaway, as if to match the aspirations of any self-respecting villain from a James Bond film? What do they really want from Mr. Incredible?

When this movie has an action scene, it kicks up the intensity level. The violence is certainly more intense than other Pixar movies. It's a tribute to Bird and the animators at Pixar that the action here is almost always more exciting than live action movies that spend millions of dollars smashing up real cars and buildings. I remember many of the action sequences from The Incredibles with clarity and fondness. There's genuine peril, and no small amount of entertaining touches.

I also remember the diametrically opposed scenes from the movie. The Incredibles is a long movie because it focuses on the relationships between the characters. In fact, it seems almost old-fashioned in its storytelling. Bird takes the time to show how each person feels, how the consequences of their actions affect them, and so forth. In another related contrast with other movies for kids, The Incredibles has an absolute lack of fart jokes, cheap in-jokes, and pop-culture-related sight gags. The movie is funny, but not in a cheap way. And when Bird references other items in pop culture, it's usually in a sly way that builds the storyline. All told, these attributes make the movie feel a bit slower in pace, despite the great action setpieces.

Part of what I liked so much about the movie was the way that the ending is treated. Far too many action-based movies have a grand finale in which the protagonist and antagonist face off in a climactic fistfight. Viscerally satisfying, maybe, but why did the good side win? A few more hours at the gym? The Incredibles works contrary to this pattern. It's a simple thing, but Mr. Incredible and his family (along with Frozone) win the day because they work together. Cheesy, yes, but Bird spices up the homily about togetherness by the fact that the characters all have supercool powers. The family has bickered, and seen its share of dysfunctionality, but when the action is hot, they work together like clockwork. It's a sight to behold.

Another good thing about the movie? Edna Mode! Bird takes a look at the typical superhero story and realizes that there's a big gap: who designs all those costumes? What kind of mind would be responsible? Edna Mode is just the answer. She's a pint-size lady with a bizarre accent, but with the true nature of a fashion diva. She made the original costume for Mr. Incredible, but is totally offended when he brings it back and asks for a patch. She already has a whole new line of outfits planned out, picking something suitable for each family member. One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when Edna demonstrates the extra capabilities of the new costumes to Elastigirl -- it's totally obvious, now that Bird has pointed it out, that the costume designer for superheroes would need rocket launchers and multiple other bits of heavy weaponry to test out the durability of this fortified spandex. Classic stuff.

The movie is not perfect -- despite my praise for the characterization and slower passages, it does run a bit long -- but it's very satisfying. The Incredibles lives up to its name.


Last modified: February 19, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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