November 12, 2004

After previous super successes, Pixar gives adults most of the action in new film

Do you ever wonder what old Bob Dylan must've been thinking that fateful day at Newport in 1965, right before he launched into "Maggie's Farm?" I don't think he had any doubts about being a master of his form, as he was never really one for modesty. Rather, I think he must have resigned himself to the fact that no matter how good you are, there comes a time when you just have to try something new.

Which brings me to Pixar's newest film. I don't think that anyone doubts that Pixar is the world's premiere CG animation studio. I also think that few would deny that they've mastered the art of making children's animated films that just happen to be witty and well written enough to appeal equally to adults. All of their films up to this point have been nothing short of excellent (with the possible exception of A Bug's Life). The only problem is that they're essentially all the same type of film.

Enter The Incredibles. On paper it sounds right at home in the Pixar catalog: A family of superheroes battles evil and makes a few quips along the way. The execution is, however, entirely different. Truth be told, The Incredibles is more action film than comedy and more adult than juvenile. It may be animated but it is also dark, smart, exhilarating, and vivid. It's also the best film I've seen all year.

The movie opens with a flashback to the glory days of the superhero. Through a series of grainy interviews we are introduced to a world where superheroes are just another facet of everyday life. They thwart evil plots, foil petty thieves, and save cats. A series of lawsuits, however, puts this all to an end and much like the mutants of X-Men fame, so called "supers" are forced underground, where they must blend in with the rest of us.

Fast-forward to the present day. Meet the Parrs, an average family in an average town. Kudos to director Brad Bird and his team for illustrating the frustration of everyday life without ever coming across as heavy-handed. Bob Parr's cubicle hell is funny precisely because of its plausibility (and because of Wallace Shawn's hilarious performance as Parr's boss). The Parrs' home is also a work of art; situated among rows of identical ranch-style houses, the '60s pastel interior gets the message across far better than any words could (see also Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands). But when Bob gets a chance to reprise his role as Mr. Incredible, the normalcy that surrounds him begins to disintegrate.

This is where things start to change. Instead of watching Bob Parr push keys for a living, we're treated to Mr. Incredible beating up robots and bench-pressing train cars. While his domestic life remains the same, Parr's work again becomes incredible. Of course, everything soon goes to hell and its up to those most mundane of people, his family, to save his ass. Once this happens, the film manages to wrest itself completely from the clutches of ordinariness and, in the process, really takes off.

When our heroes arrive at the supervillain Syndrome's island base, The Incredibles goes into action mode. The location itself is worthy of note; while obviously a riff on Blofeld's digs in You Only Live Twice, Pixar manages to craft a more spectacular volcanic base than either the original or its countless parodies and homages since. This serves as an excellent springboard for the bulk of the movie's action scenes, all of which play out spectacularly. There's a surprisingly unsettling scene in which Mr. Incredible is bombarded by expanding balls of goo that look more Mark Romanek than Disney. There's also an extended chase through a forest at, literally, Sonic the Hedgehog speed. And then there's the film's climax, which finds the Incredibles romping through a Manhattan-like metropolis like it's a playground.

Pixar's films have always been about finding the fantastic in the everyday. Whether it was the world as we know it through the eyes of a toy or a transmogrified version of that same world (Monsters Inc.), Pixar has always kept one foot firmly grounded in reality. However, last year's Finding Nemo started a trend that finds the studio slowly moving more towards the fantastic, attempting to show the audience things that a camera never could. The Incredibles fully realizes that potential and, in the process, further exploits the promise of CG-animation as a cinematic tool. Take for example the seamlessness of a scene involving an exploding plane: The camera moves from inside the cabin, out through the explosion, and into the waters below, all in one shot. You could never do that in real life, but when you're in the theater, your eyes don't even notice.

Ultimately, however, none of this is important. The only thing that really matters is whether these various aspects come together to create a film that's enjoyable. And I'd say, judging by the long lines that greeted moviegoers during the biggest opening weekend ever enjoyed by a Disney film, that people were pretty excited about this movie. That's a far cry from the icy reception that old Dylan endured when he decided to shake things up a bit. Oh, the times they are a-changin'.