Wow. I mean, really -- Wow!
I have long admitted to kneeling at the altar of Pixar, so I knew I was going to enjoy The Incredibles. However, how could I predict I was going to dig this film so much that I lamented not being able to watch it again immediately after the credits rolled at the screening? Why did this movie defeat my usual biases like a washed-up villain being taken down by a great superhero? Is this more about what Pixar has -- yet again -- done right, or more about what just plain works for me?
Perhaps it's both. Pixar took a new chance with The Incredibles by accepting the story of someone who wasn't a current member of the club and allowing him to direct it. That someone is Brad Bird, the lauded creative talent behind Warner Bros. The Iron Giant, a stylish exhibition of animated 50s nostalgia. Bird's current story deviates from the usual Pixar path by being based on people (albeit ones with special abilities) and not on the usual imagination-rich populations of toys, bugs, monsters, and fish. It also includes a stronger, more mature edge.
The gamble paid off, and The Incredibles is the first Pixar film to feel like a blend of two styles, one old and one new. While it retains the trademarks of Pixar's other movies (most notably the facial expressions and the fast, emotion-driven dialogue), it adopts a smooth, dynamic aesthetic that should be familiar to fans of The Iron Giant. It's driven by distinct shapes and solid colors, which make everything in the film look fast, even when no one's moving. The adaptation of this style turns the movie into the first 3-D animated film that truly feels like a cartoon and takes advantage of what drawings have to offer. The emphasis is not on the detailed, snapshot duplication of realism, but on comic book motion. The characters move like comic book characters in a cartoon universe. When I think back on the movie, I picture the characters as 2-D -- and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
The story itself seems an amalgam of a zillion familiar elements; in fact, much of what happens feels so borrowed that it should bother me. But it didn't, probably because the formulas were applied so well that I was reminded of what made them successful as formulas in the first place. And perhaps this is where my reaction becomes more about me than about the movie. The story emphasizes the value of family, teamwork, and good intentions. It's about being true to one's self while also making the effort to do what's best for those you love, and being appreciated for it by those same people. For me, that's a sucker-punch. Maybe I'm really just a softie, but tell that story convincingly and my eyes will tear up every time.
That harder edge I mentioned before also helps a great deal. There's perhaps as much cartoon-style violence in this movie as in many others, yet The Incredibles gets a PG rating (as opposed to a G) because of the intensity of the danger. Death plays a significant role in the story, and it's utilized so effectively that I worried for the safety of the good guys. Also, the villain appears too mad and powerful to reason with, which makes him a real threat and a representative of life's unfairness. And that serves to strengthen the message of learning to be able to count on the ones you love.
Because the story carries such an undercurrent of sadness, I wonder if Bird isn't somehow also lamenting the loss of awe and wonder that was used to counteract the paranoia in the '50s, or the hip, tough coolness that responded to Cold War fears in the '60s (which is this movie's main timeframe). Cynicism, selfishness, pettiness, and unexceptionalism are the enemies here, manifested by an unwillingness to believe in fantasic heroism anymore (the heroes' first-act downfall occurs when the citizens they're protecting begin to sue them for accidental injuries). Bird may have chimed in with this sentiment a little too late -- this was definitely a valid concern in the '90s, but, with movies like Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, and The Incredibles, this decade is turning into a terrific decade to invest in heroes again. These days, our heroes struggle with their consciences and bleed a lot more, but they manage to turn their sacrifices into triumphs. Tell their stories well, and we'll have new sources of awesome wonder and tough coolness to believe in.
Personally, I'm loving this little renaissance. I'm pleased Bird has joined in with his contribution -- and I can't wait to experience the action, humor, warmth, and fantastic style of The Incredibles again and again.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar and rated "PG" for action violence.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.