The Incredibles

In his prime crime fighting days, Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) was known as Mr. Incredible, and fought crime using his super strength. He, and all other superheroes, were treated like royalty and beloved. But when simple, litigious crime fighting mishaps forced the segregation of superheroes away from the public, Bob took a superhero wife in Helen (aka “Elastigirl,” voiced by Holly Hunter), and had three kids: Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox), and an infant son. He now resigns himself to a dull life in the suburbs, working for an insurance company. Danger arrives again when evil supervillain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), rises to power, forcing Bob and his family back into their forbidden superhero form, along with ice-powered friend “Frozone” (Samuel L. Jackson), to try and save humanity once again.

With “The Incredibles,” Pixar and Disney take a perilous leap toward big kid entertainment. Not that this PG-rated superhero comedy isn’t for all ages (parents of younger ones might want to exercise more caution). But compared to the sunny days found in “Finding Nemo” and “Toy Story,” the blend of action and genuine threat found in this new computer animated offering might be a shock to some parents who want more Mike and Sulley style shenanigans in their animated features.

The change the in the Pixar wind is brought by outsider Brad Bird, the writer and director of the notoriously overlooked 1999 animated masterpiece, “The Iron Giant.” Bird wasn’t born in the Pixar camps of cute and cuddly, and he brings to “The Incredibles” a longing to play with the medium’s conventions and expectations. He’s brought a tougher, more angular look to the visual representation of the cartoon superhero world, taking great cues from the early James Bond films and 1950s, Donna Reed-style household idealism. This is brought to life by the Pixar team with exquisite detail (of course) and clarity, meeting the greatest challenge of the film: creating a world that the human animations (albeit super powered ones) can live in with believability.

Bird pays his homages to various superhero sources (including the Fantastic Four), Cold War era politics, and Art Deco design, which results in a full plate of visual treats that many animated films skimp on. I would even go as far as to say this is the best looking Pixar film yet. Bird also ratchets up the tension in this sometimes breathlessly frenetic picture, making sure to underline that his characters are in real threat of death from Syndrome, as explained in a chilling scene where Helen clarifies to her kids that they might need to fight to the death with the bad guys. This observation of mortality in the screenplay is a brave step forward for Bird and Pixar, even if it’s hard to believe.

And get this, not one single flatulence joke to be found in the entire film. Thank you, Brad Bird. Thank you.

Because Bird is aiming a little higher than previous Pixar productions, his aspirations sometimes outweigh what “The Incredibles” can truly handle dramatically. The acute domestic drama played out between Bob and Helen, over their return to their superhero roots, often results in the pair simply squabbling. Dramatically speaking, it’s truthful to the situation, and sets up the weight of the risk Bob takes when he eventually jets off on his own to stop Syndrome. Narratively important, the argument scenes are nevertheless a huge drain on the pace of the film, as the action and any momentum are killed instantly so “Mom and Dad” can fight. “Incredibles” is a superhero film as much as it is a matrimonial drama, and since Bird did not attend Pixar academy, he hasn’t developed the gift for transitioning both sides of the film into one whole, and leaves the first hour of the film feeling deflated and labored.

Bird saves his juice for the last act of the film, where the family comes together to take Syndrome down. It’s then and there that “The Incredibles” drinks a 12 pack of Jolt Cola and goes to town, staging action sequence after action sequence of amazing adventure set pieces, showing off the various gifts the Parrs are endowed with. In superhero films like “Spider-Man” or “X-Men,” the limits of live action always come into play quickly. Bird has no fence around his imagination in “The Incredibles,” and stages incredible imagery for the eyes, depicting elasticity, super strength, and speed in ways that would break the budget of a live action production. Bird keeps his camera fluid and always tracking, making the last act of the movie a real treat for comic book fans and anyone who might think the first half of the film is a little too dry. Once “The Incredibles” comes alive, it does so with an invigorating vengeance.

The trailer for the next Pixar production, “Cars,” is attached to prints of “The Incredibles,” and reveals a cuddly return to the softball productions Pixar is normally associated with. This makes the triumph of tone and design found in “The Incredibles” all the more important to appreciate. Bird has brought to the screen a glowing representation of the comic book/family adventure genre, and if the production is blessed with a sequel, I can only imagine how far his vision will soar now that it’s fully unleashed.

Rating: B+