It’s not every animated movie that deals with midlife crisis, marital dysfunction, child neglect, impotence fears, fashion faux pas and existential angst. But The Incredibles — the latest in the line of miracles from Pixar (A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 1 and 2, Finding Nemo) — is not like any animated movie you’ve ever seen. While delivering the goods as a rip-roaring action-adventure and in the process rocketing the art of animation to new heights of imagination, humor and wonder, director-writer Brad Bird has crafted a film that breaks fresh ground and defies fogy rules. For starters, there’s no talking fish, insects or toys. Bird — who cut his satirical teeth working on The Simpsons and the criminally underseen 1999 feature The Iron Giant — animates human beings.
Take Mr. Incredible, voiced with beleaguered bluster by Craig T. Nelson. This legend in spandex is so busy rushing to rescue people that he brushes off a kid fan who later becomes his archnemesis, Syndrome (Jason Lee never loses the hurt-boy tremor in the rage that pours out of this adult psycho — he’s one holy terror of a villain).
The plot thickens when Mr. Incredible, besieged by frivolous lawsuits from people who claim they never wanted to be rescued, enters a superhero-protection program. As Bob Parr, he hangs up his tights, becomes a suburban slob and relives his glory days with Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson in great, gritty voice), another rejected paragon.
Bob feels fat, unsexy and too beat to parent. Only wife Helen — the former Elastigirl (Holly Hunter’s vocal turn is a marvel of feisty comic nuance) — tries to fit in. Faking who they are puts pressure on the Parr kids, and they give Mom and Dad hell for it. The baby just bawls. But teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) hates hiding her ability to be invisible. And son Dash (Spencer Fox) itches to use his gift for supervelocity.
The situation is primed to explode — and does it ever. When Mr. Incredible squeezes into costume and sneaks into service to save the world from Syndrome’s weapons of mass destruction, The Incredibles takes off like a comic book on speed. The setup may try the patience of the very young, but Bird’s insistence on getting us into the heads of this family pays off when the action starts up. Suddenly it’s James Bond, Indiana Jones and the X-Men all rolled into one kick-out-the-jams spectacle.
Don’t let anyone spoil the fun of what happens when Mr. Incredible is held captive on Syndrome’s island and his family must suit up to rescue him. Just get psyched for the surprises that cannonball at you from every direction. Amid the dazzle, Bird also makes time for jokes that are smart and sidesplitting. Hold on for short, sassy ball of fire Edna Mode (Bird does her voice, hilariously), the guru of fashion insults who designs indestructible costumes that would drive Q, the old boy from the 007 films, back to his outmoded drawing board.
Skeptics say The Incredibles is too long at two hours and too PG-dark for the coddled general audience. This makes no sense, because there’s no better expression of family values and fears onscreen right now. By building the family bond into the DNA of his story, Bird has crafted a film — one of the year’s best — that doesn’t ring cartoonish, it rings true.