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Presenting an in-depth look at the current state of Animation


"The Incredibles" - Accurate Title, No Doubt

It's time to get past the "oh, isn't it funny and almost boring that Pixar always does great work" section of our relationship with Emeryville's wonderstudio. For this reviewer, at least, a state of Zen-like acceptance has been reached. Pixar is America's strongest studio working today. It is clear that what we are seeing with a studio of Pixar's caliber is not simply a nice house for great artists. No, what this place represents is pure integration of every element, artistic and business combined, into one honest-to-god "dream factory". There is little doubt, then, as to why the place has seemingly become a haven for animation folks burned by other studios. Tony Fucile, Ted Blackman, Ronnie Del Carmen - all names previously associated with feature or television departments of other studios. And, of course, Brad Bird, director of the ill/non-marketed masterpiece The Iron Giant for Warner Brothers. Which brings us to The Incredibles.


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While there is much of the Pixar stamp on The Incredibles, some of its finest virtues are distinctly characteristic of Bird, one of the few truly visionary directors within American animation today. He has a love of detail and atmosphere that rarely anybody seems to match anymore in any medium. As the film concerns itself with superheroes, there is a great deal of action, of which we will speak more later. But this action is parenthetical to the character moments, scenes of wonderful honesty and humanity in everyone, bad and good. Bird's writing highlights the truth and the unique flaws of reality, which latch on to us so brilliantly that all the wild superheroics that precede and follow are immediately made genuine; for instance, the villain accidentally gestures with his arm too far back while using his finger to hold Mr. Incredible suspended in mid-air. The villain mutters to himself in self-frustration and storms off to fetch the hero. Instantly, we understand how this baddie had expectations for the scene between him and the hero, and how his own ineptitudes are failing his fantasies. Or, take Helen Parr/Elastigirl's mounting annoyance at a series of automatic doors, articulating with no words her extreme displeasure with a situation she is tiresomely familiar with. There's people behind these masks, more so than practically every other superhero flick out there.

Guiding these characterizations is the impeccable vocal casting. Less "big names" this time, but everybody is absolutely perfect for every character. Craig T. Nelson, the famed Coach and the dad from Poltergeist, pretty much integrates with his character so fully that Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible becomes wholly his own entity. The performance is perhaps the best Nelson has ever given, full of sympathy, power, and humor. Holly Hunter, always a brilliant actress, brings her matter-of-fact approach to Helen's no-nonsense mom and no-nonsense superheroine. Spencer Fox, as Dash Parr, is one of those balls of energy that adults will actually appreciate (perhaps because it's more realistic for a 10-year-old boy to be insane than an insane cartoon sidekick). Samuel L. Jackson....well, it's Sam Jackson, epitome of cool and street-smart logic. And yay for Jason Lee being in a Pixar film. I've been a Kevin Smith fan for years, and one of the many things Smith has to his credit is fostering Lee, one of the most gifted natural actors the world has ever seen (given his history of skateboarding fame). He brings his genius abilities of delivery and tactics to one of Pixar's best villains yet.

Speaking technically for a second, the film looks absolutely remarkable. It does seem like we're past the time to be thrilled with Pixar's visual prowess, but with the glut of computer animation on the horizon, we should stop and smell the roses of this amazing company. The good money helps, but it's the artistry that really amazes with The Incredibles, more so than literally every other CGI work ever made. Brad Bird was a man of the pencil before coming to the land of digitality, and he directs The Incredibles no differently than any 2-D film (other than some heightened ambition, always realized), leaving the challenge of making up the gap to Pixar's great technicians. It seemed like there would be a looseness that the greatest cartoons always had that CGI films never would, by sheer reason of their process, but The Incredibles achieves it flawlessly. The most amazing visual element of the film is not any single action scene or beautiful environment, even though the film has that in spades. Rather, the real jaw-dropper is Elastigirl herself. To explain, let me preface with the fact that CGI characters need to be afforded a certain range of motion in both face and body, and they'll glitch if an animator asks a character to do something that it cannot do. It is a little like puppetry; the puppet/3-D model is predefined and the animator makes use of what tools he is afforded to get the right emotion out of it. So how in the world did they get Elastigirl to stretch, squash, fold, and expand so seamlessly? It's like inventing polygons on the spot, which I can't fathom. It may not mean much to the average moviegoer, but let me assure you that the more you know about how this kind of animation works, the more you'll be amazed with Elastigirl, and indeed the whole film.

Thematically, the film delves into matters of individuality and responsibility. Certainly, these are not new lessons to the superhero genre, but the key is never what is said, but how they go about saying it. Here, there is a backlash to superheroes by the public, who seem to have little gratitude for the do-gooding folk around them. However, it is the lack of their drive to maintain peace and justice caused by the people that allows the villain to come to fruition, exceptional in a different way but wholly misguided and warped. But the blame rests not on society alone, for Mr. Incredible exhibits an elitist edge in the opening that also sets things on their merry way to destruction. There's a need to build a community that comes from every character in The Incredibles in various ways, be it through family, idolatry, or teamwork. Nobody really wants to be alone in The Incredibles, and the one character who says so at one point suffers for it for the rest of the film. The insight into superheroes here is stunning; the film recognizes how superheroes use their good deeds as an outlet for a sense of acceptance for who they really are and what they can really do when trying. When forced to stifle, nobody is truly happy.

Now, all of this analysis and information is fine, but I'm not really being honest with this review. Because all of this stuff occurred to me AFTER the film. As a critic, I am bound to tell you my experience of the film from a moviegoer standpoint, and that point-of-view was of somebody spiritually superglued to the edge of my seat. This film grabbed me and didn't let go, in the basest of terms. I was carried, coaxed, shoved, and thrown throughout the entire thing, and I loved every second. The action was remarkable, riddled with the joy of (re)discovery of one's powers and abilities. Scenes practically effortless in their brilliant conception, storyboarding, and editing. But more than that, Brad Bird plugged me into these characters from the first second, and I was ready and willing to follow their stories anywhere and everywhere. I felt like I had no brain of my own, having instead turned into an all-purpose movie vacuum sucking the entire thing into my cortex. The experience was one of the finest I've ever had in a movie theatre, and I will definitely be seeing it again. I loved it more than I expected to love it, and I expected to love it a LOT. Four-star film, ladies and gents. Viewing is mandatory.

Four stars (****) out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 6, 2004

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