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The Incredibles:
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Monday 8 November 2004

The Incredibles

a movie review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Brad Bird

Written by Brad Bird

Starring voice acting by Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jason Lee, Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell, Elizabeth Peña, Wallace Shawn

The question isn't whether it's going to win the Oscar for Best Animated Film, the question is whether it will win the Oscar for Best Film. We fully expect it to be nominated; it's that good. First, you forget you're watching a Pixar movie. Then, you forget you're watching a movie...

The Incredibles is the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow wanted to be — a fully-realized, narratively-revelatory alternate-world film. The thing is as jam-packed as the Wild Cards world, or the one in Watchmen. It knows superheroes, it knows people, and it knows the difference between the high and low mimetic forms of narrative.

It's also funny as hell and it's scary, and suspenseful, and touching, exactly when it needs to be. Plus you get to see an obnoxious character who looks like Rick Moranis (voiced by Wallace Shawn) knocked through ten or twelve cinderblock walls.

As John Clute would say, the hum of pleroma.

You never thought you could care so much about a screen full of pixels. Director Brad Bird knows how to use those pixels, too: there's the world the film is happening in — one style; the movie starts with TV interviews from 15 years before — another style; there's an old newsreel — another style entirely, and in sepia, too.

The POV is usually limited third-person (close shots, close-ups, medium shots mostly) — but when it needs to it jumps to omniscient, then first-person subjective camera — whatever it takes to get the story across in the best possible way. There are even out-of-focus shots (think about it...).

The world is one where superheroes and heroines were litigated out of existence years before — we see Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) back then doing stuff like preventing suicides and stopping thefts that he's later sued for. He and his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are in the hero protection program — just like it says — and are raising three children: Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack. Violet (Sarah Vowell) comes to manifest Sue-Storm-like powers of invisibility and force-field generation; Dash (Spencer Fox) is a flash type superspeeder; when the movie starts, Jack-Jack is just a big slobbering baby-type (things change). None of them can reveal their powers to others.

Mr. Incredible and his black friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, finally picking a good script, as a Captain Cold/Jack Frost type) have taken to sneaking out on "Bowling Night," listening to the police scanner and doing the occasional heroic deed. (In ski masks — they can't blow their cover — bank robber tropes turned inside out. The film plays a lot with secret identity clichés; in this case it's not just the secret identity that's the secret, it's the whole identity — as if Superman not only had to hide the fact he's Superman, but also that he's Clark Kent.)

A seemingly minor part of the plot is that heroes in the protection program are disappearing. Through some fairly subtle plotting (and the aforementioned putting-the-boss-through-the-wall incident), Mr. Incredible gets involved with a shady super-scientific corporation with some runaway assets (an escaped droid that's terrifying because it seems mindless, but learns from its own mistakes) on an island like every James Bond villain's secret lair rolled into one, complete with Bond-esque theme music. (Another similarity with Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, thanks to shared inspirations.) The first encounter with it is a great set-piece of action and humor.

And once the plot falls into place, the movie puts the pedal to the metal...


Steven Utley wrote a piece some 40 or so years ago, far too good for the benighted fanzine it appeared in, about why the Fantastic Four appealed so strongly to teenagers at the time: they identified. Por exemplo: The bodies of teenage boys begin to stretch and deform (like Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic); they broke out in lumps and fissures (like Ben Grimm, The Thing) and they couldn't control their emotions and flared up at everyone (like Johnny Storm, The Human Torch). Teenage girls felt like no one saw them (like Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl).

The same applies to The Incredibles: Violet is invisible, especially to the guy she's attracted to (through most of the movie her character has one eye showing behind a curtain of hair); Dash wants more than anything to compete — but he can't reveal his super-speed. Because of this he and Violet spend most of their time fighting with each other. There's a hilarious dinner-table squabble; Elastigirl's trying to hold them apart, Jack-Jack's slobbering on everything; Mr. Incredible is distracted with troubles of his own.

We can't tell you about all the wonderful things in this movie or we'd be here all day, and we'd be lots less entertaining than the movie is. It will deserve every bit of the money it earns. (I hope Bird gets to deposit a bazillion simoleons in the First Bank of Toontown...)

This movie is about superheroes; it's about responsibility and being true to yourself (and without those themes being plopped on by the ABC After School Special Ladle); it's about a gestalt (too bad Sturgeon didn't live to see this) — four, well five, or maybe six — people become the thing they need to be to get the job done, rather than fighting alone. And they grow and change at least as much as the characters in any good film, animated or otherwise. (There's a scene where Mr. Incredible lies to his wife about going a business trip after he's actually been fired, and you can see on his face and hear in his voice that he hates himself for lying to his wife, but can't tell her what's actually happening, and the scene is every bit as good as if live actors, really good live actors, were performing it. Some might say this film fails to reach the highest level of cinematic art because there's no truly deep, introspective, psychological insight into any of the characters. To this criticism we reply in the only way possible: Bite me.)

But the funniest bits in the film, the hands down, hysterical, this-is-pure-genius bits, involve diminutive superhero fashion designer Edna Mode (aka E, an homage to Bond's Q). She's completely imperious, utterly over-the-top, and absolutely pitch-perfect. Every scene she's in is screamingly funny. (Talk about unfair: not only did Bird write and direct, he gave himself the juiciest role.) She also gives an instructive (and hilarious) fashion show/lecture about costume design, and why never ever ever have a cape as part of your design. (This is just one of many exceptionally well executed bits of foreshadowing in the film. They fit in so perfectly, and you're so busy laughing, that you don't realize it's foreshadowing until later. Given all the lousy foreshadowing in Hollywood these days, screenwriters should take note of how it's supposed to be done.)

A word about Bird: He previously directed the critically acclaimed commercial flop The Iron Giant. It was a good film that got stupid in the last five minutes ("Hey, think you want to use any of that advanced weaponry you just displayed to take out that nuclear warhead headed your way?") and had an advertising campaign put together by people who evidently hated the film ("Let's just splice together all the parts where the kid screams especially shrilly.") The Incredibles is a quantum leap. The Iron Giant was a good film, The Incredibles is a great one.

This is the second to last film on the Disney/Pixar contract (Pixar makes the film, Disney distributes it for very lucrative terms), each one of them a huge hit. (Next year's Cars, the last on the contract, may break the run; the preview didn't look as promising as Pixar's previous offerings. Of course, a "dud" from Pixar would probably still make $100 million.) Pixar boss Steve Jobs is playing hardball about renewing the contract, as well he should. Disney, a company whose name used to be synonymous with animation, has so lost its touch that it closed its Orlando animation studio the same year Finding Nemo made $865,000,000 worldwide. (We wouldn't be surprised to see The Incredibles surpass that.)

Even though Disney has the rights to produce sequels to all of Pixar's films covered by the contract, and The Incredibles, like every superhero saga, is perfect for sequels, you know they would screw it up. They no longer have the talent and vision Pixar has. Everything Pixar does says "We want to make the best movies we possibly can." Everything Disney does says "We want to squeeze as many shekels out of the franchise as possible," and it shows. If Michael Eisner had a clue (recent history suggests this is doubtful), he'd break down and meet every single one of Steve Jobs' demands. If he won't, someone else will. (That, of course, is assuming that Disney's Board of Directors doesn't kick Eisner out entirely and put Jobs in his place. There have been rumors...)

The Incredibles also proves the world is ready for Plastic Man. (Elastigirl doesn't quite turn into a rug or make herself into a coffee table, but she does other bendy-stuff, and there's another hilarious fight in four or five rooms by her, simultaneously…)

When you see this, you'll believe an RV can fly at hypersonic speeds, and the words "Throw me!" will never have the same meaning ever again.

The biggest problem we have in reviewing this film is there aren't any flaws. One reason Pixar's films succeed where so many live-action films fail is that they finish the script before they start making the film. In Hollywood's star-and-ego driven ecosystem, sometimes the script is the last consideration, they're frequently ruined by waaaaay too many cooks, and sometimes time constraints preclude rewrites ("We've only got Johnny Depp for six weeks, so I need that script tomorrow"). Pixar's scripts in general, and certainly this one in specific, are polished to a luminous gloss before the first scene is rendered, because it's too expensive to do it any other way. There's not a wasted scene anywhere in here (we won't say "wasted shot" because there are no shots). It's hard to see how you could make a better comic film about retired superheroes, animated or otherwise.

After seeing it, I (Howard) went out and bought a box of The Incredibles Multi-grain Cereal. I don't mind having what little money I have going to something this good. I went to a matinee, but you'll get more than your money's worth if you pay full price...

We really can't tell you how good this is. Go find that out for yourself.

Howard Waldrop's stories include Nebula Award winner "The Ugly Chickens" (1980) and numerous other counterfactual/alternate history stories, from "Custer's Last Jump" (1976, with Steven Utley) to "Major Spacer in the 21st Century" (2001). His most recent book is Dream Factories and Radio Pictures from Wheatland Press. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue. Waldrop has recently been posting a blog at The Infinite Matrix.

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

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