The most interesting thing about the new film from the master animators at Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) is that it’s been almost universally praised for its originality despite the fact that much of it seems remarkably familiar.
The Incredibles has an amusing premise. The country’s super men and women have been driven into retirement by a rash of lawsuits. When Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) scoops up a jumper in mid plummet, the ingrate sues him for minor injuries sustained in his rescue. This sets off a wave of copycat litigation and, as a result, crusaders find themselves forced to hang up their capes and settle into humdrum new lives arranged by the government’s Superhero Relocation Program.
Mr. Incredible and his Mrs., the former Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), have moved to the suburbs, adopted the names Bob and Helen Parr and started a family. They have a shy teenage daughter named Violet who can make herself invisible, a speedy young son named Dash who wishes his parents would let him try out for the track team and a baby, Jack Jack, whose special gifts are not revealed until the end of the film. The super man of the house has traded in his Batmobile-like ride for basic transportation that’s about five times too small for his massive frame, a frame that has gotten more massive around the middle over the years he’s spent sitting in a tiny cubicle working as an insurance claims adjuster.
Samuel L. Jackson provides the voice for the erstwhile Frozone, a superhero whose claim to fame was freezing things. He’s relocated to the suburbs as well, not far from where the Parrs live. The two old friends miss the glory days so much they’ve started sneaking out nights under the guise of playing in a bowling league so they can do a little neighborhood crime fighting.
The chance to get back into the real thing presents itself to Nelson’s character shortly after he loses his job as a result of heaving his boss through several office walls. He’d rather his wife not learn of his termination and so leaps at the opportunity when a mysterious woman contacts him and offers a substantial reward for traveling to a remote Pacific island and taking on a killer robot. The husband fibs and claims his company is sending him on a business trip, packs his old costume, which doesn’t fit quite as well as it used to, of course, and is off to save the world.
The only problem is it’s a trap. There’s a killer robot all right but it’s the handiwork of a nutjob with a kind of Mark David Chapman thing going on. At one time Mr. Incredible’s “number one fan,” the young man’s hero worship has festered into psychotic jealousy. He hatches an elaborate scheme to destroy his idol and convince the world that he, himself, is its greatest superhero by launching an attack of giant robots which he has programmed to succumb to him. Giant robots that, I might add, bear an uncanny resemblance to the tentacled monstrosities unleashed by Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2.
I found the first half of The Incredibles a little slow and, in tone and execution, not unlike a lot of clever animated shows you can find any day of the week on Nickelodeon or The Cartoon Network. Nick’s “The Fairly Odd Parents,” for example features a similarly stylized retro setting and characters whose magical powers must be kept a secret. “The Power Puff Girls” and “The Teen Titans” feature comic twists on the traditional comic book superhero. The movie’s evil genius, Syndrome (Jason Lee), in fact, can be viewed as a dark side version of the title character in “Dexter’s Laboratory,” the Cartoon Network series about a supersmart youngster who hatches elaborate schemes and builds, among other things, giant robots.
Whereas the second half of the movie is much more exciting because the rest of the family winds up on the island where everybody’s at last free to use their super powers to the fullest and band together to do battle with the maniacal mastermind. You know, pretty much the way the whole family banded together to use their special talents to the fullest and do battle with a maniacal mastermind in Spy Kids.
The latest from Brad (Iron Giant) Bird, the picture is cleverly scripted in places but, I have to say, rarely if ever laugh out loud funny. There’s a subtext I appreciated satirizing the culture’s “everybody’s special” mindset. At one point Bob laments to Helen “They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” At the same time, children’s films exhorting their audience to value individual differences and to “be all you can be” are a dime a dozen. The movie’s one truly novel conceit-that of middle aged ex-superheroes living sitcom-style in the suburbs-certainly isn’t exploited to its full comic potential.
What is incredible in The Incredibles is the computer imaging. Pixar has always been several steps ahead of its closest competition, Dreamworks, and the advances on display here only widen that gap. Some of its night skies and lapping lagoons, for example, are startling in their artistry. Had the picture been written half as well as it was drawn, I suspect it would have proven at the very least twice as super.