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By Mark Sells | November 6, 2004

Brad Bird has done it again. First came The Iron Giant, one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time, now he joins forces with Pixar for “The Incredibles,” a movie that demonstrates once again why the studio continues to leave competing product from the likes of Disney and DreamWorks in the dust.

Pixar has a lot to live up to. Each of their previous releases (“Toy Story,” A Bug’s Life) have been financial powerhouses and critical darlings, and none more so than last year’s Finding Nemo, which is second only to Shrek 2 in box office for an animated feature. Compared to the efforts of other studios, however, they’re clearly ahead in quality. The releases from Disney’s traditional animation unit have been increasingly uneven since the Renaissance days of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, while DreamWorks comes in a distant third. One of the reasons for this, aside from their obvious technical expertise, is that Pixar’s movies explore the themes of family and responsibility without coming across like a Young Life pamphlet.

When we first meet Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), he’s equally at ease foiling crimes or saving a would-be jumper from suicide. We’re also introduced to Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) – his soon-to-be bride – and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), Mr. Incredible’s best friend. All are, obviously, superheroes. Mr. Incredible is amazingly strong, Elastigirl’s abilities should be patently obvious, and Frozone is essentially the X-Men’s Iceman filtered through the Shaft remake.

Unfortunately for Mr. Incredible, the jumper he saved from death is the litigious sort, and he sues. This opens the floodgates for further lawsuits against superheroes, the mounting number of which cause the government to put them away in a kind of caped witness protection program (reminiscent of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”). Fifteen years pass, and the Parrs (the family formerly known as the Incredibles) are still married. Bob Parr is an insurance claims adjuster, while Helen stays home, raising their three kids: Dash, Violet, and Jack Jack. Tensions start to rise, thanks to Bob’s job dissatisfaction (he’s taken to listening to the police scanner with Lucius/Frozone in order to perform good deeds incognito) and Helen’s frustration at raising two (so far) superpowered kids: Dash is a speedster, while Violet can turn invisible and create force fields.

If nothing else, “The Incredibles” has essentially rendered the upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie irrelevant.

Lured by the promise of big bucks after losing his insurance job, Bob dons his costume once again to battle a renegade robot at the behest of a shadowy figure. Things go well for a time, as Bob secures bigger paychecks and Helen thinks his job is finally rewarding him for years of hard work. Naturally, the illusion can’t hold, and once the villain “Syndrome” shows up (a dastardly cross between Freakazoid and Guy Gardner’s Green Lantern), Helen must figure out how to confront Bob’s secret life while taking care of the kids, at least one of which is ready to take care of himself.

It all sounds a bit serious, and it is. “The Incredibles” isn’t “The A-Team:” people – both supers and regular shmoes – die in pretty hefty numbers. The overweight, balding Bob embodies the angst and self-loathing of the middle-aged Everyman (though one who can punch through concrete, admittedly), and while he and Helen do occasionally fight, the inclusion of superpowers in an otherwise mundane domestic squabble prevents the scenes from becoming too uncomfortable. And it’s to Bird’s credit that none of the issues brought up ever dampen the movie’s inherent fun quotient.

The voice actors are obviously having a good time of it, especially Jason Lee as Syndrome, who thankfully never goes into full-on Banky Edwards rant mode. Nelson and Hunter effectively capture the quiet desperation of their characters, while Samuel L. Jackson once again plays Samuel L. Jackson. The smart dialogue doesn’t hurt, of course, and perhaps the best work is done by Bird himself, who provides the voice of Edna “E” Mode, superhero fashion designer. Her riff on the idiocy of capes for superheroes is priceless.

Bird obviously has some experience with either comic books or superhero gaming or both, as the aforementioned screed on superhero fashion and his multiple references to supervillains “monologuing” in the film can attest. Not that anyone was expecting a straight take on the genre from Pixar, but Bird still manages a few pleasant surprises.

The animation throughout “The Incredibles” is also terrific, as expected. From some of the Gilliam-esque characters to Bob’s dreary cubicle farm to the luxurious colors of Syndrome’s island, Pixar has done a fine job. The detail isn’t quite up to “Nemo” standards, but then, the movie doesn’t take place entirely underwater either.

With “The Incredibles,” Pixar continues its streak of excellent films, and Brad Bird proves he deserved every one of the accolades he received for “The Iron Giant.” He’s created that most rare of animated films: one that will actually appeal to both children and their parents (most cartoon movies make me want to chew off my own foot). And in addition to being one of the best animated releases in recent memory, “The Incredibles” is an exceptional superhero story as well as a convincing family movie. It’s a tough arrangement to pull off, but they’ve done it. Go check it out.

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