Sunday, November 28, 2004

"Incredibles" is just that


directed by Brad Bird
with the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and others

No doubt about it, Pixar has done it again. Those folks have yet to make a bad movie: scratch that, they have yet to make a movie that isn’t affirmatively good. But “The Incredibles” also marks a departure from its predecessors, and not just because of its PG rating. It’s the first of the bunch to convey mixed messages and unresolved conflicts just beneath its shiny happy exterior. I say this with all due respect to a terrific film that is at least twice as sophisticated and ten times as entertaining as most of the live-action features currently playing in theaters. Like its hero, Mr. Incredible, it doesn’t quite fit into the skin-tight suit in which it’s expected to work its magic, but forges ahead anyway with terrific energy and surprisingly light-footed grace.

The premise of “The Incredibles” is sharply witty without any of the self-conscious smugness that mars equally clever movies such as “Shrek” (an advantage that I contend Pixar has shown consistently over Dreamworks in the computer-animated feature department). In a nutshell, the superheroes of the world are forced into government-funded anonymity, reminiscent of the FBI’s Witness Protection Program, when aggrieved Joe Schmoes begin suing them for the collateral damage resulting from their rescues. (Incidentally, as a de facto lawyer myself, I have to say the under-twenty seconds of screen time given one of the Joe Schmoe’s attorneys is scarily realistic.) Included among the reshuffled heroes are, of course, Mr. Incredible, renamed Bob Parr, and his wife, Helen, formerly known as Elastigirl for her marvelous rubber-like flexibility.

Fifteen years later, we see the Incredibles occupying an incognito bourgeois existence that’s as incisive a caricature of suburban conformism as anything in recent film. “Bob” has basically flatlined as an insurance claims adjuster, crammed in a dreary gray cubbyhole of a cubicle, who covertly guides customers to find the loopholes in their policies. He’s also succumbed to the middle-aged spread. Helen is less obviously catatonic as a suburban soccer mom, but then she has her hands full trying to rein in their offspring, two of whom have superpowers they don’t know what to do with. Rambunctious Dash can run faster than the blink of an eye, but can only find outlet for his energy in pulling pranks on his teachers. His older sister, the painfully shy Violet, can disappear at will and surround herself with force fields, but only uses these abilities to hide from people. (Only the baby, Jack Jack, appears normal, and there’s more to him, too, than meets the eye.) Helen preaches conformism to her children, for the sake of “fitting in,” even as her husband surreptitiously defies this family gospel by moonlighting as a superhero with his old pal Lucius, aka Frozone—the only times he shows a spark of life.

In due course, our hero snaps at work and is laid off, then lured into an alternate, much sexier job that utilizes his superpowers for a mysterious employer. Rather unwisely, he doesn’t tell his family anything about this career change. He subsequently discovers that his employer, who calls himself “Syndrome,” has been nursing a lifelong grudge against superheroes and elaborately plotting their collective demise. Helen, meanwhile, discovers her husband’s been up to something, and faithfully tracks him to Syndrome’s island hideout. The kids, as kids do, sneak along for the ride.

Well, you can guess where the story goes, though that doesn’t make it any less of a delight to watch. Visually, “The Incredibles” has a highly stylized, sleekly minimalist look that sets it apart from the other Pixar productions. At the same time, it gets every minute detail right—from the blond flip and tailored gray suit of Mirage, the seductive female agent who recruits for Syndrome, to the snap and pop of bubble gum in the open mouth of a kiddie neighbor who observes firsthand that the Parrs aren’t quite what they seem to be. The animators’ witty touches are well matched by the script, which reaches a high point with the appearance of the Incredibles’ friend and ally, the pint-sized yet formidable fashionista Edna Mode (hilariously voiced by director Brad Bird).

Yet the ultimate message “The Incredibles” conveys is a bit blurred. Several reviewers have commented on the film’s not-so-subtle Ayn Randian subtext. Certainly it mounts a pointed attack on a society’s suffocation of individuality and superior ability. (How accurately this critique reflects the actual state of our society is debatable, though the outcome of the recent presidential election might suggest...ok, I’ll stop there.) The heroes are punished for exercising their special powers, where they should be thanked and praised, and they stand in danger of being submerged by a rising tide of mediocrity epitomized in the villain’s triumphant cackle: “If everyone is special, then no one is!”

However, there’s another message that comes through just as strongly, which softens the movie’s hard-edged homage to rugged individualism. And that is the hubristic folly of trying to go it alone, without the support of those who love and need you. Early on, Helen berates her husband for being selfishly hung up on his glory days and only wanting to be a superhero once again. Impossible as it is not to sympathize with him, there’s a ring of truth to her complaint that’s borne out by the arc of the story. It’s Mr. Incredible’s attempt to revive his solo identity as Mr. Incredible that lands him in trouble and unwittingly precipitates the impending disaster Syndrome plans to spring on the world. And it’s only with the help and support of his family (all in matching uniforms) that he’s able to defeat the forces of evil. Put another way, we’re talking good old-fashioned “family values” here. It may not take a village, but it sure takes a family to save the world.

All this may be reading entirely too much into a family flick that is at bottom a romp in Pixarland. But “The Incredibles” is nothing if not a movie “for all ages,” and like the best of these, it lends itself to multiple levels of interpretation. The fact that some of these interpretations lie in tension with each other is a testament to its sophistication. And sophistication—like superheroes—is something we need more of in this world, not less.

RATING: *** 1/2

ALSO SAW... (Capsule review only)

directed by Marc Forster
starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, and Dustin Hoffman

Loosely based on the real-life story of the genesis of “Peter Pan,” “Finding Neverland” stars Depp as J.M. Barrie and Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, the mother of four boys who inspired him to write the play that would become his best-loved work. It’s a sweet movie, unexpectedly melancholy rather than schmaltzy, but also curiously listless—despite lovely understated work by Depp and a suitably steely performance by the venerable Christie as Sylvia’s dragon lady-mom. Winslet is competent, though she looks far too healthy to be Barrie’s consumptive and platonic muse. I couldn’t help wondering how the movie would have played if she had switched casting with the reed-thin, wistfully pretty Mitchell, who plays Barrie’s estranged wife. Hoffman barely registers as Barrie’s supportive but skeptical producer. All in all, what I would call "almost" a good movie...but not quite.

Rating: ** 1/2


Blogger starsheep said...



Thanks for revealing the plot twists.

9:31 PM  

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