“Honeyyyy ... where's my Super suit?”
For me, last year had been dominated by two movies - Spider-Man 2 and The Bourne Supremacy. Spidey's second cinematic outing took me to geekboy meltdown with its terrific combination of heart, character and the BEST action sequence I'd seen that year. (I'll give you a clue - there was a train in it).Then Jason Bourne came along and topped it with his manic Moscow carmageddon - even I was limping come that bone-crunching finale. By now I was pretty much convinced that I'd witnessed the best adrenaline-rushes that 2004 had to offer. And then came The Incredibles. Well hey, I thought, it's an animated, jokey spin on superheroes, plastered all the way through with Pixar's trademarked cutesy-cleverness ... reckon my thrill glands are safe enough this time out. I never thought that the old webslinger or Jason - ultimate weapon of mass destruction - Bourne could be so easily swept aside. And by a colourful bunch of pixels, too! But, without doubt, Brad (The Iron Giant) Bird's debut for Pixar was the most exquisitely animated, intelligently written and pulse-poundingly exciting funfest that I could ever wish for, immediately hurtling its way into my movie hall of fame. That the film had taken a genre that is literally saturating Hollywood's output these days by the throat, squeezed the stale, regurgitated blandness out of it and pumped it full of the giddiest, freshest style and bravura, bar-raising set-pieces and yet STILL managed to make it a genuinely affectionate ode to family love and loyalty, is nothing short of miraculous. The Incredibles, folks, is so much more than those afore-mentioned cutesy-clever Pixar pixels we've all come to know and love.
Surely the plot is familiar to you all by now - Mr.Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his fellow supers have been forced into the Superhero Relocation Program due to the legal backlash their exploits have caused, and now get to live out the rest of lives in banal anonymity. Just like regular schnooks, as Goodfellas' Henry Hill would have put it. Mr. Incredible - now plain old Bob Parr - has married Helen (sexy voiced Holly Hunter), the gorgeously-flexible former Elastigirl and raised three little supers. Writer and director Brad Bird excellently concocts the powers they each possess in tune with their characters. Super-stretchy Helen is obviously the multi-tasking mum, Dash is the hyper-excitable pre-teen, Violet (as in shrinking) is a gawky, shy loner, ill-at-ease with her looks and lacking confidence so, obviously, she can vanish at will, and then there's baby Jack-Jack who can ... well, just wait and see. That life in Normal-ville is not what they want is painfully realised with the grey, claustrophobic office job poor Bob has to endure, the hiding of their powers and the marital tension that blights the family home. Even night-times spent with ice-cool super buddy Frozone (the ever-awesome Samuel Jackson) listening to a police scanner and clandestinely re-living the old heroic days cannot lift Bob from the humdrum stupor zapping his pride. Just check out the scene when Bob, freshly sacked by his midget-bully boss, sits in his study surveying his former awards and press-cuttings with heart-achingly genuine nostalgia and pain. You can really feel his yearning for past glories. Even poor Helen has her telescopic hands full with three troublesome kids running rings round her - literally in Dash's case. That we really get to see inside this environment and recognise it is the ace up Bird's sleeve. Much like Raimi's Spider-Man adaptations, time is taken to build up character and he carefully then allows each of them to breathe, before unleashing the fireworks upon them. Because he knows we're going to care that much more when we see them in jeopardy. And that's another major plus point - even though these are animated people and this is a Disney movie, the sense of danger and risk, albeit in an absurdist fun kind of way, is still very real and potent once our heroes begin to duke it out with huge tentacled robot monsters and armies of Bondian goons.
“You sly dog ... you got me monologuing!”
When Bob gets his call to arms, dons his new costume and heads out to confront evil once more, the movie literally surges along with a terrific change of pace, shifting locations from drab, retro sixties sitcom-land to a fantastically depicted island jungle with a veritable explosion of dripping colour. His first battle in the lava pit with the OmniDroid and the great in-combat chiropractic session is a hoot, with eye-drooling visuals and hyper-kinetic action that serves as a wonderful appetiser for the relentless tour de force that will follow. The arch-nemesis, Syndrome, and how he came to be is a superb homage to all the best hero/villain relationships from the comics and his entire hidden fortress a great hark back to the better Bond flicks. You can't beat the suspense of the hero prowling around the secret base and Helen's hunt for her husband within the vast underground complex is pure sleuthing gold. Ian Fleming's creation is further nodded to with the sizzling score from Michael Giacchino - all bold and brassy and oozing a big band swagger that echoes John Barry's classic Bond themes. Thumping, catchy and over-the-top, a soaring soundtrack that challenges the animation to keep up with it.
And it does. Oh boy, it does.
Pixar's first real stab at creating human beings upon its CG realised canvas is a remarkable achievement. The sheer wealth of expression found on these faces and in the eyes is overwhelming. We're not cheated with incessantly wild gurning and zany gesticulation - these characters might not have photo-realism but, as stylised as they are, they possess a subtlety and range that is infinitely beyond many real-life counterparts. Look at any one of the quieter, more sensitive moments - Violet's apology to her mother for not creating an energy ball big enough to save their plane, or Bob's heartbreaking admission to Helen that he just isn't strong enough - there's real depth of emotion brought out here that actors' voices alone couldn't fully deliver. And, of course, the action is scintillatingly captured. Flowing, dynamic and super-fast. The characters move like real muscles are working within them, punches have a weighty impact and Helen's contortions have a sinewy, organic feel. The scraps are colossal and fill the screen with chaos, yet, the skilfully manipulated camera never loses us despite the knockout speed with which it moves. Bird's handling of good old chase and fight scenes is exemplary, putting many “high-octane” directors to shame. But the expertise doesn't end there, with lush jungle backgrounds that are dense, beautifully shadowed and tremendously deep; beautifully fluid explosions; water that really looks wet and heaps of convincing debris showered whenever something is pulverised. Honestly, this stuff is now leap-years ahead of Monsters' Inc and Finding Nemo.
“Is Dad in some kind of trouble?”
“If he isn't ... he's going to be.”
So the Family Dynamic kicks butt, alright. But, let's not forget the more adult tone that Pixar has adopted this time out. People get hurt in this movie - even die. As Helen warns her kids, unlike the Saturday morning TV shows they love, the bad guys on this island will kill them if they get the chance. So even the children are in real peril. The goon strafing the water that an invisible Violet is hiding in clearly intends to kill her, and even Dash takes a couple of fat-fisted knocks. And then there is the violent mugging that Bob watches from the office window but is powerless to stop. These elements all combine to elevate this movie from the safe realm of kids' stuff. Nemo's tone may have edged into darker territory with its loss of family theme but the level of departure here is really quite radical, despite all the frothy fun. When Bob thinks he has lost his particular family his rage sees him almost break someone's neck. It's a shockingly gritty and intrinsically human scene and Bird allows it all the relevance it deserves. So there is a lot more to think about here than just colourful superheroes doing their thing and saving the world ... again.
Along the way though, there are some truly classic moments that really stand out - Dash's chuckle of euphoria when he suddenly discovers that he can run on water, Elastigirl getting stuck in three doors at once and, earlier, checking out her curvy bum in the mirror, Mr. Incredible weightlifting with trains and just about anything involving the brilliantly conceived, pintsize German/Japanese hybrid super-suit designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird, himself). But the crowning glory has to be Frozone snowboarding to the rescue whilst the huge OmniDroid is tearing up the town - immaculately staged and exhilarating. It's also cool how, to save the day, the family end up fighting over a remote control. Just how familiar is that little set up?
The Incredibles is a work of art, to be sure, but it is also a work of genius. The film succeeds spectacularly on every level. Not only is it a great comedy superhero movie but it is a great Superhero Movie, full stop. There is no less heart and soul in this than in Spider-Man and it contains about three times the action and suspense. Combining family sitcom satire, full-throttle heroics and fantastic characters, this is a great story thrillingly told and very definitely my favourite film from last year. The fact that it is animated doesn't even come into it. A bona fide classic in all respects. Oh, and that bit with Spidey on the train, the scene I thought couldn't be topped? The Incredibles practically uses that scene just for its opening.
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