At this point, of course, no one is really surprised when a Pixar movie one-ups its predecessors. From the "Toy Story" films to "A Bug's Life" to "Monsters Inc." to "Finding Nemo," Pixar has practically made a sport of raising and surpassing the bar with each successive outing. But "The Incredibles" accomplishes the feat more convincingly than the others, taking risks not normally expected of a film with a $140 million price tag. For starters, it marks the first time Pixar has invited a relative newcomer to the operation. And though writer/director Brad Bird's previous hit, "The Iron Giant," was critically acclaimed, it hardly earned Pixar-type box office figures. Neither did it suggest that his cell animation sensibilities lent themselves to the very different challenges and capabilities of computer animation. Further, no Pixar film had previously featured human characters, ventured into PG-rated material or dared surpass the pivotal 100-minute mark that's usually considered the absolute ceiling with animated features. But "The Incredibles" does all of those things, packing a dazzling 115 minutes worth of story onto a frame that is already chockablock with eye-popping action, comedy and effects sequences.
The story centers on Bob and Helen Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter), an ordinary suburban couple who, some 15 years prior, were known as the superheroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Thanks to a recklessly litigious society, however, superfolk were long ago forced into underground government relocation programs, stifling their natural abilities, assuming average lives and just generally blending in with the hoi polloi. Unfortunately, the Parr children, supersonic-footed Dash (Spencer Fox) and invisible-at-will Violet (Sarah Vowell), have no glorious past on which to hang--they simply feel like freaks who don't fit in, resentful of having to hide their obvious gifts. But Bob, along with his best friend, Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), formerly the superhero Frozone, still itches for the old days, occasionally doing a clandestine good deed or two...or trying to. So when a suspicious offer arrives from a secretive organization looking to privately hire the old Mr. Incredible (for a fat fee), he naturally fails to ask the probing questions that might have occurred to his old self. Of course, the offer isn't all that it appears to be, setting in motion a series of events that will force the entire Parr family--and Lucius--to suit up not just for the good of dad...but of mankind.
Bird had intended to make "The Incredibles" as cell animation when he received the offer from Pixar's John Lasseter, an old college classmate and friend, to do it Pixar-style. And it's a good thing he did, for this is precisely the kind of picture that benefits from the more fluid, three-dimensional dynamism of computer animation. Woven throughout the remarkably mature script are action scenes and set pieces guaranteed to bring out the kid in everyone, resulting in a certified crowd-pleaser that's as thoughtful as it is fun. It's the kind of effort that Hollywood craves, but can't ever seem to muster the courage or smarts to make--a winning combination of action, adventure, comedy and romance wrapped around an earnest, appealing message about individuality and the importance of being true to oneself.
As much as Nelson, Hunter and Jackson are all perfectly voice-cast as their respective heroes, it's director Bird who steals the picture's best scenes as Edna Mode, the diminutive, hopelessly pretentious fashion designer-to-the-heroes.
Clearly inspired by Bird's own career struggles, the picture's message about embracing one's talents and refusing to submit to the mediocrity of the masses could not come at a better time--it's a message clearly meant more for Hollywood than for filmgoers. And if filmgoers help deliver the kinds of numbers established by previous Pixar films, that message might finally start to get through. Voiced by Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Spencer Fox, Brad Bird and Sarah Vowell. Directed and written by Brad Bird. Produced by John Walker. A Buena Vista release. Animated/Family. Rated PG for action/violence. Running time: 115 min