The Incredibles (U)

The fantastic four
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Having applied its incomparable magic to digitised stories of toys, bugs, monsters and fish, Pixar has now taken a dramatic step up to focus on, of all things, human beings. In fact, these beings are something more than that, they're superhumans with an existential problem. Just as Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 2 face obsolescence, the heroes of The Incredibles have been deemed no longer necessary. That they refuse to take this lying down is the basis of the film's plot and the key to its surprising philosophical outlook.

Having applied its incomparable magic to digitised stories of toys, bugs, monsters and fish, Pixar has now taken a dramatic step up to focus on, of all things, human beings. In fact, these beings are something more than that, they're superhumans with an existential problem. Just as Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 2 face obsolescence, the heroes of The Incredibles have been deemed no longer necessary. That they refuse to take this lying down is the basis of the film's plot and the key to its surprising philosophical outlook.

Once upon a time, Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) used to compete with the supple-limbed Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) in the fight against crime. Then a stream of lawsuits forced them out of business and the government placed them in a "superhero relocation programme", forbidding the exercise of their powers outside the home. Fifteen years on, Mr Incredible and Elastigirl are Bob and Helen Parr, living in anonymous suburbia with a couple of kids. Helen is happy with her lot, but Bob has had trouble adjusting to civilian life. By day, he works in insurance, by night, he tries to relive the glory, listening in his car to the police scanner for reports of those crimes he used to stop.

The writer-director Brad Bird packs a melancholy comedy into these early scenes. Bob is a big guy trapped in a little-guy world, hunched massively over his desk at the insurance office where the boss (a pipsqueak martinet voiced by Wallace Shawn) lords it over him; back home, emerging from the car into which he barely fits, Bob slams the door so hard it buckles. He knows his own strength, and it's killing him not to use it.

So far, so fraught. Then he receives a mysterious summons to an island retreat where his dormant superpowers are required for a job - and walks right into a trap laid by his nemesis, the carrot-haired Syndrome.

What's impressive about the film, aside from the enhanced technical wonderments, is the blitheness of its comic ingenuity. Brad Bird sees the possibilities of fun simply in pursuing elements of the story to a literal-minded degree. So, he wonders: what would you do about acquiring a crimefighter costume after 15 years away from the job? And he answers it with a blissfully wigged-out encounter between Bob and a severely bobbed fashion diva, Edna Mode, who specialises in designing superhero couture. Imagine the US Vogue editor Anna Wintour shrunk to pygmy size, with a Lotte Lenya croak, deadpanning her way through the fashionista's book of claptrap ("I never look back, dahling, it distracts from the now"). Having demonstrated the new Incredible costume withstanding a missile attack, Edna snaps in a bored aside: "It's also machine-washable." Bird, who voiced the character himself, deserves at least a Best Supporting Oscar.

If the movie's first half nods to the office drones of early-Sixties comedy, the second half, with its adventure on a megalomaniac's island lair, jumps on the Bond wagon. By now, Helen has gone to Bob's rescue with the kids in tow, and the plot bursts into a flurry of escapes and chases. The Incredibles' son Dash lives up to his name by zipping through the jungle undergrowth like Roadrunner; his older sister Violet has the power to disappear at will and throw a protective force-field around her, a nice exaggeration of a shy teenager's longing to shrink from notice.

But The Incredibles doesn't pander exclusively to a child audience, nor does it load the bases, as Shrek 2 and Shark Tale did, with cute references to other movies. The film-makers understand that it's not cultural hipness that makes a classic but the more elusive element of timelessness, and that comedy that flies over children's heads now will be savoured like a good wine in years to come.

Yet the film also stands apart from its peers in its unfashionably élitist view of heroism. The message of other such films nowadays is that self-knowledge is the secret to fulfilment, and that acceptance of one's lot, however narrow, is the route to happiness. The Incredibles is, on the surface, a celebration of resilience, of a family facing adversity and vanquishing it together. Bob, who has always believed he works best alone, finally acknowledges that he couldn't have survived without his wife and kids. But throughout the story, an undercurrent of resentment is felt at the way superheroes have been prevented from using their gifts. Society disdains the extraordinary, preferring instead to "create new ways to celebrate mediocrity" and keep everyone on the same level. What this film seems to say is that we are not all the same, that some are intrinsically better than others, and that it's wrong to pretend any different. "When everyone is special, then no one is," says Bob, an anti-democratic sentiment that aligns him with Nietzsche - a first for a cartoon character, I fancy.

It is safe to say that Pixar, at least, is the übermensch among studios. The sophistication of its digital know-how, the wit and invention of its scripts, such are the qualities that set it head and shoulders above the competition. Five hits have been its richly deserved reward, and nothing stands in the way of The Incredibles being its sixth.

Comments