I just took my kids to see The Incredibles. And yeah, it’s pretty incredible.
I’m a huge comic book fan. Just huge. So I have high expectations with comic-book movies. Most if them don’t get it it. They try hard, and the harder they try the less they get. X-Men was a classic example. Looked cool, well cast. But — it wasn’t a comic. It was an action film. Ok so there were other problems — lame script. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
Most comic-screen transitions have this problem. Daredevil, LXG, the Batman movies for the most part (Starting with casting Michael Keaton as Batman, in a classic example of an actor who can’t tell “Brooding” from “I have a bad stomach ache”).
Spider Man got it right though. And Spider Man II got it righter. The got the essential spirit of comics, the vague silliness played straight. You need a little silliness, but you also need to respect the essential drama of the form. Comics are great sweeping drama, life and death, sometimes survival of the world, played by steroid freaks in spandex.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Incredibles. I mean, it went for one of the things that drives me nuts, the clowny super-hero send-up. It’s such an easy target, but so hard to do well. I mean, you can play it like the Batman TV show, but that’s not done done with love and respect, it’s done with a sort of contempt. Funny, but with an implied sneer. And then there’s the preview of The Incredibles — ok, it looked cool, but making fun of the fat guy who can’t get into his suit was sort of mean fat-joke humor. Not winning any goodwill from me.
But then I realized who’d directed it. Brad Bird, who made the virtually unknown but fantastic Iron Giant. A film that should have won big oscars but which got ignored. So — ok, that’s a good sign. Written and directed, better yet. And, you know, Pixar. They’ve stumbled (*cough*monsters*cough*), but they’re so damned good.
But still. Funny super-heros. How do you get a whole movie out of it?
So they nailed it. Bird’s a really good writer and a really good director. And technically; how can they continue to make these technical leaps? Water looks wet, skin looks like skin. They don’t try to be realistic, but they catch life-like anyway, given that we’re in a comic-book reality. But what really makes this work is that they don’t ever make fun of the genre. They make things funny, sure, but the humor is from respect and understanding, and from natural sources of comedy; teen angst, mid-life crisis, family. And pure visual humor.
It’s done with respect. These super heros are heros and they’re treated that way. They’re brave and good and do right and save people. They don’t bumble. They’re not inept. They’re funny because it’s funny to be a hero in spandex, and because the dialog is funny played straight.
The other thing that works is that it could have been a basic family comedy; mid-life-crisis dad, cute shy gothy teenage girl, boy who’s in trouble for too much exuberance but isn’t a bad kid, Mom who just wants to hold it all together but it’s maybe trying a little too hard.
I couldn’t help but smile — “We’re super-heros, what could happen?” It’s about a family having a rough time and pulling together. Being a team and overcoming a problem together. A simple story but well written and well handled. Parents trying to hold it all together, Dad in a stupid job and wanting to go back to the glory days. The metaphor of parents as heros to the kids. Handled wrong, this is incredibly trite, but Bird manages to do it all without ever having to apply the message with a hammer or add more conflict in the family that he needs to set up his plot.
So it works oh-so-well as a human story; but at heart it’s an action film and it pays off all the way. The animation is fantastic, managing to both be true to comic-book action but also realistic and natural. The people move and emote like people. The odd comic bit characters are hysterical without being over-played or over-used. The fights are rough enough and scary enough to be exciting, bad guys die, things blow up, the heros get beat up and hurt. It’s not a movie for tiny kids; it’s also longish, but very well paced.
The voice talent is also wonderful; one failing in some recent animation is to feature stars rather than hire the right people for the job. The casting in Monsters Inc suffered from this, and the voices in a couple of the Disney-dubbed Miyazake films (Kiki’s delivery service being the worst offender) were likewise case for star name not for being the right person.
Here, all of the major players are well cast – Craig T. Nelson as Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible pulls off beaten down cube-worker, exuberent kid-in-a-grown-man’s-body, pain, anger. It’s an under-stated performance and it’s perfect. Holly Hunter simply rules as Helen Parr/Elastigirl; I want her to whisper dirty things in my ear. Very, VERY dirty things. Samuel L Jackson as Frozone — well, how can he not rule?
The kids are also well done, particularly Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Jason Lee is fantastic as the villain, Syndrome. Honestly though one of the best performances is Brad Bird, the director, as super-hero costume designer Edna Mode. He’s hysterical, Darling!
I pretty much spent the whole time with an idiot grin on my face. They so got it all right. It’s getting harder and harder to wow us with animated features; things that seemed stunning in Toy Story already look dated. Just looking great isn’t enough for a cartoon anymore, it has to be a good movie. This is certainly a good movie; it’s well enough written that they could have sold it as a classic cell-animation or even as live action. But this movie also has so much going for it artistically. Not just animation whiz-bang like making water look wet or hair look like hair, but also some seriously great design; the Parrs eichler house is a fantastic era visual, Bob Parr as an over-sized and out of place man in a tiny cubical farm. The newsreel footage is a brilliantly comic-book look; Syndrome’s lair is again a mix of 50′s sci-fi and modern.
One of things that’s clever about this is that they never state a specific date; clearly it’s the 1950′s and early 60′s when it takes place, you can tell the cars. But it’s also got that no-specific time look of good, clever sci-fi, with modern touches and retro touches side by side.
This one’s a sure win. Take your kids to see it, at least if they can handle two hours and some comic-book violence. But take yourself, it’s in no way just a kids movie. It’s hard to beat a movie like Shrek 2 but I think I’d have to give this one a slight edge.