After anthropomorphizing toys, bugs, monsters, and fish, Pixar finally turns its attention to computer generated imagery’s most difficult task, animating people. Writer-director Brad Bird and company, however, are helped in this regard by forsaking realism and adapting the caricature-laden world of comic book superheroes. Exaggeration and suspension of disbelief are part of the fantasy charm. So the form the people take in The Incredibles is more akin to the Jules Bass/Arthur Rankin, Jr. stop-motion productions like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The filmmakers even pay homage to the television classic by making the supervillain’s hair resemble that of Santa villain, Heat Miser.
The Incredibles is both a genre film and a spoof of said genre, and Bird certainly knows how to pick his inspirations. The storylines take their cue from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and a 1981 Avengers storyline by Jim Shooter. Most of all though, The Incredibles is indebted to the Fantastic Four. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) has the strength and durability of the Thing. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, Thirteen) can stretch her body like Mr. Fantastic. Violet (Sarah Vowell of This American Life fame) can turn invisible and project force fields like the Invisible Woman. Only the powers of Dash (Spencer Fox) are inspired by a character outside of Stan Lee’s quartet, that being DC Comics’ The Flash.
When Stan Lee essentially put Marvel Comics on the map by creating the Fantastic Four in 1961, he added the ingredient of real-life banality to the extraordinary lives of superheroes. Bird takes it a step further by having his superheroes forced into engaging in nothing but the mundane. At his prime, Mr. Incredible is perhaps the world’s most popular superhero, but expensive lawsuits stemming from collateral damage incurred during romps against supervillains results in the government banning superhero activity. Fifteen years later, Incredible is full-time alter ego, insurance exec Bob Parr. Just another cog in the wheel of corporate bureaucracy, he gets regular beratings from the boss (who sports the instantly recognizable voice of Wallace Shawn). At home, he faces nagging from wife Helen, the former Elastigirl. His son Dashiell is a little troublemaker, and daughter Violet’s life is one long mope.
Incredible longs for his glory days, and he tries to relive them in miniature with old friend, Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), also known as Frozone, who can create ice out of the moisture in the air. When Incredible has lost all dignity, femme fatale Mirage (Elizabeth Pena, Lone Star) enters his life. Along with her comes a blast from his past, the supervillain Syndrome (Jason Lee, Dogma), who becomes a threat to Incredible’s entire family.
Visually, The Incredibles matches, if not surpasses Finding Nemo in looking spectacular. Production designer Lou Romano and the entire art department get extra points for the best villain’s lair yet conceived. While inspired by past James Bond hideouts, particularly from You Only Live Twice, Syndrome’s tropical island base with waterfall secret entrances and towering monorails is a comic geek’s dream headquarters. The character designs are both funny and appropriate. The art staff must have been studying Jay Mohr (Go) when coming up with Incredible’s forehead; Violet takes styling tips from Wednesday Addams; and superhero costume designer extraordinaire, Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself) is Linda Hunt crossed with Auntie Mame.
The Incredibles isn’t quite perfect. It relies too much on stereotypes for narrative shorthand. Violet is the painfully shy introvert who must learn to assert herself. Until she rediscovers her inner strength, Elastigirl is practically Marge Simpson in her desire for stability and conformity while Dash is a less rambunctious Bart. Its over-reliance on tired subplots is a small price to pay for the movie’s plentiful rewards though. The Incredibles provides all the wonder and excitement to be wrought from the superhero genre while making fun of itself in gut-busting ways.