Perhaps the single most important thing that sets the computer-animated films of Pixar apart from those of its direct competition, DreamWorks, is that Pixar's films, even as they are worked on by hundreds of technicians, are driven by the creative visions of one or two individuals. Pixar founder John Lasseter was the force behind the company's early films, even as he opened up some ground in writing and directing to others. Last year's wonderful Finding Nemo was the brainchild of a single writer-director, Andrew Stanton. That respect for story first and marketing second has made nearly all of Pixar's films superior to products like Shark Tale and Shrek, no matter how fleetingly amusing those may be.
Nowhere is that respect better displayed than in Pixar's new The Incredibles, written and directed by Brad Bird, who in 1999 directed and co-wrote the cel-animated film The Iron Giant. That warm and affecting story about a boy and a robot in Cold War America was praised by critics and ignored by audiences, although it's since become something of a cult classic. Pixar is the perfect place for Bird, since they've got a built-in audience, box-office cachet and the willingness to trust wholeheartedly in his ability to tell a compelling story. The problem with The Iron Giant wasn't that people didn't like it; it was that many didn't even know it was around.
There will be no such problem with The Incredibles, which is also, on the whole, a better, more mature film. It's Pixar's first foray into telling a story that focuses on human characters, and moreover, the first of their films that could conceivably have been filmed as live-action (although it would require an astronomical budget). In other words, it's the studio's first real attempt to compete on the same playing field as blockbusters from the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver. It succeeds not only in that sense, as a straight-forward action picture with suspense and excitement, but also as a touching and funny story about the importance of family and individuality.
The film's heart is superhero Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), a square-jawed do-gooder who saves the world and gets the girl, in this case fellow superhero Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). But being a superhero has its price, and when lawsuits dog the cape-and-tights community, the government forces all superheroes into a sort of witness relocation program for the super-powered.
Cut to 15 years later and Mr. Incredible is merely credible, an insurance adjuster named Bob Parr with a pot belly and mid-life crisis. Elastigirl is housewife Helen Parr, mom to Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell), who have super powers of their own, and little baby Jack Jack. Bob still pals around with his old hero buddy, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), but they can only stop crime in secret, and long for the good ol' days of heroic rescues and public adulation.
Bob gets his chance when a villain named Syndrome (Jason Lee) emerges with a vendetta against all the old heroes, and the entire Parr family must team together to defeat Syndrome and his city-destroying robot. In the process, of course, they learn to stop hiding who they really are and embrace their uniqueness, whether it's pint-sized Dash's super-speed or teenage Violet's invisibility.
Within the confines of his exciting action-adventure, Bird explores issues of conformity and the crushing weight of bland, suburban values. Dash's super-speed might as well be ADD, and Violet's invisibility is the physical manifestation of the effects of peer pressure. Rather than drug our kids or send them to therapy, Bird seems to be saying, we should allow them to embrace who they are in all its attention-grabbing glory. Bob doesn't only have his soul crushed in his mindless office job; he's actively prevented from saving the world, both by his inability to don his super-suit and by the greedy corporate practices of his employer. By breaking out of these molds, the Parr family saves the world in a literal sense, just as the film exhorts us to save our own worlds metaphorically.
But it's not all about introspection. There are also plenty of great action sequences, raising the bar for what can be done with computer animation, and some hilarious moments, especially with Bird himself voicing a diminutive fashion designer who creates superhero costumes. Between this film and her role in Thirteen last year, Hunter's the go-to actress for tough, strong mothers, and her performance here is outstanding. Although the action plot necessarily drags a bit, and Bird sometimes has trouble balancing the serious and comedic, the film manages many complexities within its brightly colored structure.
Finding Nemo may have been a better film all around, but The Incredibles is still a huge achievement for taking the scope, themes and subject matter of an intelligent live-action film and fitting them into a computer-animated package. It hints at a bright future for Bird as an animation auteur, and proves that Pixar is the most adventurous studio in Hollywood today.