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Here they come to save the day

'The Incredibles' is another Pixar gem, not only for its clever computer animation but also for its comedy, action and drama.

November 05, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Six for six and counting. The streak goes on.

In an unparalleled run powered by sheer inventiveness and a special kind of skill, Pixar Animation Studios, an organization that has yet to come up short with either the public or the critics, has done it one more time. "The Incredibles" is a worthy computer-animated successor to the two "Toy Story" movies, "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." And it's something more as well.

For this film, written and directed by Brad Bird, aims even higher than those successes. Yes, it's got the trademark smarter-than-smart Pixar sense of humor, bursts of wild comic energy that show us how funny films can be when they have the confidence not to talk down to their audience. But anyone who saw Bird's quietly moving first feature, "The Iron Giant," knows that laughs are not all he is after.

Bird has dreamed the animator's big dream of doing it all, and he's made it come true. He has created the unprecedented film that is not just a grand feature-length cartoon but a grand feature, period, a piece of animation that's involving across a spectrum of comedy, action, even drama. And he's done it by working within the confines of one of the staples of cartoons and comic literature, the superhero.

In a typically wicked-clever opening, we meet Mr. Incredible ("Coach's" Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) as they submit to a classic series of "Is this thing on?" TV interviews, revealing themselves to be as prone to irritation and frustration as the least super of their fellow citizens of Municiberg.

"Leave the saving of the world to the men?" says an incredulous Elastigirl when asked about settling down. "I don't think so." And Mr. Incredible grumbles that "no matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. I mean, sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know, for a little bit."

Being a public figure is all in a day's work for the bulked-up Mr. I, as adept at saving wandering cats as capturing fleeing criminals. There's always time to trade bons mots with tart-tongued French safecracker Bomb Voyage and to shoo away ("You're not affiliated with me," he huffs) superhero wannabe Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), a pesky teenager who wants to be a sidekick in the worst way.

Then, without warning, everything starts to go terribly, terribly wrong. Superheroes get taken to court and lose, costing the government so much in damages and public ill will that they have to abandon their professions and hide out in the equivalent of witness protection programs.

That's where "The Incredibles" proper starts, 15 years down the road, with the former Mr. Incredible now masquerading as ordinary Bob Parr, a man with thinning hair and an expanding gut. He's married to Helen (the former Elastigirl) and works under the perennially dyspeptic Gilbert Huph (Wallace Shawn) as a claims adjuster for the heartlessly corporate Insuricare.

His job title notwithstanding, Bob can't adjust to life in the normal lane. He sympathizes with the frustration his superpowered children, the blindingly fast Dash (Spencer Fox) and the invisible teen Violet (Sarah Vowell), feel at having to hide their powers in a world that wants everyone to be ordinary. Under cover of going bowling, Bob and Lucius Best, a.k.a. Frozone, sneak out and, hooded like criminals, secretly help people.

But what if, somewhere in the world, the need for an old-school superhero should arise? When Bob gets a secret communication from the sultry Mirage (Elizabeth Pena) hinting at just that, it leads him to some of the funniest, most human and most adventurous situations computer animation has yet put on the screen.

Given that his old Mr. I uniform isn't fitting the way it used to, Bob ends up paying a visit to the inimitable Edna Mode, couturiere to the heroic, the ultimate fashionista who combines Louise Brooks' hair with the iron will of a samurai. Hysterically voiced by director Bird himself, this tiny terror, given to saying, "I never look back, it distracts from the now," is a gift from the gods.

While much of "The Incredibles" is blessedly funny, there is also a surprising air of poignancy about much of it. Bob's midlife passion to secretly relive his glory days puts a genuine strain on his marriage and family, something the film takes quite seriously.

It's able to do this in part because advances in computer technology have made it possible to create fake human characters in a way that, even factoring in intentional caricaturing, make Bob, Helen and the gang seem in some undefinable way more real than CGI folks ever have before.

Having realistic people as protagonists makes the astonishing exploits this family of superheroes is asked to perform that much more involving. "The Incredibles' " creators help out here by doing an envelope-pushing job of conjuring up villains to confront, crises to be solved and Indiana Jones-worthy settings for adventure.

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