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Passing a crucial test of characters

Endowing its 'stars' with discernible depth, 'The Incredibles' puts the 'original' in screenplay. And computer graphics offer a big assist.

February 27, 2005|Michael Barrier | Special to The Times

A good screenplay is a seed from which a good movie can grow. For that reason, you might expect the Oscars for screenplays to track closely those for best picture. That has not been the case. Screenplay Oscars -- and nominations, especially -- have often gone to films that were unlikely best picture candidates. It's that history that gives some hope to admirers of Pixar's "The Incredibles," which has been nominated for best original screenplay. Computer-animated films have been enormously popular for 10 years, but when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a separate Oscar for best animated feature in 2001, it effectively excluded them from the best-picture competition. Since then, animated features have had to make do with two writing nominations and no wins.

In this year's competition, "The Incredibles" and its writer-director, Brad Bird, are up against four live-action films, including one nominee for best picture, "The Aviator." Given the academy's history of segregating animated features, there's scant reason to hope "The Incredibles" will break the losing string.

There are many reasons to wish that it would. "The Incredibles" is a comedy about a superhero family, but there's no mistaking it for kiddie trash. It's an ambitious film distinguished by its intelligence, mastery of craft, and underlying serious tone.

"The Incredibles" is the favorite to win the Oscar for best animated feature, but, as usual, the field there is much thinner. Not only is "The Incredibles" up against just two other films, "Shrek 2" and "Shark Tale," but both are from the same studio, DreamWorks, and both are, compared with the Pixar-Disney entry, cynical and seedy. By contrast, a win for "The Incredibles" in the original-screenplay category would be animation's most dramatic escape from its cinematic ghetto since the 1991 best-picture nomination for Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."

"Original" means only that a screenplay is not based on previously produced or published material, but some comic-book fans complain that "The Incredibles" fails that modest test. They see in the film strong reminders of such vintage comic books as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "Fantastic Four" as well as more recent efforts that include Alan Moore's "Watchmen" and Brian Michael Bendis' "Powers." Like "The Incredibles," "Watchmen" and "Powers" visualize unsettling consequences if superpowered beings really existed.

Bird says he has never been much of a comic-book reader. "When fans ask if I was influenced by issue 47 of Whoeverman, I have no idea what they're talking about," he said by telephone. "I'm perfectly willing to believe that I'm not the first to come up with certain ideas involving superheroes. If there are similarities, it's simply because the same thoughts that occurred to other people also occurred to me."

Fans have been eager to draw parallels with the Fantastic Four, a group that, like "The Incredibles," includes one very strong character, another with a highly elastic body, and a third who can make herself invisible. (The fourth can burst into flame in the comic book but has great speed in the film, in which a fifth character, the baby, ignites.)

"I tried to base the powers on family archetypes," Bird says. "The father is always expected to be strong, so I had him have strength. Moms are always pulled in a million different directions, so I had her be elastic. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so I had her be invisible and have protective shields. Ten-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls, so I had him be [able to run very fast]."

There's irony in the complaints about "The Incredibles," because comic books that take superheroes seriously -- even comic books as well executed as the ones Bird has been accused of plundering -- are highly derivative themselves. They owe everything to "Superman," a brutally simple idea that has been reverberating since 1938.

The few cartoonists who have done work of lasting value in the superhero genre -- Will Eisner of "The Spirit" comes immediately to mind, as does Jack Cole of "Plastic Man" -- have adapted its crude mythology to larger purposes. The same is true of Brad Bird. "The Incredibles" is playful where "Watchmen" and "Powers" are grim, and serious where those comic books have nothing to say. Complaints about borrowings are beside the point.

Bird says "The Spirit," a masked crime fighter whose hiding place is a cemetery, is "the only comic-book crime fighter I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a director I liked [who] talked about 'The Spirit' being 'cinematic.' So I started to read it, and I thought, 'wow!' " Eisner's benevolent presence manifests itself in "The Incredibles' " light touch, its "cartoony" rendering of many of its characters, and, above all, its vigorous rethinking of its medium, computer animation.

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