In the latest Pixar extravaganza, The Incredibles, CGI digital animation seems finally to be settling into its proper niche somewhere between old-fashioned “analog” animation and live action. The vast mechanics of the hardware and software needed to produce such simulacra has by now become flexible and responsive enough to be manipulated on a whim, and taken just as lightly.
This second animated feature written and directed by The Iron Giant’s Brad Bird strikes the best balance yet between the form’s two poles of cartoonish stylization and three-dimensional solidity. While it doesn’t succumb to the temptation of trying to make its human characters photo-realistic, these hypertrophied caricatures — a family of superheroes living incognito in the suburbs and pretending to be ordinary — do have soulful eyes and plausible body language. They are also surprisingly distinct personalities who happen to wear matching crimson leotards.
I will admit I groaned as the Parrs, so-called, were dragged out of retirement by some creaky non-digital plot mechanics to save the world “one more time,” rather like the plucky Cortez clan in Spy Kids. But The Incredibles isn’t just a wisecracking parody of a world-rescuing adventure thriller — it’s the real thing, with chase sequences so fast and twisty you’ll have to pry your fingers off the armrests. The movie conveys more zest for the sheer sensuous charge of a good thriller than any live-action movie in years. So much so that the scenes of Parr clansters Bob (Craig T. Watson), Helen (Holly Hunter), Violet and Dash fighting as one on a jungle island, when their various clashing superpowers finally begin to rhyme and reinforce one another, carry a stronger sense of their bonds of affection as a family than the earlier, more conventional scenes around the dinner table, standard sitcom material embellished with some clever visual tomfoolery.
Paradoxically, it’s when the Parrs are most cartoonish, especially in the action sequences, that they become most expressively human, sometimes when we least expect it. The composer, Michael Giacchino, who works on the TV shows Alias and Lost, seems to be channeling 007-era John Barry, and when Bob (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible), a top-heavy giant with a sledgehammer jaw and a receding hairline, sneaks into the island lair of a self-made supermeanie, he doesn’t do it on tippy-toe, like a Chuck Jones wabbit, but with the confident movements of a full-grown hero letting a sense of danger wash over him as he blossoms out of his midlife crisis.
Some sequences recall the anything-for-a-guffaw strategy of the CGI films that laid the groundwork for Bird’s accomplishment, particularly Finding Nemo, in which each new fish had a polished vaudeville routine. But in The Incredibles, even a crowd-pleasing showboat character like Edna Mode, a miniature pug dog of a Eurotrash fashion designer (played with obvious relish by Bird himself), feels like a yappy distraction. The Incredibles really is an animated movie: It does its best work on the fly, when it’s moving almost too fast to follow. If it has a moral, it is that there is nothing to be gained by putting a lid on your talents, and that “Saying everyone is special is another way of saying no one is.” (The evil scheme of the film’s villain is to hand out mechanical enhancements that will make everybody “super.”) Platitudes aside, when rambunctious kid brother Dash (for “Dashiell”) Parr finally gets to uncork the hyperspeed he’s had to conceal while living in the ’burbs, it isn’t just an empty thrill ride; it’s an eruption of the life force. The Incredibles creates so seamless a mood of exhilaration that we resent being pulled out of it.
THE INCREDIBLES | Written and directed by BRAD BIRD | Produced by JOHN WALKER | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide