Wednesday 11 July 2018

From the archive: "The Incredibles"

Fifteen years on from his superheroic heyday, Bob Parr - another of Pixar's inspired creations - has become an insurance schlub. His muscle has long since turned to fat; he can barely squeeze into his office partition; what once was a skintight outfit has become a croptop peering over a belly gone slack. A functionary by day - his job a mocking, sedentary reminder of the risks he himself used to take - Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) spends his nights sneaking out to rescue folk from burning buildings using the last vestiges of his special powers, longing for a return to his glory days. Inevitably - the magic of the movies, and all that - something like this comes to pass with the emergence of one Buddy Pine, a.k.a. Syndrome (Jason Lee), a spurned Parr fan threatening to disrupt the status quo. The world's fate soon lies in the hands of Bob and his equally gifted family: Mrs. Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (superhuman stretchiness), voiced by Holly Hunter; son Dash (superhuman speed), voiced by Spencer Fox; and daughter Violet (superhuman shrinking, perfect for a self-conscious teen who spends her downtime hiding behind her fringe), voiced by Sarah Vowell.

At two hours, The Incredibles is the busiest and longest Pixar production to date, and it's not pushing things to say the company spends much of that time showing off. Director Brad Bird here mixes large-scale, blockbuster-worthy setpieces with wonderful little trompe l'oeil effects and marvellous locations like Mr. and Mrs. Incredible's bedroom, where the attention to even the tiniest CG detail extends to a full-length mirror and the reflective surface of a television set. Ever since the furry animals of Fox's Ice Age, hair has been touted as one of the toughest textures to accurately render with pixels; so, too, water, no matter that Pixar spent almost all of 2003's Finding Nemo beneath the waves. Here, no fuss, we get both together, in a sequence in which Elastigirl, Dash and Violet, having plummeted into the ocean, bob around with wet locks. This is an Elastimovie, forever finding new ways to stretch itself. The humans in the Toy Story movies were perhaps the least convincing - perhaps only unconvincing - aspect of those films. Bird and his team wisely plump for characters governed less by strict photorealism than a caricature form not dissimilar to the every-bit-as-pummelled Weebles of MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch.

The magical transformation that occurs - partly attributable to the design, partly to typically good screenwriting - is that these exaggerated clumps of binary code come to convince as flesh-and-blood creations. Even the minor ones: Parr's boss, a barking, ashen corporate mite, looks as though he'd be played in a live-action remake by William H. Macy impersonating Noah Taylor's Hitler in Max. In some ways, it must be an easier task coming up with human characters than with such leaps of imagination as a fairytale ogre (Shrek, say) or the playthings in the Toy Storys. Yet for The Incredibles to work, an even greater leap has to be made: we have to believe these characters would bleed and hurt if they cut themselves. Amazingly, we do. I wonder if Pixar's approach to non-visual storytelling and characterisation is along the lines of how the company's wireframe boffins go about building these worlds: a layering up, an accretion of detail that permits one creative process to mimic another. 

At its heart, however, The Incredibles is a continuation of the themes of 2003's Finding Nemo, a film about the lengths we go to protect ourselves and our loved ones - and what, in doing so, we prevent ourselves from experiencing. Dash's teacher records his lessons on videotape, as a safety measure; one of the reasons the giant leaps of the kind formerly associated with the Parrs appear to be dying out is that the lawyers are keeping a close eye out for any collateral damage incurred in the process of besting villains and saving lives. You could, if you so choose, read this as a satire on the American way of checks and balances, or as a counterblast to the Homeland Security Act: a parable of responsibility, offering an animated restating that - if they'd only step up to the plate every once in a while - American citizens would be perfectly capable of looking after themselves, without interference from the Government. 

With its heroics unfolding around a sleek Fifties cityscape (special mention: the Parrs' Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home), The Incredibles may also count as the first Pixar movie since Monsters, Inc. that Ayn Rand might have clutched to her chilly bosom. Truly successful fables have the rare knack of being truly universal, offering something for everyone. That's certainly the case with Bird's film, which provides as many thrills as any of the year's live-action movies, alongside cherishable smaller beats - Bob cricking his back into shape during a tussle with an apparently unkillable robot, a fashion queen (styled after Edith Head) who points out the design flaw with capes and keeps a fireplace full of flame-red goldfish - and so much incidental detail you know within five minutes that you're going to buy the DVD to get a better look at it. To want to watch a movie again from scratch within moments of it beginning; a two-hour film that leaves you wanting even more. In this day and age, that's truly incredible.

(November 2004)

The Incredibles is available on DVD through Disney; a sequel, The Incredibles 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, and will be reviewed here in due course.

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