Movie review: 'The Incredibles'

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3½ stars (out of 4)

If "The Incredibles" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them.

It's amazing this cartoon super family wasn't created sooner, given the recent blockbuster status of both superheroes ("Spider-Man 2") and computer animated movies ("Shrek 2," "Shark Tale").

With "The Incredibles," writer/director Brad Bird delivers the perfect union — a vivid, sublime parody and valentine to the superhero genre in Pixar's first PG film.

At its center, Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) — essentially a flightless Superman with Batman's wheels — captures Elastigirl's (Holly Hunter) flexible hand in marriage just as superheroes are legislated out of existence by sweaty-palmed bureaucrats.

It seems that for all their derring-do, caped crusaders attracted lawsuits and the clean-up expenses were costing the government a bundle.

Flash forward a few years, and we find Mr. Incredible trapped inside his alter ego: Bob Parr, an insurance adjuster and father with thinning hair and a vacant 9-to-5 stare. Barely able to control his precocious, lightning-quick son Dash (Spencer Fox) or console his introverted, invisibility-prone daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), Bob feels powerless, perhaps the worst fate for a superhero.

But when a shadowy figure offers Bob the chance to come out of retirement, Mr. Incredible finds himself leading another double life — this one hidden from his wife and children.

"The Incredibles" marks a bit of departure for Pixar, the company behind "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." While the super-powered opus pulls fewer heartstrings than "Nemo" and "Monsters," it's also a different kind of film — more a family action comedy set to a James Bond soundtrack than an animated fable. Expertly and lovingly crafted, "The Incredibles" clobbers most of its superhero brethren while still appealing to adult and kid sensibilities.

A consummate comic book fan, Bird not only tips his hat with references to the X-Men, Superman and the Fantastic Four, but also to "The Watchmen," Alan Moore's seminal comic book series about post-retirement superheroes, published in 1986. "Star Wars" aficionados will also spot a homage to the Speeder Bike battle from "Return of the Jedi" in Dash's forest chase.

But even if you don't notice all the cultural touchstones, you'll marvel at Bird's character interplay and eye candy.

Bird, best known for his work on "The Simpsons" and the under-appreciated movie "The Iron Giant," lets his affection for the comic book mythos shine through. He's able to both exploit and dodge superhero cliches, even poking fun at evildoers' tendency to "monologue" — or rattle on about their villainous plans just when they should be finishing off their adversaries.

It's funny, too, especially compared with the insider-humor of "A Shark's Tale." Watch for fussy superhero costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird), who steals every scene she's in and gives Mr. Incredible a lecture on the fashion dangers and mortal consequences of fighting crimes in a cape.

Not only is "The Incredibles" is Pixar's first PG movie (for action violence), but it's also the first of their six films to star humans (well, superhumans) instead of aquatic life, insects or assorted nighttime beasties.

Instead of modeling them to look human, a design challenge that has made every animated humanoid look stiff (or worse) since "Snow White," Bird's characters are hyperbolically proportioned, giving them a refreshing, cartoony feel. Only occasionally do to they appear mannequin-like, a la "Team America: World Police," especially in a scene when Dash, Violet and Elastigirl (or should that be Elastimom?) float perilously in the ocean. But the movie's overall sleek design and inspired voice casting (especially of Hunter and Jason Lee, as Mr. Incredible's nemesis, Syndrome) glue us emotionally to Bird's characters.

More than just a superhero love letter and action comedy, "The Incredibles'" themes reach into the real world.

"Your identity is your most valuable possession," Elastigirl tells her children, as much of the movie is about the search for identity.

But what happens when being your true self is legislated against? The whole family lives in a fragile bubble of secrecy and faux "normality." Dash isn't even allowed to play sports, for fear he'll hurt someone.

Comic book stories, especially the Marvel Comics mutant comics such as "X-Men," have always been fertile ground for social parables. Mutants, like Wolverine or Storm, became the ultimate outsiders, often paralleling the feelings of culturally alienated teen readers. The mutant-as-social-outcast metaphor has been attached to holocaust survivors (Magneto) and director Bryan Singer elevated the discourse again in 2003's "X-Men" sequel when he filmed a character's revelation to his family about his powers as a gay coming-out scene.

"Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" his mother asks.

"The Incredibles" doesn't play so overtly political, but the foundation is there, providing a social depth to Bird's tale and challenging the wisdom of the homogenized sentiment, "When everyone is special, no one is."

"The Incredibles" isn't just a title, it's also the perfect descriptor for Bird's animated triumph.

"The Incredibles"

Written and directed by Brad Bird; music by Michael Giacchino; edited by Stephen Schaffer; produced by John Walker. A Buena Vista Pictures/Pixar release; opens 12:01 a.m. Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: PG for action violence.

Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr - voice of Craig T. Nelson
Elastigirl/Helen Parr - voice of Holly Hunter
Dash Parr - voice of Spencer Fox
Frozone/Lucius Best - voice of Samuel L. Jackson
Syndrome - voice of Jason Lee
Violet Parr - voice of Sarah Vowell

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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