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Passing a crucial test of characters

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.”

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“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].”

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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.

Eisner, who died this year, was an innovator whose seven-page stories in the late ‘40s extended the comic book’s boundaries in many ways but especially in how he told those stories: through panels that expanded and compressed time and revealed and concealed facts, with a sophistication that not just comics but also live-action movies have rarely equaled. Bird attempted something similar by confronting head-on his medium’s most troublesome shortcomings, especially its inability to depict convincing human characters.

A genre’s nagging problems

Other computer-animated features -- from Pixar as well as from DreamWorks -- have evaded the challenges that human characters pose, relying for the most part on realistic textures, smart dialogue, and nonhuman characters. (“Shrek 2" and “Shark Tale,” filled as they are with mottled skin, fur that begs to be touched, and herds of wisecracking animals, are the extreme examples to date.) All the characters in the earlier computer-animated films tend to move like puppets, but jerkiness is more conspicuous the more closely the characters resemble human beings.

There’s a related problem: In hand-drawn animation, the boundaries of expression are very wide, thanks largely to the tremendous distortion that is possible within individual frames -- distortion audiences feel rather than see. In computer animation, the range of possible distortion, and thus expression, has been much narrower.

Finally, the appearance of human skin is notoriously hard to duplicate in the computer. For all such reasons, human beings were scarce in computer-animated features, especially Pixar’s, until “The Incredibles.”

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Bird finessed the nagging skin problem by depicting his characters in highly stylized form. He realized -- as other people working in computer animation have not -- that stylization, which so often denies credibility to flattened and angular characters in hand-drawn films, need not do so in computer animation. Because the stylized characters appear to be three-dimensional, the eye will cut them more slack.

Not only did Bird populate his film with human characters, but his story -- which called for subtle shades of feeling as well as intricate, fast-moving action scenes -- required that they move more freely than any computer-animated characters before them. In telling that story, Bird tried to bring to the animation some of the elasticity and expressiveness that had been the exclusive territory of hand-drawn films.

To a remarkable extent, he succeeded -- in part by tweaking the technology itself (Pixar’s technical people seem to have been highly responsive to his wishes) but also by wringing every possibility for expression out of computer animation as he found it. It’s thanks to his relentless demands on his medium that “The Incredibles” has real emotional weight.

When the superheroes quarrel at the dinner table, they are far more believable as a family -- a family with powers and problems peculiar to it -- than most comparable groupings in live-action movies. At such moments, it’s particularly clear Bird has used his superhero story as a vehicle to deal with what he calls “the personal stuff.”

Bird’s screenplay may be the most fertile, in character-animation terms, since Walt Disney’s earliest animated features. Like Bird, Disney used the screenplays for films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Dumbo” (“screenplays” that existed as treatments, scripts and storyboards) to force the growth of his medium.

Thanks to World War II and Disney’s own mistakes, character animation’s central development stalled in the early ‘40s. With “The Incredibles,” Bird took up a task that no one had tackled with comparable passion for more than 60 years. His efforts might seem quixotic, given that the directors of ostensible live-action films are filling the screen with computer-animated armies. Surely the line between animation and live action is blurring? Actually, no.

Spectacle always dates; character doesn’t. What is dazzling now -- what looks like, say, a battlefield thick with orcs and oliphaunts -- will eventually come to look like no more than a few dazed actors stumbling past computer-generated phantoms. The excessive use of computer animation in live-action films may actually enhance the audience appeal of real character animation, whose strong suit has always been its capacity for the emotional complexity that so many live-action spectacles lack.

“The Incredibles” -- a film that concentrates its energies on giving its characters visible inner lives -- will wear better than many more celebrated live-action films. If Brad Bird and his colleagues can expand computer animation’s boundaries even further, the results could be interesting indeed. Although Bird’s screenplay is uncommonly dense and thoughtful, its strongest claim may not be that it is the core of an excellent film but that it has opened the door for even better films to come.

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If that’s not “original,” what is?

Michael Barrier, who runs www.michaelbarrier.com, is writing a biography of Walt Disney for the University of California Press. His most recent book is “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age” (Oxford University Press).


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