With each successive film, Pixar has become more advanced. Look at the original “Toy Story” — state-of-the-art and awe-inspiring in 1995 — and compare it to the latest film, the adventure comedy “The Incredibles.” “Toy Story” looks downright quaint by comparison.
But “The Incredibles” is Pixar’s most sophisticated film in other ways, too, not just technologically, but in terms of plot and character. It brilliantly duplicates the look and feel of superhero movies, while also bringing into play the complex emotions of its characters. This touch of humanity been done before, and in fact has been the hallmark of Pixar’s films — and the thing most lacking in imitations like “Shark Tale” — but never as deeply as in “The Incredibles,” a warm, funny, exciting film for which I feel more affection the more I think about it.
It is set in a retro-looking version of the present in cities like Municiberg and Metroville, where numerous superheroes work side-by-side in defeating the forces of evil that so frequently beset great metropolises like these. The heroes’ leader, if not officially then in spirit, is Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson), a Superman-esque do-gooder with general powers of strength and agility. He has a mild-mannered alter ego, of course, named Bob Parr, and Bob recently married a mild-mannered woman named Helen. Their little secret is that Helen is really Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), with the powers of physical elasticity implied by her name.
Alas, the modern world catches up with superdom when Mr. Incredible and friends start being the victims of lawsuits. A man claims he didn’t WANT to be saved from dying; passengers on a train say they were hurt when Mr. Incredible prevented their car from derailing; a newspaper headline wonders whether X-ray vision is an invasion of privacy. The tide of public opinion turns against the supers, and they are forced by government regulation to stop using their powers and to behave like normal citizens.
We pick up the story 15 years later. Bob is an insurance agent now, looking, with his massive chest stuffed into a shirt and tie, like a football player who suffered an injury and had to take a desk job. Helen is a housewife, taking care of their shy teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), hyperactive grade-school son Dash (Spencer Fox) and little baby Jack-Jack. The kids’ superpowers are developing naturally, but without license to practice them — superheroes aren’t even supposed to let anyone know they HAVE powers under the new laws, let alone use them — the kids are restless. Violet, especially, feels even more like a freak than teenage girls normally do.
Bob is depressed, too — he and Helen have fallen into a state of domestic tedium — until one day he is contacted by a mysterious woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) who wants him to battle an artificially intelligent robotic weapon to see if it can be defeated. He gets to use his powers again, and Mirage pays him handsomely for it. Fighting new, more advanced versions of this weapon becomes a regular gig, boosting Bob’s morale — and by association that of his family — in the process. Who’s bankrolling the project and why? Bob doesn’t ask questions. And thus the trouble begins….
While Pixar’s previous films have been pretty straightforward comedies, “The Incredibles” is more accurately termed an adventure film. It is fiendishly funny when it wants to be, of course; comedy simply isn’t always the focus. There are fantastic sequences of action, mystery and suspense, all perpetrated with such a rip-roaring sense of imagination that you’d never guess the whole thing was a departure for Pixar. If it’s just a touch less … I don’t know, “instant classic” … than “Toy Story 2” or “Finding Nemo,” it’s forgivable. Even a film that is only 95 percent brilliant instead of the usual 100 percent brilliant is still pretty brilliant.
As always, the story is admirably efficient, requiring every second of its 115-minute running time, and brimming with clever references, inside jokes and a refreshing, whimsical sense of humor. The voice work is impeccable, because rather than casting big-name celebrities, Pixar casts whoever will be best for the part. You wouldn’t guess the guy from “Coach” would be perfect as an aging superhero, but then you hear him and you realize he’s ideal, his voice exactly the right mix of save-the-day bravado and ordinary-guy testosterone. I also greatly enjoyed Jason Lee as Syndrome, Mr. Incredible’s newest arch-enemy, and Brad Bird (also the film’s writer and director) as Edna Mode, fashion designer to the superheroes.
A- (1 hr., 56 min.; )