Pixar has done some amazing work here. They produce feature animation that doesn't need to rely on fart jokes or a constant barrage of tired pop culture references to be funny, entertaining, and engaging. They present positive messages without hitting you over the head with the Preachy Mallet. The adult jokes work for the adults, and the kid jokes work for both kids and adults, and never do you feel condescended to. Never do the jokes feel forced. It's a lesson Dreamworks desperately needs to learn, even if they've had success with their woeful offerings like Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, the latter of which has to stoop to Martin Scorcese trying to rap as an Italian mobster fish in order to get laughs. Where's the human nature in that? Where's the natural humor?
Compare that to a scene from The Incredibles where the family is driving along in a van. Bored, the kids ask "Are we there yet?" and Mr. Incredible, now Dad, hunches over the steering wheel and quietly seethes along the lines of if you kids don't stop that this instant...
...only the van is flying underneath a giant rocket, and Mom, as Elastigirl, is holding the van to the rocket, and the whole family is flying off to Save The Day.
And we laugh, cause, well, we've been there. At least, partly. The joke is great because it takes the old cliche of a family trip and puts it in a new context, and the result is, amazingly enough, refreshing and funny and nobody has to resort to Whitebread Rap. (The joke's also in the middle of a high-energy sequence, nearly unexpectedly, so the laughs come from that as well.)
The main characters in The Incredibles are cartoony and overexaggerated, yes, but at the same time all too human. They're superheroes forced to put their powers away and live in the Regular World, but they can't keep themselves from, well, being themselves. Sometimes they react to this with defiant pride, as when Mr. Incredible (now "Bob Parr" -- Bob Average) grouses, about his son's fourth grade "graduation": "They just keep on inventing ways to celebrate mediocrity! They want to make everyone special, and when everyone's special.. nobody is."
Sometimes they react with unrestrained giddiness when finally allowed to be themselves -- when Dash, the 10-year-old boy who can move at super-speed (but sorely chastised in the Regular World when he does so) is finally allowed to open up and run full throttle, the ensuing action sequence is giddy and exhilirating and it's not only just because of the way the film moves, but also because we're allowed to share Dash's joy in being able to let go.
And Mom, wise Elastigirl Mom, stretched in all directions as busy moms are, impressed me with her knowledge of What To Do And When. That's the hallmark of a good Mom. There's one sequence when she and her kids are threatened but daughter Violet (adorably voiced by Sarah Vowell) has a superpower that can save them. Mom immediately tells Violet to use her power. She knows what Violet can do and knows how to react. We don't have any of those tired, boring reveals that go along the lines of "...wait a minute... Violet... you... you know this! You can do this! Do it!" The power is not a surprise, we've seen it all along, and Mom doesn't have time for astonished discovery. I liked that.
There's another magnificent scene in which Mom and the kids, faced with certain danger, have a heart-to-heart. Mom says the bad guys they're about to face aren't like the bad guys on TV. "...they won't show restraint, just because you're 15 years old. They will kill you." She has the courage to admit this to her kids, and Brad Bird and Pixar have the stones to present it to us like that. Death is a part of this film. It's inferred that evil henchmen die, for one. No GI Joe copouts for this PG-rated film ("It's a good thing everybody in that helicopter had a parachute and is now safe!") There's also a skeleton and not a cartoony one. I was impressed to see it.
There are some delicious little details in the film, too. Listen for the name of the island hideout inhabited by the film's villian. Listen to the list of names Mr. Incredible calls Jason Lee's character in the beginning. Watch for the Pizza Planet truck (but don't tell me where it is! All I know is, in Pixar tradition, it's in the film somewhere and I'll need to go back and see the film again to find it.)
And watch for two old men near the end who appreciatively cheer on the heroes. They nod approvingly and say "Now that's old school!" These men are cameo caricatures of two veteran Disney animators, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt Disney's famed "Nine Old Men". Between them they worked on every Disney animated feature from Snow White on up to The Fox & The Hound, with many shorts and segments in between as well. Thomas and Johnston voiced the old men too, just like they did for their cameo roles in Brad Bird's brilliant 1999 animated film, The Iron Giant (which, if you haven't seen, you MUST get on video or DVD right this instant. More on Brad in a moment.)
Of course the old men aren't just cheering the heroes, they're cheering the new school of animators, the Good School, the one that Brad Bird brilliantly belongs to. And the tribute is all the more poignant as Thomas recently passed away at the age of 92. I believe Ollie Johnston is the last surviving Old Man -- we're now without Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman...
The art design is spectacular, early James Bondish features with a hint of Googie and Tiki and some striking 60s home design (check out the door of the Parr's suburban home, with the doorknob smack in the middle. The last time I saw that was in UHF.) The island hideout has a kickass monorail system with egg pods for vehicles, and wonderful brooding hideouts and lairs. The downtown has the cold, unfeeling 60s department store style ("Clump's" is the name of the store and the signage is perfect.) And the closing credits are nothing short of stylized 2D beauty. I delighted in the film's style; I want the posters and the concept art.
The story is tight, it moves well as all Pixar stories do, and never bogs down for sentimentality or regrouping or whatnot. This is a testament to the way Pixar makes their films with story first. For me they've done it again and I'm so grateful they did. Their departure from Disney will only strengthen them and allow them to continue on this path they've started to forge with The Incredibles -- they can make kiddie films still, like Cars (which looks cute, I do admit) but they can also bring out darker features, ones with more adult themes (and I mean the grown-up 'adult' in this case, not the prurient -- though there are a few scenes where Elastigirl, uh, shows off her flexibility in a way that makes yer jaw drop.) They're breaking free like Dash, and it will be great to see what they do when finally able to go full throttle on the projects Disney wouldn't let them do. I eagerly await Ratatouille.
Brad Bird deserves all the accolades and praise he can get for this film. He's a wonderful storyteller and a great idea-thinker-upper, and it's a shame his previous stuff didn't get him this kind of mainstream praise. The Iron Giant is a brilliant film, but Warner Brothers had absolutely no idea how to market it -- or they just didn't want to -- and as a result the film died at the box office. Now you really have to seek out the tale yourself. If you haven't seen it, you really should. You will like it. I was so glad when the Boston 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon screened it the year after its release. It was so wonderful to hear an appreciative audience, a full house, stand and applaud the film at the end. I'm so very glad Bird got the chance to kick some serious ass with The Incredibles because, well, he has. You go, Brad.
I'm muddled and probably need to regroup this writing, but I'm just so goshdarned excited about the film. It's great. Sadly, we got a preview of a live-action film with CGI shoved in for all the wrong reasons and in all the wrong places: Son of The Mask. It features a horrible CGI dog and a horrible CGI baby (FOLKS, COMPUTER ANIMATED "REALISTIC" BABIES ARE CREEPY AS HELL) and a level of jokes that made Baby Geniuses look like Raising Arizona. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad, but brother, it sure stunk, and I'm glad the stench dissipated from the theater quickly so we were able to enjoy our Feature Presentation.