We Don't Need Another Hero

Salt Lake City Weekly | November 1, 2004
All right, Pixar, this is what you get for setting the standard for contemporary movie magic: You make something that’s only really good, and it feels like a disappointment.

It may not be fair, but it is what it is. For a decade now, the computer animation pioneer built on the vision of director John Lasseter has been cranking out hits like Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo—and putting cel artists out of work—by adhering to simple principles: Tell great stories. Don’t pander. Tell great stories. Make ’em laugh. Oh, and something about great stories.

Writer/director Brad Bird joined the Pixar fold after Warner Bros. found itself utterly baffled over how to sell his charming 1999 feature The Iron Giant. So what does he do when he gets to a place that would know what to do with an idiosyncratic artist? He makes exactly the kind of movie that would have had Warner execs moistening themselves in delight: a computer-animated superhero adventure.

There is, fortunately, a bit more to it than that. A 1940s-set prologue finds a world full of costumed crime-fighters, chief among them Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). But litigation and anti-hero sentiment forces the “supers” into government-sponsored relocation, and lives where tights have been replaced by ties. Flash forward to the late 1960s, where Mr. Incredible now sits behind a desk as claims adjuster Bob Parr, returning home at night to wife Helen (Holly Hunter), erstwhile Elasti-Girl, and their kids: sometimes-invisible middle-schooler Violet (This American Life commentator Sarah Vowell); super-speedy 4th-grader Dash (Spencer Fox); and infant Jack.

It’s now just an average existence for the aptly-named Parr, though he and fellow ex-hero Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) spend the occasional night listening to the police scanner to find action. So it’s almost impossible for Parr to resist an invitation from the mysterious Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) to take out a renegade robot on a tropical island—which makes it easy for a villain called Syndrome (Jason Lee) to have his revenge.

Bird’s a smart guy—his résumé also includes time on the Simpsons staff—so it’s not as though The Incredibles is a shiny, empty vessel. He peppers his story with subtext about suburban ennui and mid-life crisis, and Violet’s adolescent anxiety about being different. His throwaway gags include nods to the vintage macho-man cologne Hai Karate, and Syndrome’s henchmen turning a scene of destruction into a drinking game.

Mostly, though, Bird turns The Incredibles into an homage to Connery-era James Bond films. From Syndrome’s underground volcano lair to the femme fatale Mirage, from Michael Giacchino’s brassy score to the stylized closing credits (admittedly more Saul Bass than Maurice Binder), Bird goes for the 007 gusto. Even the character of superhero costume fashion designer Edna “E” Mode (voiced by Bird himself) is a tres-chic Q.

But does American cinema really need a family-film goof on Bond, especially when the Bond franchise has done a perfectly good job of goofing on itself over time? More to the point, does American cinema really need what is essentially another superhero movie, especially one that covers thematic ground already hashed out more effectively by the Spider-Man and X-Men movies? At its core, The Incredibles is simply a straight-ahead action-adventure, with explosions, chases and narrow escapes by the score (including what appears to be an extended riff on Return of the Jedi’s Endor speeder-bike pursuit). If it were a live-action film of the same kind, it would be more clever and inventive by half than most of its genre cousins. But at times the character beats feel like just as much of an afterthought as they would in a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

It’s hard to imagine, of course, that Bruckheimer would oversee something with as gleefully silly a supporting character as Edna Mode, or get such a great montage out of why a cape is an impractical crime-fighting accessory. Technical advances will continue to ensure that Pixar films are remarkable to behold, and The Incredibles delivers a fast, fun ride. Maybe that should be enough.

And it would, if fast, fun rides weren’t such a common goal of studio movie-making. We expect a little bit more from Pixar—more story, more heart. We’ll have to settle—at least until Lasseter’s Cars next fall—for mere quality rather than genius. Everyone’s disappointments should be this entertaining.

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