Moriarty Fumbles To Sum Up The Awe He Feels For Brad Bird's THE INCREDIBLES!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2008, 1:53 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
I know this isn’t exactly breaking news by this point, but Brad Bird’s THE INCREDIBLES is a remarkable piece of entertainment that out-Marvels Marvel, out-Spielbergs Spielberg, and beats James Bond without breaking a sweat. I’ve held off reviewing it not only because of my schedule, but because I want to talk about the film in detail, and I would have hated to rob anyone else of the joy of discovery that made this such a powerful chemical rush.
It’s hard to make a good film. Hell, it’s hard to make a film of any type at all, but the particular alchemy that is required to make a good film is something that eludes some filmmakers for their whole careers. And then there are those wizards who manage to put together one good film after another, people deserving of real and lasting respect. You can probably make a list of less than twenty of those filmmakers working at any given moment.
There’s another class of filmmaker, though... the truly inspirational. They don’t just make good films or even great ones. They make movies that are transformative, movies that dare everyone else in the business to do better. They set the bar impossibly high, then manage to top themselves. So far, as a company, Pixar has turned out one amazing entertainment after another, and his first time out as a feature director, Brad Bird made the absolutely delightful THE IRON GIANT. Put those two flawless track records together, and the result is the kind of film that comes along once in a long while, a genre-busting entertainment that excites, illuminates, and emotionally devastates all in one fell swoop. No hyperbole... THE INCREDIBLES is an instant classic, the best film in an already very good year.
The opening of the film, the documentary-style interviews with Mr. Incredible, ElastiGirl and Frozone, establish a hip, breezy sense of humor right away that is undeniably more adult than previous Pixar outings. The script by Bird is as sharp and incisive as the best work of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and in fact makes me think that if they’d ever written a superhero film, this is what it would have looked like. When we see an extended action sequence set on Mr. Incredible’s wedding day, it’s more dense and exciting than the climax of most action films. We learn so much about the way society views these superheroes so quickly that it makes the world feel more real than in many live-action films. These are real people... the way they act, the way they react... and it’s hard not to see some trace of yourself in them.
Especially once things go wrong. And they do. They go gloriously, agonizingly wrong, setting up a first act that is almost entirely character based. All it takes is one look at the newspaper to see how believable the concept is of superheroes being driven underground not by a supervillain, but by the threat of litigation. Forced to live as an insurance adjuster named Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible dies a little bit inside each and every day. Sure, he’s married to the still-wonderful ElastiGirl (who seems to have adjusted quite nicely to her life as Helen Parr, housewife), and he’s got three fascinating kids, but his heart just isn’t in it. His daughter Violet wants nothing more than a shot at an ordinary life, while his son Dash is dying to use his superpowers. The only one who seems perfectly happy with their lot in life is the baby, Jack Jack, and that may just be because he’s too young to know any better.
I’m deeply impressed by the way Bird etches the details of this domestic half-life, and Mr. Incredible’s mounting sense of ennui is as eral as any mid-life crisis I’ve ever seen depicted on film. His friendship with Lucius Best, who has also hung up his Frozone supersuit, is one of the few things that keeps him sane. They sneak off at night to fight crime anonymously, and after a particularly close call, Helen confronts Bob about his nocturnal activities. “Is this rubble on your collar?” she asks him, leading to a blow-up that wakes the kids. The argument could be about anything. Bird has an impeccable ear for dialogue and the way a family really behaves. By the time a mysterious woman named Mirage approaches Bob with a job offer, his desperation makes perfect sense. He can’t live a normal life. He can’t work a normal job. He’s simply not normal, no matter how hard he tries.
His first mission takes him to an island where he faces off against a rogue Omnidroid (nice inside tech geek joke there for anyone familiar with all the fabulous post-production toys that Lucasfilm has developed) in one hell of an action scene. The jokes and the thrills come fast and furious, and the end result is a restored man, a brand-new Mr. Incredible. He has to lie to Helen, telling her that he’s going on trips to seminars, but for the first time in a long time, he’s alive and fully engaged. He finally seems able to enjoy his family because he no longer sees them as a symbol of something he gave up. When he returns to the island a second time, sure he’s about to be given a new mission, he instead finds himself face-to-face with one of the greatest mistakes of his past.
Syndrome is another of Brad Bird’s big brain moments, a truly inspired bad guy. It’s so hard to come up with a persuasive supervillain thanks to decades of James Bond films and comic books. So often, world domination seems like an arbitrary goal, and it’s become an empty threat. Syndrome is motivated by personal issues that make sense, and it’s even possible to feel some sympathy for him. At first. He’s like the Fanboy Id unleashed, alternately menacing and hilarious. Once he thinks he’s killed Mr. Incredible, he sets his plan into motion. What he doesn’t count on... and what makes the film really special on an emotional level... is Mr. Incredible’s connection to his family.
I love the fact that this is a full two-hour film. It allows for a denser narrative, and things don’t get wrapped up as easily as they do in most animated films. It also allows the huge cast of characters to all make a strong impression. Edna Mode, for example, is easily the film’s breakout character, the one you’re left wanting more of, and that’s because she’s such an original creation. First, there’s the basic idea of a designer to the supers, the one responsible for all those dynamic outfits over the years. Makes sense once you think about it, but she’s still one-of-a-kind, a genuine innovation in the genre. Part of the kick is also the specific way she’s been imagined, this knee-high half German/half Japanese dynamo with an acid tongue. In every case, these characters have been given more specific character detail than they need, a mark of the profound love that Bird and his team felt for these people they’ve created. Tony Fucile, Mark Andrews, and the eccentric, unstoppable Teddy Newton are all essential parts of the puzzle, key players in the story and character design departments. Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston built the world that all of this takes place in, and I love the way they’ve created a retro-future that evokes the golden age of Marvel, the wildest dreams of Ken Adam, and the surreal exaggerations of Rankin Bass all at once.
And, of course, there’s the cast. Craig T. Nelson is wonderful as Mr. Incredible. It’s revealing work. I honestly never knew he had it in him, and now, I can’t imagine anyone else being able to accomplish what he did with the role. Holly Hunter’s distinct Southern honeyed drawl is toned down just enough, but all the warmth and intelligence she brings to her work shines through. Spence Fox is a real find, and he makes Dash a universally identifiable kid. I’ll be honest... whenever I imagined the voice of Calvin while reading CALVIN & HOBBES, this is the voice I heard, smart and a little hyper and mischievious. It was a brilliant move to hire Sarah Vowell to play Violet. The first time I ever saw or heard her was in GIGANTIC, the documentary about They Might Be Giants, and I was smitten by this oddball and her dry wit. She makes Violet vulnerable but not weak, and it’s a hell of a performance considering she’s not an “actor.” Samuel L. Jackson nails Frozone, but is that a surprise, really? It’s a nice supporting role as written, and Jackson gives the character that much more depth, really making him something special. Jason Lee is given room to play as Syndrome, and he does some of the best work of his career here. Elizabeth Pena, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger... everyone does a superlative job with what they’re given.
When the action really kicks in, once the whole family is on Nomanisan Island, the film kicks into a delirious high gear that reminds me of the sugar high I got the first time I watched BACK TO THE FUTURE. Everything drops perfectly into place. Every character pays off just right. I’ve seen the film multiple times now, and there are moments that are burned into my memory, those indelible goosebump moments that make us fall head-over-heels in love with a movie... and more than just a few. Dash realizing he can run on water, the way Frozone rides in on his temporary bridge of ice like an Olympic speed skater, Violet’s acceptance of her own ability as she puts on her mask for the first time, Bob and Helen’s argument about which freeway off-ramp to use, the appearance of a new threat at the end of the film, Jack Jack’s big reveal... and that’s just the stuff at the end of the movie. THE INCREDIBLES is overstuffed with more joy per minute than any other film this year, but it’s also a thoughtful post-9/11 parable about holding together a family even when faced with life-threatening danger. Beyond that, it wants us to celebrate the things that make us special. To reach so high and hit every mark is a rare accomplishment, and it distinguishes THE INCREDIBLES as exactly what the title claims.
I’ve got a lot more stuff coming before Monday, including my reaction to THE POLAR EXPRESS in IMAX 3-D, a peek at 30 minutes of footage from LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, and reviews of HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and BLADE TRINITY, so keep checking back!