There are moments (and a lot of them) in The Incredibles as giddily exciting as anything since Steven Spielberg retired Indiana Jones. It does what the bloated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow failed to do — it re-animates the thrill, not just the nostalgia, of old-school comic books and pulp adventure, yet also seamlessly joins it to a modern self-awareness. The details alone are miraculous: the way a doorknob or a car-door frame crumples slightly in the grasp of a frustrated superhero (the car door, in a great touch, won’t shut afterward), or the movie’s hilarious mini-lecture on why a cape is an impractical adornment for a superhero costume. The film scores its laughs and adrenaline with nary a cheap trick.
Writer/director Brad Bird, a veteran of The Simpsons, is now batting two for two: His previous animated feature was 1999’s wondrous The Iron Giant, ignored during its theatrical release but passionately embraced on video in the years since. My wariness of Pixar films (the colorful, amusing Finding Nemo is an exception) goes back to the overrated Toy Story, but I dared to hope that Bird’s involvement would override any Disney-ness clinging to the project, and indeed it does. Bird brings a fine eye for the human to his more-than-human characters; even the motivations of the piece’s super-villain, the resentful Syndrome (voice by Jason Lee), are wretchedly understandable.
The first half hour or so tracks the downfall of two superheroes, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), driven into obscurity and enforced mediocrity along with all the other superhumans after society has litigated them off their pedestals. They become Bob and Helen Parr, an insurance-company drone and his stay-at-home wife, raising three kids, two of whom — Violet (author Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) — also have superpowers, which they’ve been cautioned to keep hidden. When Bob is pulled out of retirement by the threat of a huge killer robot, Helen responds as if he were cheating on her. “Is this rubble?” she pointedly asks Bob after his secret night out with fellow retired hero Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), finding a bit of collapsed building on his shirt that’s as incriminating as lipstick on his collar.
In outline, the set-up is a bit like Alan Moore’s postmodern comic book Watchmen, in which faded superheroes, rendered illegal by the government, go into action one last time after one of their number is murdered. The Incredibles is lighter of heart, though, with action sequences — like Dash’s sprint across water to evade a squadron of manned circular saws, or the way Helen manages to get herself stuck in three doors at once — that will go down as classics. The heroes learn to embrace who they are, while the jealous villain envisions a future where no one is exemplary or heroic — in other words, all the same. The movie’s subtle message that diversity should be honored, rather than everyone joining in the same groupthink to promote “healing” or whatever, couldn’t be more timely.
Theaters have been inundated with superhero movies, or knockoffs like The Matrix, for the past fifteen years (the success of 1989’s Batman started it, and the astronomical rise of 2002’s Spider-Man rejuvenated it). Some have been fine (I have a soft spot for the glum first two X-Men films, and I am among the few admirers of 2003’s tortured Hulk); most have been as thin as the pages that spawned them (no pun intended — 1997’s Spawn may have been the worst of the worst). You certainly have every reason to be mightily sick of super-stories, as am I; two of my favorite comic-book-derived movies of recent years, Ghost World and American Splendor, distanced themselves thoroughly from adolescent power fantasies. But ‘The Incredibles’ is something else, a glowing pastiche made not only with love for four-color escapism but with respect for the all-ages audience.