Released right as superhero movies were becoming American cinema’s stock and trade, smack dab in between the pop-action antics of Spider Man 2 and the grim origins explored in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Incredibles essentially works as the logical sequel to every superhero movie released that no one ever bothered to write or produce, due almost entirely to lack of imagination. Opening on its central protagonist’s wedding day, the film ponders this odd concept: What if Superman’s romantic life went positively gangbusters, but the public tired of him? Thus is the conundrum that director Brad Bird, who also wrote the phenomenal script, explores as super-strong, basically indestructible savior Mr. Incredible (Craig Nelson) finds himself a happily married man and the focus of a trumped-up lawsuit brought forth by a suicidal everyman in the same breath.
Having been saved from the leap off the roof he took willingly, Joe Blow blames Mr. Incredible for not only the humiliation of being foiled mid-offing, but also, ironically, the physical injuries he sustained in the rescue. Reason and logic are on Mr. Incredible’s side, but the common man wins, spurring numerous other lawsuits that lead to the subsequent abolishment of superheroes by the government. Considering his role as executive creative consultant on The Simpsons during the show’s salad days, Bird obviously has an affinity for the average Joe, but this often comes into conflict with his utter disdain for lack of ambition. Some people are unremarkable, either by choice or by design, and yet continuously demand the attention and respect given those who are naturally gifted, and there are tremendous campaigns waged in a myriad of markets to ensure that no one ever feel left out.
The confrontation between those who are talented and those who believe that everyone is special, or at least can pay enough to resemble special, forms the crux of the struggle that Mr. Incredible, his family, and his colleagues find themselves in. Not that normal life hasn’t been somewhat kind to Mr. Incredible: Having traded in his blue-and-black super suit for a day job at a crooked insurance agency, Mr. Incredible, now going by the name Bob Parr (as in, for the course), comes home nightly to his loving wife, Helen (Holly Hunter), formerly the ultra-flexible Elastigirl, and his three loving kids, Dash (Spencer Fox), Violet (Assassination Vacation author Sara Vowell) and baby Jack-Jack. A nice suburban home and a home-cooked meal are all well and good, but the strain of having to hide their cumulative gifts has taken its toll on all of them, none more than Bob. Sure, Dash can’t show off his lightning speed and Violent can’t make regular use of her invisibility and force-field powers, but Bob’s frustration has already erupted, leading him to sneak out for secret “missions” with his old buddy, Frozone, gamely voiced by Samuel L. Jackson.
Thus, a sudden, unsolicited invitation to disarm a super robot on a private island by a mysterious, comely assistant (Elizabeth Peña) immediately strikes Bob as the perfect venue to bring back Mr. Incredible and shake-off middle-age malaise for a few days. What he couldn’t possibly know is that this exercise, which becomes a regular appointment, was merely a façade, a trap set up by Syndrome (Jason Lee), a brilliant inventor who fashions himself Mr. Incredible’s arch nemesis. Once Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan (partially responsible for the lawsuit that banished his hero), Syndrome now specializes in high-tech weaponry that he swears will one day make everyone special (“When everyone’s super, no one will be”). Informed by her friend and former super-suit designer Edna Mode (Bird, himself a talented voice actor) of Bob’s antics, Helen goes off to confront him with the kids but comes face-to-face with the full strength of Syndrome’s inventions, the most formidable of which is the Incredible-tested super robot which Syndrome sends to attack the hometown of his erstwhile role model.
Fitted with a flame-shaped shock of red hair and a caped suit, Syndrome is the outcry of the irrepressibly ordinary, and though his inventions are miraculous, his ultimate flaw is that he wants to be seen as greater than his idol. Still, Syndrome’s true downfall ends up being in his inability to consider detail, a crime that Bird cannot be charged with. The great humor of the film is powered by its sense of detail in melding the suburban with the genetically superior; Dash’s repression of his superpower stunts his yearning to join his school’s track team while Violet only enables her power in public when she’s in danger of gaining the attention of the boy she likes. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Edna goes over the minutia of her costume designs with Helen, explaining how even Dash’s costume has been calibrated to prevent chafing.
That healthy, witty sense of humor is pervasive throughout, a touchstone of any memorable action film and notwithstanding the fact that The Incredibles does indeed take every superhero film to school, it’s above all else a great action film. Dash and Violet’s chase through Syndrome’s island is as breathless an action sequence as I have witnessed in the last decade, only slightly beating out the family’s final showdown with the super robot. The futility of the modern action film, especially in terms of storytelling, has never been more devastatingly apparent than it is in Bird’s film, even as it is a paean to big-screen adventures and summer pictures. The fact that it was an animated film only seemed to lend it more credence; more than even WALL-E, The Incredibles was the film that made people take Pixar seriously as a studio and a brand. And yet, Pixar has yet to hatch a super-powered sequel, a big-studio no-no if I’ve ever heard one. Indeed, at any other studio, Bird might have been replaced by a cheap for-hire filmmaker, someone with a lot of gadgets, but not necessarily the natural, immense talents Bird so easily exudes.
Disney has pulled out all the stops for this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. The colors are bold and plentiful, making nearly every frame exhilarating to the eyes whether taking in the big reds of the Incredibles’ suits or the lush greens of Syndrome’s island jungle. Fittingly, however, the disc’s true triumph is in its sense of detail, and every stitch of the super suits, every blast of blue energy, every splash of molten lava, and every lock of Bob’s receding hairline looks outright amazing. There are some light problems with aliasing, but they’re barely worth mentioning. As for the audio, there’s similarly nothing much to complain about. The retro theme music mixes beautifully with the dialogue and the atmosphere noise, making the mix in sequences like Dash and Violet’s fight against Syndrome’s minions and Helen’s attempt to save Bob near-symphonies of balanced commotion. Like most Pixar films, The Incredibles is a bona fide show-off disc.
A lot of the extras here are interesting at face value but are light on insight, beginning with the innumerable making-of featurettes that go through every part of the production nearly stage by stage. Things get a bit better with the commentaries, especially the one featuring writer-director Brad Bird, who enthusiastically discusses his attitude coming into the production and the ideas that carried on throughout. There are two wonderful animated shorts, Boundin’ and Jack-Jack Attack, but the reasons the deleted scenes were cut is obvious. Easter Eggs, an interactive photo gallery, and a teaser trailer are also included.
The conflict between natural talent and learned and practiced ability shapes the heart of The Incredibles, even as it goes about trumping every superhero film ever made.