"You sly dog, you got me monologuing."
Brad Bird is one of those genuinely talented and nice people in this world that you just can't help but root for. Much like one of his contemporaries and good friends, John Lasseter, his early life was marred with the kind of failure that would have crushed the spirit of a lesser man. However, just like Lasseter, his string of recent successes has cemented his status as an icon of the animation industry, and his unyielding commitment to quality is evident in everything he lends his name to. I have yet to see Bird's first foray into live-action filmmaking with the new Mission: Impossible film, but I've heard nothing but good things about it. It does go a little against his old motto which I used to use to champion his animated films to people who claimed to hate animation, "I'm a filmmaker, my medium just happens to be animation," but I can't begrudge anyone for wanting to try something new.
His first animated feature, The Iron Giant, is a remarkably rendered tale of a pair of outsiders trying to find their place in the world, it just so happens that one of them is a giant Soviet robot and the film is set in small town America at the height of the Cold War. This is a theme that runs throughout his work, films that are ostensibly about one thing, but when you scratch beneath the surface, they're filled with universal truths that all of us can connect to. So it is with his first feature for Pixar, the 2004 animated superhero tale The Incredibles, which I would not hesitate for a moment to say is the best superhero film ever made. Five years later, Zack Snyder made a virtually shot for shot film adaptation of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, but those of us who know better, know that Brad Bird had more or less already adapted Watchmen with The Incredibles.
The film opens in the past, when superheroes are icons, symbols of all that is good and right with the world. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is the most famous of these, and he's shown foiling all manner of crimes and helping citizens while on his way to get married to Elasti-girl (Holly Hunter). One of these citizens he saves is a man attempting to commit suicide, and this man turns around and sues Mr. Incredible, claiming that he didn't want to be saved, and through Mr. Incredible's actions, he is now in greater pain than before. This forces the government to create a superhero registration act, forcing all superheroes to divulge their secret identities and give up their crime-fighting.
Flash forward to the present, Mr. Incredible is now living a normal life as Bob Parr, still married to Helen & they have three children Violet (NPR's Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox) and baby Jack-Jack, all of whom have latent superhero abilities. Bob is working as an insurance claims adjuster, secretly helping people under the table and against the wishes of his boss, Mr. Huph (Pixar staple Wallace Shawn, a man who's voice I'll never tire of). Another friend of Bob's is his former superhero pal Lucius, formerly Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), and the two meet once a week ostensibly to go bowling, but they're actually secretly moonlighting as superheroes, unable to give up the thrill it once gave them. When Bob runs afoul of his boss and throws him through several walls, he's fired from his job, but is saved when he's given an offer from a mysterious benefactor to come to a remote island and help them fight off a killer robot.
Bob resumes his old life as a superhero, unbeknownst to his wife and kids. Things aren't what they seem however, as the mysterious benefactor is actually a super-villain named Syndrome (Jason Lee), who had been scorned by Mr. Incredible as a kid, when he attempted to be Mr. Incredible's sidekick, against his wishes. Now Syndrome has a plan to kill off all the remaining superheroes and bestow super powers upon ordinary people, so that once everyone's super, nobody will be. When Helen finds out what Bob's really been up to, she leaps into action to save her husband, and her two oldest kids tag along in an attempt to finally use their super powers.
There's more to the plot than that, but on the outside chance you haven't seen it, it's worth keeping the little bits and pieces secret. The film is heavily indebted to Watchmen as I said before, even throwing in little references like the dangers of wearing a cape, but it's also a savvy superhero yarn, clearly written by a comic book geek. Up until last year's Cars 2, Pixar had the most impressive winning streak of all time, creating films that were not only commercial smashes, but critical successes as well, earning high marks from critics and audiences alike. The Incredibles may be the best film Pixar has made (Toy Story 3 is the only one that comes close) because it's a lovingly crafted film that can appeal to people of any age. Children can relate to the kids, adults can relate to the parents, and even though none of us have superpowers (that I know of), it's really a film about finding your place in this world, and using the powers you do have for good.
The casting is stellar, top to bottom. I would have declared anyone who would have told me that Craig T. Nelson would have been an inspired choice for a superhero to be delusional, but he is fantastic. Jason Lee has a voice that is unique in its youthful naivete, making him the perfect choice for a kid in over his head, acting out a child's revenge fantasy. Holly Hunter has a voice that many people find annoying (I'll never forget people saying she won an Oscar for The Piano because she never opened her mouth), but I think is infused with a genuineness that is in short supply in Hollywood. Her work with the Coen Brothers forever endeared her to me, and I think she's wonderful here.
So why does The Incredibles transcend being a very good movie and become a masterpiece? It's because it never falls into the trap of pandering to young children. A great deal of Pixar's films are excellent, but they have a softness to them that ends up making them safe for children of all ages. This is a film that knows how hard it is to be a kid and doesn't pull any punches, very clearly showing children that there are two paths they can go down in life. One is the path Syndrome took, striking out on his own, acting out his callow revenge, and ending up a delusional man-child with no one in this world to rely on. The other path is the one that Vi and Dash take, where they work with their family, never turning their back on them, relying on them in spite of decisions that their parents make that they don't agree with, but know deep down will make them into better people. It's an incredible message (no pun intended) and any child will walk away from this film knowing that their parents have the best intentions for them, and relying on family is the best way to go through life.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar uses the broken sticks put into a bundle to demonstrate to the other apes the concept of strength in numbers, and if the apes can understand that, anyone can. It's the overarching theme of The Incredibles and is the kind of thing that great leaders have shown throughout history. Going it alone is the quickest way to failure. I hope that Brad Bird returns to animation soon. His other Pixar film Ratatouille is another fantastic film, and one that I hope to revisit here sometime in the future, and I pray that he uses his unique storytelling abilities in this medium he loves again sooner rather than later. I have no doubt, though, that when he does return to animation, he'll continue breaking new ground by telling an age-old story in a new and inventive way.