5 out of 5
Directed by: Brad Bird
Watching a truly great film is eye-opening: it makes you realize how wide the gap is between good and great, and also makes it suddenly clear how few great films you’ve probably seen.
As a kids’ movie fan, I remember the excitement I felt at the dawn of Pixar with Toy Story: the computer graphics sort of tapped in to video game fanboyism – like we were seeing those in-game cinematics we wanted others to watch and appreciate suddenly justified on a large screen – and more directly, the gist of toys come to life was such an recognizable fantasy that it instantly appealed. For various reasons, I never got around to watching Toy Story, which is something I’ve recently rectified, and surprisingly, to me, I’ve found it to be… pretty average. Released nowadays, great casting aside and accepting the CGI detail being of its era, I feel like it wouldn’t get much notice. It’s a pretty standard kids flick, with standard beats, standard dialogue, standard silly moments, and etcetera. It’s totally enjoyable! But it’s also totally predictable and of a format that animated movies before and since have used.
The Incredibles had the benefit of a decade to sharpen up the range of what CGI could do, and it also admittedly had the boon of a PG rating to perhaps gear towards a slightly older demographic. Regardless, that same thrill came about: here was the director whose first movie I couldn’t get many friends to see, now doing a take on another medium – comics – that I longed to see get a treatment that wasn’t reliant on the cheekiness of what was then available. I did see the Incredibles at the time and loved it, and have rewatched it many times since, loving it the whole while. It’s been many years since I’ve taken the trip, though, and rewatching it now, I’m quite blown away by just how great of a movie it is.
The Incredibles certainly takes plotting notes from various other films – the once successful, now-bored husband finds a secret hobby which reinvigorates him… but threatens to do harm to his family once that hobby becomes more serious – and paints it over with a Fantastic Four riff and classic comic notes of heroes and villains, but that’s just its template. From its first moments, of a newsreel which introduces ‘Mr. Incredible’ – our Superman type, voiced by Craig T. Nelson, at the height of his fame – there’s something about the voice acting, framing, and timing that lets us know that this isn’t just another animated feature, or even just another film. It’s real: it comes to life, helped along by its expressive animated style, but realized to the fullest by excellent voice acting and, especially, by director Brad Bird. Every frame of this thing just nails its beats, whether it’s comedic or dramatic, and whether it’s a person-to-person conversation or spandex-clad action setpieces. When Brad shifted to live action for Mission: Impossible, I was sort of surprised, but I totally get it now: the DNA for something so grand is all here, as is Michael Giacchino’s excellent score, which, as with the flick, takes notes from other genres but then enlivens and inflates them into something wholly new and fun and unique.
And: it’s interesting! The flick doesn’t play dumb with us: Mr. Incredible, forced to retire his suit when the modern era catches up with golden age heroics and people start suing over damages, has now taken a wife – the once Elasti-Girl (Holly Hunter) – and has had three kids, with the two school-aged children in various states of confusion and depression over not knowing what to do with their inherited powers. He works an insurance job; she’s a housewife; and though he’s more outwardly distressed over no longer being able to stop criminals and save lives, they’re each clearly doing some bits of “playing” house, without any of the over-acting and over-writing that most films (kids films or not) would be using to show that. An opportunity arises in secret for Mr. Incredible: a hush-hush job; don’t tell the wife. But instead of dragging this aspect out for ninety minutes, the movie takes us to a reveal that we’re able to guess at by the midpoint – meaning it’s not treated as a belabored “twist,” rather just the evolution of the story – saving the last half of the flick for taking us in directions where we really can’t guess – beyond the broadest strokes – how it’s going to go.
Laugh out loud comedy, fantastically written family dynamics, and awesome action theatrics throughout. A great movie, that’s just as interesting as a character flick as it is as the bigger-than-life epic it ends up being, and one that would stand out whether it in any film medium – hand drawn, live action – but uses its CGIness to express itself in ways that still feel fresh and exciting to this day.