The Incredibles

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Forced into retirement by ungrateful and litigious rescuees, Bob Parr – aka Mr Incredible – is stuck in a dead end job, hating every minute. When he is given an anonymous commission to test his mettle against powerful robots he jumps at the chance, but has to keep the mission quiet from his wife, Elastigirl, and the burgeoning talents of children Dash and Violet. What none of them know is that the man keeping Bob busy has dastardly plans that will require every last inch of all their powers.

It’s not easy being a superhero, especially if you’re one in as much demand as Mr Incredible (aka Bob Parr, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), even obliged to help people en route to his wedding to Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). He also has to suffer the attentions of over-eager wannabe sidekick Buddy (Jason Lee), and in rejecting Buddy’s offers for help a mission gets complicated and Incredible becomes the subject of litigation by, amongst others, the disgruntled suicidal community.

The government, fed up of paying out on behalf of the superheroes, decree that their secret identities become their only identities. Fast forward fifteen years and Bob hates his job as an insurance claims handler because he’s not even allowed to do good there, though he can’t help sneaking out for a spot of heroism on the quiet with old friend Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), much to Helen’s chagrin. Home life is far from happy as teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell) is self-conscious about her disappearing and force-generating powers, whilst young Dash (Spencer Fox) is as frustrated as his Dad about not being able to use them in public – baby Jack-Jack, apparently, is quite happy being normal.

Bob is naturally delighted when alluring stranger Mirage offers him a top-secret assignment to fight robots overseas, allowing him to get back in shape with the assistance of kooky costume designer Edna Mode (voiced by director Brad Bird); but the purpose of the assignment – backed by the malicious yet oddly-familiar Syndrome – is in fact to destroy the superhero, something which Bob and Helen, believing her husband to be up to mischief, discover all too late. Luckily, the whole family have come along for the ride and what one set of super-powers can’t achieve, four just might.

After the mahoosive* success of Finding Nemo you might forgive Pixar employees for doing nothing but ordering truffle and caviar pizzas all day; yet as Nemo was still being made the studio started work on Brad Bird’s story of everyday superheroes, a brave move that took Pixar’s traditionally kiddie-friendly films in a completely different direction and one which leaves me feeling deeply conflicted. On the one hand I have to admire the impeccable way it has been made, since – as with all Pixar movies – the design and execution are of such a high standard that you forget about the computer-generated nature of what you’re watching in an instant and concentrate on the characters, given depth and substance by superb animation, exemplary voice work and a strong script.

You really feel Incredible’s frustration at being stuck in a dead-end job and the thrill he gets from flexing his muscles again, leading himself and family into peril which they escape from via a number of breathtaking action sequences, in which both adults and children discover the satisfaction to be gained from living life with a true sense of purpose. All of the characters are well-drawn, in every sense, with even side characters like Frozone and Mirage given nuances.

On the other hand, it’s that very depth of character that gives me pause for thought. Much of the film’s early stages are spent showing Bob Parr as downtrodden, miserable, dissatisfied and getting into uncomfortable domestic arguments with Helen (given that the family have been forced to move a lot, she’s naturally reluctant to do anything that might disrupt ‘normal’ family life), and to me this doesn’t sit well in a film aimed at a younger audience. Not that Pixar ever shy away from difficult subjects – take Buzz’s psychological nightmare in Toy Story or the opening of Finding Nemo – but the literal and figurative darker shading of The Incredibles makes for an initially downbeat experience (consider too the foiled suicide attempt or the genocidal implications of Syndrome’s scheme) which lacks the positive, if more simplistic, atmosphere of John Lasseter projects. What I really mean is that that jokes aren’t as good, aside from the entertaining and significant one about the perils of cape-wearing.

I’m not downplaying the artistic merit or technical achievement of Pixar’s work, I promise. The Incredibles is good, it really is: I just don’t love it. I don’t go all warm and fuzzy when I see the characters in the same way I do when Buzz, Hamm, Nemo, Dory or even Monsters Inc.’s Sulley are on-screen. And I know that this can never have been Brad Bird’s intention, given the nature of the story, but I want animation to do things that live action can’t, and with X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on proving that superhero movies can do anything, The Incredibles doesn’t warm my heart.

Mostly this is due to the story, but I’m not struck on the character designs either: Mr Incredible reminds me of Charles Napier, which isn’t a good thing, and I have no idea why Elastigirl has to have such a large backside, especially considering she can be any shape she likes. The biggest turn-off, though, is Buddy/Syndrome, who is apparently modelled on Brad Bird but to me resembled a young Ron Howard with acromegaly. Of course villains should be ugly, but there’s a slightly bitter taste in making an over-eager fanboy the bad guy. Did Brad have a bad experience at a convention, perhaps?

Giving scores is never easy and as part of my conflict I feel I should be marking The Incredibles much higher, since a lot of the work that has gone into making it is – for want of a less obvious word – incredible. But I can only ultimately go on how I feel, and I cannot get over the twin hurdles of the film depressing me for much of its first half and some (no-doubt deliberately) uncuddly character modelling. The very best films are ones that I would demand to see if I only had a limited time left to watch them, and though I admired The Incredibles it simply wouldn’t feature high up in the queue.

NOTES: 1I don’t know how far travelled this term is. It’s pronounced like ‘elusive’, with as much emphasis as possible on the ‘h’, and describes a thing that is much, much bigger than big.

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