The incredible Incredibles

With Up arriving in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray next week, Mark celebrates the Pixar film that deserves equally high praise...

It’s been a discussion on at least half a dozen times at the Den as to which Pixar movie is the best, often resurrected by a new release of theirs. The standards are exceptionally high, given the track record Pixar has so far presented.

But one movie stands out to me in being the complete deal, The Incredibles. People love Monsters Inc. but I find the story too simplistic, Finding Nemo is just too sentimental and the design of Cars is its flaw, I’ve concluded.

Pixar hasn’t made a bad movie yet, but my assertion is that The Incredibles is the perfect package.

At its core, this movie is about being who you really are, and not hiding, ironically, behind a mask. The ‘supers’ are forced to go into hiding in the face of a litigious public. But can they deny who they really are, when the world needs them? Nah!

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The narrative structure of The Incredibles is deceptively simple, but allows the characters to develop at a very nature pace. The pre-credits sequence introduces us to Bob and Helen, soon to be married, who also go by the alternative identities of ‘Mr. Incredible’ and ‘Elastigirl’, with their crime fighting pal ‘Frozone’. It also introduces the overly obsessive fan, Buddy, who ultimately turns out to be their most dangerous adversity, Syndrome.

The story then shifts forward through time where the Parrs and Lucius Best (Frozone) are living entirely normal lives. The Parrs have three children, Violet, Dashiell ‘Dash’ and baby Jack Jack. While the older children exhibit super powers of their own, so far Jack Jack’s only speciality is excessive gurgling.

This mundane tableau is shattered by the arrival of a secret communication for Bob, who is tempted to return to the super-hero business, but without telling is wife. It’s a touch of True Lies with a splash of X-Men and just a dash of James Bond. There’s a consistency of tone throughout and there is a definitive start, middle and end.

All the characters develop through the story and are changed by the events, and much of what happens is succinctly referential. On repeat viewing there are no superfluous scenes or characters, and everything has genuine purpose and meaning. These might seem obvious story requirements, but it’s amazing how many movies even fail those litmus tests (like Transformers 2, for example).

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Once Pixar had nailed the story down, and decided that this would be CGI (at one point it was to be hand-drawn animation), they then gave it a very distinctive look.

I’d contest that Toy Story pretty much designed itself, given what CGI technology Pixar had at the time and the need to represent known toys accurately. Once Mr Potato Head and Rex had been created, there was only one look Toy Story could reasonably have.

But, by the time The Incredibles arrived, Pixar had much more scope for visual flair, and the slightly retro feel to the imagery, possibly harking to the very stylised limited animation of the late 50s and 60s, is exceptionally pleasing.

Looking at a character in particular, Mr Incredible’s legs just aren’t thick enough to support his body, even after he slims down. But the way he’s designed is almost the same forced perspective as comic book heroes are traditionally drawn, where upper-body musculature is given enhanced prominence. I can see with Elastogirl the designers are traversing a very narrow path balancing between making her seem human and female and the necessities of her super-persona, requirements that are often in conflict.

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In many CGI films I can so easily get distracted by the technical challenges and how well, or badly, they’ve been met. But almost immediately in this one I entirely forgot it was computer generated and focused instead on the story and personalities.

The trick Pixar performs, and it does it so well, is to make their story and characters generate a static charge as they interact, as if they’re a powered by Van der Graaf generators.

The very pinnacle of energetic characterisation is Edna, who entirely dominates ever scene she’s in. I’d have loved to have been in the casting meeting where Brad Bird said, ‘I want someone who sounds like this to play Edna,’ and then everyone looked at him and suggested no one else.

The added edge that having the director and writer of the movie playing such an important character, and so brilliantly, is one of the reasons I love this film. Edna has some superb scenes, and, unsurprisingly, the best dialogue. Her critique of cat-walk models is classic: “Supermodels. Heh! Nothing super about them… spoiled, stupid little stick figures with poofy lips who think only about themselves.”

But she outdoes even that when she turns on Helen Parr to remind her who she truly is, brandishing a rolled up magazine. “Go, confront the problem. Fight! Win!” She’s marvellous and she’d be key to any sequel, but she’s also used very sparingly, so her firecracker personality never has an opportunity to grind.

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But Bird isn’t the only top-notch voice talent on offer here. Both Craig T. Nelson as Bob (Mr. Incredible) and Holly Hunter as Helen Parr (Elastigirl) are beyond perfect. Nelson most memorably appeared as the unfortunate house owner Steve in Poltergeist, where he famously pulls his face apart while looking in the bathroom mirror. Being of the same age and expanding waistline as Bob Parr, I entirely associated with the temptation to turn back the clock and capture the past. I even worked in the insurance sector for many years, and understand the wholly soul-sucking nature of that area of business.

Nelson sells the edge of despair that all middle-aged men feel when they realise that they’ve passed through a particular revolving door of life and just out of reach is the life they once had.

As good, but subtly different, is Holly Hunter as Helen, the rock at the heart of the family, who everyone assumes will remain resolute while chaos reigns around her. Her most telling moment is when she rings Edna to find out why she fixed Bob’s super-suit, and is forced to admit that she was once Elastigirl. I know as part of the Pixar process they film all the voice talent during recording to provide reference material for the animators, and the pained expressions she makes in this scene could only be inspired by those made by Holly Hunter herself.

So, we’ve got a serviceable plot, brilliant characters and design, what else do we need? Most certainly music. I’d say this is the most under-utilised aspect of modern film for me, as so few movies have great themes or memorable incidental music in them. For The Incredibles they hired Michael Giacchino, whose credits also include both Ratatouille and the recent Star Trek. He wasn’t the first choice, incidentally. It was originally the Bond composer, John Barry. The irony is that, although they hired Giacchino, he did a better ‘Barry’ soundtrack on this than the great man himself has managed since the 60s.

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The influence of the Connery era Bond crops up repeatedly, with the horn section blasting into action to provide a lifting emotional tide as The Incredibles go into action. Personally, I was transported back to the sixties, where solo-plucked rifts blended into full orchestral menace. Just breathtaking.

I could go on about this movie for another 3,000 words, but I’d rather people took the time to watch it again than indulge me. Very soon The Incredibles will be, hopefully, coming to Blu-ray, and I, for one, will be at the front of that particular queue to hand over my crumpled cash, let my stomach be defeated by its long-running fight with gravity and announce to everyone that it’s ‘showtime!’.