What’s interesting about looking at the movies of Pixar is how they represent a subtle but clear progression, both in terms of CGI they use, but also in a wider creative context. So, the later movies not only look and move better, but they’re also a more rounded and dynamic narrative experience.
It was with these thoughts that I revisited The Incredibles, a movie that, along with Ratatouille and Toy Story 3, I’d place on the Pixar very top shelf. But then, it always had the potential to be great, being directed and written by Brad Bird, the creator of one of the best animated movies of the past two decades, The Iron Giant.
The Incredibles arrived in November 2004, slotted between Finding Nemo (2003) and Cars (2006). This was the second movie that Pixar did where it brought someone new into the Pixar fold, and allowed them full creative scope. In Nemo, it let Andrew Stanton direct a story he’d devised, and in this, Brad Bird was the single creative force behind its concept and execution. That’s not to say that he didn’t have tons of support from some wonderfully creative people, but Bird’s name is on the movie in those key roles that might have horribly backfired had it not been a huge success.
When I watched the movie for the very first time, I was immediately struck by the confidence that engulfs the audience. Those making The Incredibles believed in their story, characters and the technical processes they’d unleashed. Because of that, it doesn’t have that ‘edge of possible’ feel that the earlier movies have, but instead is almost like one of its super-powered personas, ready to take on anything at a moment’s notice.
From interviews with those behind the movie, that’s a slightly false impression, because the movie did represent many substantial technical challenges. It’s just not obvious how much they pushed the CGI envelope, because it all looks so seamless.
The opening sequence gently introduces the concept of ‘supers’, and how, through the bureaucracy of the modern age, they’re forced to retire. From the outset, all the characters chime wonderfully, as the voice talent delivers exactly the tone and cadence you’d expect from those that can stop a speeding train with their bare hands, but are forced to work in insurance.
The senior Parrs are pure Mr and Mrs Middle America, with their long suppressed super identities just bubbling under the surface. Craig T. Nelson is Bob, a perfect superhero of a certain age, and he’s marvellously counterpointed by Holly Hunter’s Helen Parr, his better half, who was once Elastigirl. For me, her scenes are the most memorable as she comes to terms with the secrets that Bob’s been keeping from her, and the challenge of being the very flexible glue of her family. Her encounters with Edna Mode (voice by Bird himself), fashion designer to the super-gifted are magical, as Helen is railroaded from one revelation to another by the Mexican firecracker personality of Edna. “Supermodels. Heh! Nothing super about them. Spoiled, stupid little stick figures with poofy lips who think only about themselves. Feh! I used to design for gods!”
Like Helen in those scenes, the audience is generally aghast about what Edna will say and do next, and thankfully, she’s used relatively sparingly, so we never get a chance to be bored with her zany antics.
While not as utterly crazy as Edna, the movie also has a nice line in supporting characters, from the Parr children to Samuel L. Jackson as Bob’s partner in super-freelancing, Frozone. The only character I’m not overly fond of is The Incredibles nemesis, Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee. His monologues are overly long, although his demise is rather elegant. Much better value for me is his sidekick, Mirage, provided with a deliciously deep and resonate voice by Elizabeth Peña. There’s an ambiguity to her character that’s exploited later in the story, much in the same vein that Catwoman, for example, isn’t intrinsically good or bad.
Good casting choices and a workmanlike narrative as essential, but The Incredibles wouldn’t have really worked if it didn’t look glorious, and it does. The particular heavily stylised look they chose works perfectly, being very evocative of the sixties, an era that is drawn on heavily here. In a number of the supporting interviews, Brad Bird made much of how many of the characters, in particular Bob, are such extreme shapes that they’re challenging to move naturally without looking odd and ungainly. Despite these issues, the movie represented a pinnacle for character animation at Pixar, as these humans move better than any previous Pixar attempts, like the ones in the first two Toy Story movies.
But it’s not just character motion, it’s also the staging of scenes, large outdoor locations, including the expansive jungle of Syndrome’s island retreat. For anyone who might have ever created an object or two on a computer, the amount of work and detail that went into this movie is quite eye-watering in places.
Yet, it’s not just visual detail, it’s also auditory too. Having grown up with Connery’s Bond, I was entirely delighted by the Barry-esque incidental music that was created, adding yet another sixties motif layer to go with the visual styling. Originally, it was intended that John Barry actually produce these compositions, but for whatever reasons, it never happened, and in the end the Michael Giacchino score has enough of that sixties Barry feel that I didn’t feel cheated for one.
For me, The Incredibles is the point in the Pixar collection where they stopped being so focused on the technical issues of making CGI movies, and instead just made a great film that just happens to be CGI. I’ve seen some people who think it’s predictable, in the way that most superhero movies are formulaic to a degree.
But that view entirely ignores the collective dynamic that’s generated and sustained throughout the running time flawlessly. I’d also go on to say that it represents the Fantastic Four movie we’re still waiting to see with the official branding, as this is much closer to that source material than has been realised so far.
No production is perfect, but this one represents what can happen when a concept is translated from vision to the big screen with the very minimum of compromise, and that’s a pretty rare event.
The Blu-ray of The Incredibles is both a blessing and a curse, depending how much you’ve anticipated this movie in high definition.
As you really should expect from Pixar, the transfer to Blu-ray is quite stunning, and the colour saturation, in particular, bathes many scenes in glorious hues and tones. It won’t surprise you, therefore, that the sound is equally sparkling, with the English audio presented in crystal clear DTS 5.1 HD. On the UK disc, you also get a DTS 5.1 Spanish soundtrack, along with Dolby Digital Hindi, Catalan and Portuguese audio.
If I’m super critical, I’d suggest that the weakness of the disc is the somewhat limited collection of extras that the UK single disc comes with. There are two commentary tracks, a couple of minor featurettes, and the shorts Bounding and Jack-Jack Attack. But other extra material which made it onto the multi-disc and DVD releases is missing, sadly.
The best item by far is The Incredibles Revisited, a twenty-two minute round table discussion featuring Brad Bird, producer, John Walker, story supervisor, Mark Andrews, supervising technical director, Rick Sayre, production designer, Lou Romano and character designers, Teddy Newton and Tony Fucile. It’s really funny, and the revelation that all the Incredibles have a facial feature mimicking Brad Bird is a hilarious moment.
As a huge fan of this movie, I felt somewhat short-changed by the extras, even if they’re nicely presented exclusively in HD.
The problem is that, even if they’d included no extras, this is a disc that I and many other people just had to have, because this is a classic animated movie of its era and a perfect example of why Pixar are held in such high regard. If only half the number of superhero movies released were as good as this one.
You can rent or buy The Incredibles at Blockbuster.co.uk.