Monday, April 07, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Incredibles

Right then: Pixar.

I was hesitant about 'Toy Story', held off from seeing it. My purist sensibilities were offended that they'd done the whole thing on a computer and were trying to pass it off as animation. Bunch of bull! Animation meant pencils, pens and paints a la Studio Ghibli or claymation a la Wallace and Gromit, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen weren't bloody going to tell me otherwise!

Only when I finally watched 'Toy Story', I was pleasantly surprised: the script was whip-smart, the ... oh, all right then: animation ... was detailed and pleasing. In a word, it was fun. 'A Bug's Life' was a sterling follow-up, leaving no doubt that Pixar were investing as much in the script as they were in the visuals. 'Toy Story 2' raised the bar big time. Funnier, cleverer and altogether more impressive and its predecessor, we're talking 'The Godfather Part II' of animation. It was a hard act to follow, but 'Monsters, Inc.' came close, with only a sagging middle section (during which the main characters do little more than run interminably around the factory) letting it down. 'Finding Nemo' took Pixar's visual genius to new levels - the animation wasn't just good, it was textured - but the film was waterlogged by a schmaltzy narrative and characters that came off more irritating than amusing.

Then came 'The Incredibles'. And the gates of revelation stood open.

Written and directed by Brad Bird (let's just say he cut his teeth working on 'The Simpsons' and let that speak for itself), 'The Incredibles' is just so cool, so clever, so confident in its marriage of a 1950s comic book sensibility with a satirically contemporary worldview, that it's hard to know where to start. Not that I want to give too much away - 'The Incredibles' is one of those rare film-going treats that delivers a real sense of joy when you experience it for the first time. And, better still, repeated viewings just improve it.

The frenetic opening sequence sees muscular superhero Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) go about his daily business of chasing down bank robbers, rescuing helpless kittens, being nice to little old ladies, saving the suicidal and thwarting the plans of megalomaniacal villians - all before joining his bride-to-be Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) at the altar. Life is good. Until, that is, he finds himself the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the man he saved against his will. A precedent is set. Other superheroes are sued, subpeona'd and slagged off in the press. The goverment institutes an amnesty: all superheroes are relocated and given new - normal - identities; a fresh start in the everyday world. The condition is the non-use of their superpowers.

Fast forward a few years and Mr Incredible is working for an insurance company, hating himself for rejecting claims and pressured by his pompous jackass of a boss to reject even more claims. Elastigirl has remodelled herself as the archetypal house-proud housewife, but is having a hard time conditioning their children, Dash and Violet, to a conventional lifestyle where their powers - lightning-fast reflexes, invisibility and the ability to project forcefields - must be kept secret. The infant Zack hasn't yet manifested a talent - that particular revelation is reserved for the payoff.

So already we've had an inspired subversion of the DC/Marvel Comics superhero ethos (can you imagine Superman had up in court or the X-Men named in a damages suit?), a Dilbert-like depiction of office cubicle corporate culture, and - unsurprising given Bird's 'Simpsons' credentials - an hilarious, gleeful portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Then Mr Incredible is offered a secret mission by a mysterious benefactor and lure of the past proves too strong to withstand ...

Thus Bird moves 'The Incredibles' into its second act and an already brilliant film quite simply goes supernova. From the Bondian lair of Mr Incredible's embittered nemesis to the 'North by Northwest'-style residence of fashion-designer-to-superheroes Edna Mold (voiced by Bird himself!), allusions, homages and in-jokes abound. God knows if the kids who were in the audience when I first saw it at Nottingham's UGC cinema understood even a fraction of it, but I was delighted. Not only was it hog heaven for the film buff, but the plot was streamlined, the set-pieces taut and suspenseful, the structure intricate, the writing witty and intelligent, and the whole thing put together with eye-catching visual flair.

For me, 'The Incredibles' is quite simply perfect. There's not a wrong note, a duff line or a needless moment in it. Everything counts. The next Pixar production, 'Cars', was effortlessly entertaining - a good movie with a great ending - but it was hard to see how Pixar could possibly top 'The Incredibles'.

Then Brad Bird went and made 'Ratatouille' and did just that.

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