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The Incredibles

This weekend, that low rumbling sound you hear will be Avi Arad grumbling loud enough for the world to hear. Any resemblance between the Fantastic Four and The Incredibles may be purely coincidental, but comparisons are inevitable. And right now, the Pixar film comes out on top. You've got a super-powered family struggling to remember that the most important thing is family, while fighting to save the world. The trouble is, the world doesn't want them anymore - or so it thinks.

Director Brad Bird opens the film with a dizzying set-up, establishing a world full of supers. Sometime in the sixties, on his way to a very important date, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) picks up word of trouble in the city. From the second he activates his "Incredibile," the movie roars along a fast-paced action sequence that provides the toppling dominoes for everything to follow.

After saving a would-be jumper's life, Mr. Incredible gets sued for "ruining his death." When public outcry and lawsuits multiply, the government steps in to shut the supers down and put them in a sort of witness relocation program.

Fifteen years later, the former super, now known as Bob Parr, toils in a cubicle, out of shape and dreaming of glory days. Every Wednesday he goes out bowling with his buddy Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), the former hero Frozone. At least, that's what they tell Bob's wife Helen (Holly Hunter), once known as Elastigirl. While she stays home with the kids, obeying the government restrictions on her powers (and her children's powers), Bob and Lucius go out looking for ways to perform heroic deeds anonymously.

Some wives get suspicious of lipstick on their husbands' collars. Helen looks for rubble on Bob's shoulders.

It may seem an unfair life, when you have to give up almost everything you ever wanted to be. But it's the life that most lead. With unerring story sense, Bird has tapped into that middle-aged malaise. Instead of football trophies, Bob Parr has keys to the city from a grateful citizenry, and when he gets offered another shot to use his powers, he barely questions it.

Despite the super milieu, the Parr family seems entirely human, even in their stylized animation designs. Like any mother, Helen has to stretch and be many things to many people. Daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) feels invisible at school, and time just moves too slowly for their young son Dash. The baby, Jack-Jack, is just cute and has no powers, but come on, we don't buy that for a moment.

What we do buy is a tightly plotted action film with moments of real warmth, pathos and of course, humor. The Disney company should be sweating this one out, too, because let's face it, so far Pixar hasn't missed.

The company had minimized their human characters in previous films, for fear of them looking too strange. Once again they've made amazing breakthroughs with their Renderman software, and director Bird has the good sense to not call attention to it. The characters aren't proportionate to humans, falling somewhere between Bruce Timm and Tim Burton in design, but they still feel real. After falling into the ocean, Helen and the kids' hair really looks wet. More importantly, and it's something Pixar has been able to do with toys, fish and monsters, the Parrs and even their arch-enemy Syndrome (Jason Lee) suck us into their emotional lives.

Those lives are also a bit darker than you may expect from a Pixar film. Though still a charming and entertaining film, The Incredibles doesn't shy away from the violence you would expect in a film about superheroes. People die, not graphically, but it's clear. Some of it is played for humor, such as in a montage from costume designer Edna Mode (brilliantly voiced by Bird himself) about why supers should not wear capes. Death is a fact of life for the supers, and parents should be aware of this element. (It's offset by the light-hearted opening short, "Boundin,'" which kids will absolutely love.)

Don't let the slightly grimmer tone stop you, though. The film has a lot to say, and also has such wonderfully keen design elements that kids may zoom right by the more intense moments. Syndrome's volcano lair owes far more to James Bond movies than any comic book, and the entire society that the Parrs live in is more what the early sixties thought 2004 would look like than how it actually is. Lordy, do I miss that sort of style.

This is also, again, a brilliantly cast film. Nelson and Hunter play believable marrieds, both normal and super. As in Monsters, Inc., their emotional lives are as strong as any live-action film. Giving NPR commentator and writer Vowell an acting role might have seemed strange, but she is perfect for Violet. The only possible mis-step in casting is a small role for Wallace Shawn, whose voice and face are so indelibly bound together that the character design here is jarring.

Voicing Syndrome, Lee should get special notice. By turns funny, pathetic and menacing, this may be the most complex performance the Kevin Smith regular has ever given. Let's get him back into the running for Fletch.

Have I given you the clue yet? This is the best superhero movie ever made. And I really didn't expect that. Incredible.


Derek McCaw

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