Anyone who ever fell in love with the work of Chuck Jones, Max Fleischer or the young Walt Disney knows that cartoon characters are far superior to people. They can do things people can't (jump into and out of inkwells; fall off cliffs without going "splat"), and while they're susceptible to human emotions (how else do you explain how a bruiser bulldog becomes a mother figure to a tiny, wide-eyed black-and-white kitten?), they're hardly pushovers.
Which is why no one should be surprised that "The Incredibles," written and directed by Brad Bird and the latest (and most ambitious) Disney/Pixar feature, holds together better than many contemporary live-action pictures. Bird, who has worked on "The Simpsons" and whose 1999 "The Iron Giant" stands head and shoulders above most animated features of the past 10 years, is a born filmmaker. In other words, instead of just conceiving characters visually and figuring out funny things for them to do, he takes the trouble of writing for them as if they were real-life actors. His plots don't get bogged down by overly clever gags or dumb liveliness for its own sake: They move without ever lagging, with a minimum of knowing adult irony and self-referential one-liners.
"The Incredibles" is a universe unto itself, a dream characterscape inspired, in no particular order, by '50s moderne, the disreputable glamour of James Bond movies, and the evergreen allure of superhero lore. Grown-up without being staid, and silly without being ridiculous, it's that rare family movie that also works as a date movie for kids of all stripes.
In "The Incredibles" a family of superheroes lives a quiet life in the suburbs, their superpowers kept a secret, by necessity, from all their neighbors. The world has turned against their ilk -- one botched superhero deed spiraled into a blizzard of bad press -- and the government has agreed to protect the Incredibles as long as they agree to lead quiet, normal lives. That means no leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, no wearing of stretchy unitards and no midnight jet-pack jaunts.
The mom, Helen Parr (Holly Hunter), formerly known as Elastigirl, seems to barely miss the superhero life: She has her hands full looking after the family's three kids, teenage goth-girl Violet (Sarah Vowell, former Salon contributor and a regular on NPR's "This American Life"), grade-school hellion Dash (Spencer Fox) and googly-eyed infant Jack Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews). But the dad, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), hasn't had such an easy time letting go of his old alter-ego. One night a week, he sneaks out with an old colleague, skinny hipster Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), the hero formerly known as Frozone, and, on the sly, fights crime under his old guise. In his heart, if not in public, he'll always be the inverted-triangle muscleman known as Mr. Incredible -- even if he's gained a few pounds around the middle and has to spend his days working a decidedly un-superhero-like job at an insurance agency.
"The Incredibles" is a picture about the importance of family, but with none of the usual groggy sentimentality that drags such movies down. When Bob, desperate to get back to the superhero life, takes an assignment that draws him into the clutches of Quentin Tarantino-like fan-boy superhero-wannabe Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), the whole family gets involved. They fight whizzing, saucer-like flight machines and mechanical electro-powered monsters with metal tentacles. Dash, delighted at last to use the superhero gifts he'd previously been forced to keep hidden, outruns a bunch of baddie creeps at supersonic speed. (He's so fast and so fleet he can scuttle across water.) Violet, normally a shy, spindly girl with a tendency to disappear, both literally and figuratively, behind her raven curtain of hair, discovers that, when she really tries, she can build a force-field bubble that protects her whole family from assorted death rays and other bad stuff.
Even if you generally find yourself recoiling from computer animation, as I do, the look of "The Incredibles" isn't likely to hang you up. I always miss that unnamable something of 2-D animation: It may be nothing more than habit or nostalgia, but I can't help gravitating toward the warmth of its flatness. But Bird and his team pay close attention to details -- fabric, hair, the texture and tone of skin -- and take great care to make sure nothing is too creepily hyper-realstic.
And "The Incredibles" isn't cluttered with exhausting details (as the travesty "A Shark Tale" is); instead, Bird chooses small but significant ones. As he showed in "The Iron Giant" -- a Cold War-era fable, based on a Ted Hughes story, about a young boy who befriends a giant metal man who touches down from space -- Bird is fascinated by the '50s, not just for the nostalgic comfort the era evokes (although that is a component), but because he clearly recognizes it as an era of amazing design. The Incredibles' modest ranch home is simply furnished with spare but comfortable space-age chairs and colorful, playfully rounded accessories -- a cartoon reimagining of a Russel Wright aesthetic.
Bird teases out the telling mannerisms of characters, too: When Bob Parr pulls out of his driveway (his hearty physique is packed into a comically tiny car), he slings his right arm across the back of the seat to get a better view, just as your dad used to (and, perhaps, still does). Bird has given careful thought to every angle of his invented mini-universe, including figuring out who on earth designs all those superhero costumes. The genius behind the Lycra is Edna Mode, a marvel of character design: With her black page-boy bob, oversized horn rims and scurrying, black-stockinged legs, she's a cross between Edith Head, Coco Chanel and Rei Kawakubo, as played by Linda Hunt affecting a German accent. (The voice actually belongs to Bird himself.)
"The Incredibles" has that rare quality of feeling modern and classic at the same time. Bird is interested in the ways families work, but he's not hung up on that great bugaboo so recklessly referred to as "values." And although "The Incredibles" begins and ends in suburbia, Bird doesn't necessarily equate suburban environs with normalcy or safety. "The Incredibles" is a movie about the way spectacular gifts often lurk beneath conventional-looking surfaces. It celebrates not ordinariness and conformity, but eccentricity and individuality. And while it recognizes the importance of working together, its more powerful assertion is that smoothing ourselves into a homogenous, unthinking whole only weakens us. In that respect, "The Incredibles" is democracy in action. It's comforting to know that there are people out there who still get it -- even if they're cartoon characters.