Review – The Incredibles (2004)

As The Incredibles 2 approaches release soon, I decided to look back at the original film, an instant Disney/Pixar classic. It’s crazy to think it’s been 14 years since the film released, and we are just now getting a sequel. For many, it tops their top-ten lists and is the prime example of all that Pixar can be, a pinnacle of form that surpassed all that came before and followed. My initial love of it was never as fervent as any of these reactions even as I admired the film, so I haven’t revisited it often in the years since then. Sure, I’d catch a scene here or there when it played on TV, but watching it for this review was one of the few times I’ve watched it in its entirety since near release.

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While many are well-versed by now to the plot of the film, it follows the Parr family, a family with superpowers in a world where they are commonplace. The family consists of:

  • Bob/Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson): The middle-aged strong-armed patriarch whose waist widened as life shrunk his dreams of crime-fighting and adventure.
  • Helen/Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter): The dutiful wife and mother who has her hands full at home, even as she can stretch to fit most any circumstance.
  • Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell): The oldest child, a quiet wallflower who would just as soon be invisible and put up a force field around her.
  • Dashiell Robert/”Dash” (voiced by Spencer Fox): The acerbic and precocious middle child who causes mischief in a flash and never has any trouble finding trouble for himself.
  • Jack-Jack (voiced by Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews): The youngest Parr who has yet to manifest any powers for himself. Maybe, just maybe, the baby will be the “normal” one of the bunch.

After a rescue attempt goes awry, the resulting lawsuit puts all heroes under scrutiny and seclusion to normal, everyday life like the rest of us. Yet, when one is capable of incredible things, the mundane nature of life can trap one in boredom. The possibility of recapturing the exhilaration of the “good old days” draws Bob back into hero work, even if there may be more going on than meets the eye, and it may take the whole family to make things right.

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Despite it not being my favorite Pixar film, I’ve always held a respect for all that this film did right, as there is nary a thing it does wrong. Interesting to note: Brad Bird was the first director of a Pixar film who didn’t come from within the ranks of the company; he was hired on and brought in. Following his much-loved (but under-watched) Warner Bros. animated film, The Iron Giant (1999), he and much of that film’s creative team came to develop this film. Drawing from the style and tropes of comic heroes when he was a kid, Bird nails everything in the look and feel department. While everything is a creation of this film, all of it evokes the familiar within our cultural subconscious of what it means to be a superhero. Marvel and DC aren’t ripped off so much as they are utilized and honored even to tell a story that is both familiar and fresh. Sure, we could go on and on about the superhero action, but why this movie is so well loved is because it does so much right in rendering a family unit.

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Whether it is the struggle against domesticity when grander things seem outside the walls of home, the compartmentalizing of truth and secrets from one’s spouse, coping with the possibility of infidelity, finding purpose amidst the rat race of career and family life…you name it. This film is chockful of themes that are rarely even hinted at by family films, let alone handled with nuanced care. So much of this film feels “mature”, but not in some inappropriate way that we tend to think of when that word is mentioned. Don’t go looking for crude and edgy humor, because you won’t find it here. What you will find is a level of sophistication and filmmaking prowess on display from beginning to end. To say this film has a slow hand isn’t putting it down; it tells the story with the rhythm required of it. At just under two hours, it is far longer than most animated films before it, but again, this is a film, first and foremost, and it just happens to be animated.

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Bird and many conceptual artists honed this film down to near perfection, taking a great script but making it even better by composing frames in just the right ways. They know when to put the camera angle back and when to bring it close. They know when to tilt the angle and when to play it straight on. It’s no wonder Bird can work so well making live-action films, because he treats this film as if it were. Amazingly, it could be, as this was Pixar’s first full human cast film, and even though character stretch and zoom, there is nothing on display here that couldn’t have made a transition into a live-action film, if the filmmakers had wanted to make it that way instead. I honestly think that is a major reason for the love and appeal of the whole thing to so many: it just feels more “real” than most cartoons.

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One has to do a little time travel in the mind to really recapture why this film felt so fresh when it came out. We are talking a time before reboots of reboots, years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even before any of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Sure, we had distant memories of Superman and the 80s and 90s Batman films, and a few now hard to remember Marvel films accompanied the X-Men and Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man films going on at the time, Still, comic book films, as we know them today, hadn’t gone near the number of directions we have seen them go now. This film was bold in 2004, and really, in the places that count, this film still feels bold. We have seen superheroes of every ilk at this point since then (and we’re bound to see a lot more), but we really haven’t witnessed families dissected and portrayed as well as we have here in family films.

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The vocal talents here don’t get highlighted, again because it all feels real. There is nothing showy here from Nelson or Hunter. Now, Syndrome, the film’s villain is voiced by Jason Lee, and he does amplify things a bit beyond what we hear from the family, but it all is in line with who he is portrayed to be. While I wouldn’t say Syndrome is the top superhero film villain of all time, some feel he is, and they are given an effective backstory and characterization to feel that way, I suppose. I would be remiss to not highlight the greatness of Samuel L. Jackson as Bob’s crimefighting pal, Lucius/Frozone. He is here, sparingly, but that makes every moment all the better. Have I mentioned the greatness of Brad Bird yet? Well, his talent isn’t just in directing, as he voices the scene stealer of the entire film, Edna Mode, the fashionista responsible for the greatest in all things superhero chic. The film really comes to life when she is on screen, and her dialogue picks up the pace in an otherwise subdued rhythm in the film.

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Even with the comedy she brings, you never get the feeling that Bird prioritizes comedy. The jokes fit where they go naturally, and the film moves on to other things. Of course, we know that Pixar was established at hitting us with touching moments in the films made prior to this. I would never say this film “goes for the feels” like several of those do, but I daresay you will see those you know mirrored in ways on-screen. You’ll feel the authenticity of the characters more than you will the result of the actual plot. I think that is part of my disconnect with the film, even if it is slight, as I find myself going back to Pixar films that pack an emotional wallop and really loving the journeys that result in those films. Still, to each their own.

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Michael Giacchino gives the film a signature feel musically with the BOOM, POW, ZIP we expect captured audibly in the brassy score. He nails the 60s feel in the quieter moments as well, amplifying the feel of spy movie intrigue in the film’s many moments with no dialogue. Through sound and sights, the film shows more than tells, and it is a natural fit of audience-friendly testing ground into such techniques that Pixar would later amplify in huge ways (I’m looking at you, UP and Wall-E). There are some truly breath-taking action shots, so I don’t want to give the impression that the generally slower pace zaps all energy. I recommend seeing it on as big and as crisp of a display as you can because the film will bowl you over at times with the energy of the action on-screen. It is the ebb and flow of it all that shows how well-crafted it all is. Just when a particular scene seems close to slowing things down possibly too much, the film fires on all cylinders to get it going again. It makes that almost two-hour runtime fly by without looking at the clock, and while animation has gotten crisper and more detailed since then, it can’t be overstated the level of achievement in handling an all-human cast this well in a way that still holds up today, especially compared to its contemporaries. The film is stylized, yes, but it evokes real humanity and pathos throughout.

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Content-wise, the themes of family, purpose, the hard work that is marriage, and the concept of reaping and sowing come to mind in the film. There are hints of mature things, but it is all masterfully handled and kids don’t go there with what adults infer. It’s really the prime way to tell stories made for every conceivable person in an audience. The film doesn’t pander to children, but it doesn’t push them away either. Language-wise, Edna does say “God” a lot in sparing usage, and it was noticeable to me. For a film that is to be seen by children and adults, it did feel unnecessary to me. I know many parents will feel they have to tell their kids to not say this or that after, but that is the only thing that comes to mind in that regard. I think there is much on display here is that is both entertaining and thought-provoking to make it better than many films that get rewatched by kids, ad nauseam.

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All in all, I think that The Incredibles is aptly-named. It tells the surprisingly relatable story it intends to tell in a time and place that feels unique from our own yet approachable; also, the techniques used to put it on the screen help ensure that audiences will be both entertained and enlightened while watching. It is a longer film than most animated films go, but once you start, you won’t want to stop. Weirdly, after all this praise, it isn’t one of my personal favorites. Still, even if it may not be my personal favorite Pixar film, there is no reason to fault the film for that, as everything it gives you is an absolute masterclass example of what the medium of animation can accomplish. I am soon to find out if its follow-up will live up to the reputation of this great film; this one earns all the love it has from its many fans. If you aren’t familiar with it, seek it out, and give it a go yourself.

9.25

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