Animation on a Human Scale

The Incredibles

Because of its sterling track record, Pixar has become under-appreciated. The computer-animation studio set and maintained the standard for family fare over the past decade, so audiences expect excellence. And its latest achievement is as a result overlooked.

Up until The Incredibles, Pixar cheated. By offering our world in miniature (the Toy Story movies and A Bug’s Life), a mostly undersea adventure (Finding Nemo), and an entirely different universe (Monsters, Inc.), the studio focused on the hidden — things we can only imagine, and things we cannot fully appreciate when shown on their own scale or in their natural contexts. (Of course, if it’s cheating, it’s also a great and appropriate use of the medium of animation.)

What the Pixar movies heretofore never attempted was the world of humans — not just people, but their surroundings, and from a perspective that allows comparison. The studio had, in essence, avoided its greatest challenge.

No more. With its sixth feature, Pixar succeeds wildly at its first human endeavor. But beyond The Incredibles’ myriad charms as entertainment, the movie could prove to be groundbreaking, building a bridge between the studio’s wonderful family-oriented work and a new way of making fantasy pictures. It portends great things.

Written and directed by Brad Bird, The Incredibles mixes a fairly rote superhero story with family comedy. Instead of being loners who avoid social entanglements that might compromise their true identities, superheroes have home lives like the rest of us, with all their attendant troubles and annoyances. Mr. Incredible’s alter ego, Bob Parr, marries Helen, who is more famous for being Elastigirl. Their children, naturally, have superpowers of their own.

But because of a rash of lawsuits — one man who jumped off a building complains that Mr. Incredible ruined his death instead of saving his life — the superheroes are forced into retirement. Bob now works for a soulless insurance company and listens to a police scanner with his old friend Lucius (better known as Frozone), desperate to re-live the glory days of good deeds.

It’s too bad the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as clever as the setup. A new force of evil threatens the world, and the superheroes must ignore their domestic duties long enough to save the planet, which of course they do.

Narratively, The Incredibles suffers mostly in comparison to Bird’s superb The Iron Giant. The writer-director, in that mostly traditionally animated 1999 film, gave the audience a rooting interest in a sentient robot, gently but firmly taught about sacrifice, and slyly rebuked over-zealous government. (It also had one of the best spoofs you’ll ever see in its re-creation of a duck-and-cover movie.)

Even though The Incredibles is inferior to The Iron Giant on an emotional and story level, it’s still dense with the classic Pixar touches — a smart, tight script, good jokes, references aplenty, unmatched visual wit, and joy and wonder in equal amounts for both adults and children. It also hints at adult themes, from the mid-life crisis to sex to body image, without belaboring them. And in virtually every way, it puts other superhero movies to shame, including Sam Raimi’s grossly over-praised Spider-Man features.

But what really distinguishes The Incredibles is the way it employs technological advances to serve a story that features humans. This is, obviously, a superhero yarn with exaggerated action and exaggerated bodies, but its greatest strength is how it nails the visual details — hair moving, the play of light, how a middle-aged man gets fat from the waist up without losing his boyish bottom half (best seen when a just-unretired Mr. Incredible runs before he gets back into shape).

As a result, the movie occupies a middle ground between animation and live action: The people still look a bit plastic, but they have a genuine, physical weight and generally follow the laws of physics, if not physiology — qualities that hand-drawn animation never has. And the characters are rendered with such care that their movements and superpowers are actually more credible than those in live-action superhero movies.

This almost tangible faux realism is paired with fantastic, striking production design, from natural wonders to flying vehicles to gorgeously imagined and realized interior spaces. Even the mundane is given a fresh look, such as Bob’s blanched and blindingly white insurance office. This world would be nearly impossible to replicate with physical sets in a live-action feature.

And the special effects don’t show seams because there’s no disconnect between digital and organic; the characters and settings are all cut from the same cloth, so they look natural together. It was far easier to immerse myself in The Incredibles than Spider-Man 2, for example.

These achievements are not merely technical. They represent what could be the future of reality-divorced movie-making, a blend of animation and verisimilitude far more promising than the motion-capture technique used in The Polar Express and the conventional combination of live action and digital effects. The Incredibles lowers the required suspension of disbelief, making it not much different than your basic film drama.

Computer animation as practiced by Pixar is also relatively cheap. Compared to striving-for-photo-realism works such as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within ($137-million production budget, according to Box Office Mojo) and The Polar Express ($165 million), The Incredibles’ $92-million cost represents thrifty movie-making. Both of the former used the much-heralded process in which the movements of live actors are used as the base for computer animation, but the characters simply look wrong, bloodless and without mass.

A lot of the difference has to do with the Pixar technique, though, and by that I don’t mean simply the hardware and software that make computer animation possible. The studio brings so much to the process beyond technology — the careful matching of voice talent and character, meticulousness, and well-crafted scripts chief among them.

But Pixar is fast approaching a point where those things aren’t good enough. After six movies in the kiddie vein (and Cars on the way), it needs to continue to grow and evolve. The studio should tackle an adult movie in the fantasy or science-fiction genre, perhaps even something in the same dark realm as The Matrix. The Incredibles has shown the path; now Pixar must have the courage to follow it.

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