If you’re a movie person — and, really, if you think you’re not, you still are — you have movies you go to in times of sickly need with such regularity that they might as well be stored, metaphorically, beside the blankets and the thermometers and the aspirin so they can easily be located when you get sick. I have a friend who swears by the Underworld films when she’s unwell, and another who busts out any Austen adaptation as a vital part of the home healing process; we all have movies we treat as cinematic chicken soup, high on comfort, low on nutrition and fiber. This weekend, after a bunch of traveling, I was hit with some kind of virus that’s still lingering as I write this — sore throat, body aches, throbbing head, what-have-you — and I found myself hydrating and blanket-swaddled and watching The Incredibles.
Released in 2004, Brad Bird’s computer-animated family fantasy manages to be cutting edge in terms of its animation and post-modern spin on superhero pop culture, but it’s also comfortingly retro (for lack of a better word) in how it references everything from Jack Kirby and Stan Lee comic-book concepts to ’60s Bond film designs. But while The Incredibles looks great, and is amazingly clever, that’s just the icing on the cake; like most Pixar films, the technical majesty involved in The Incredibles is carefully draped over an iron-strong foundation of amazingly well-structured story. (People always think the Pixar films are amazing because of their computer animation, but the real Pixar secret is storytelling so superb that you could tell the tale with sock-puppets and it would still have you captivated.)
I hesitate to recap the story of The Incredibles, if only because you’ve probably seen it; at the same time, there’s a chance that you’ve avoided it because it looks like a kid’s movie or a comic-book movie and you have an irrational knee-jerk reaction against kid’s movies and comic-book movies, in which case you’re kinda denying yourself a very real pleasure. In a retro-futuristic world where superheroes are real — but driven underground by legal coasts and liabilities from the property damage induced in their derring-do — Robert Parr (Craig T. Nelson) works as a cube-drone in an insurance company. Bob used to be costumed crime-fighter Mr. Incredible — super-strong, super-tough, super-cool — but his adventuring days fighting crime alongside compatriots like Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are over. Bob got out of the game, got married — his wife Helen is his old costumed comrade Elastigirl — and tries to be a good husband and father to his kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack, even if he occasionally breaks the rules to do a little off-the-books crime-fighting. But trouble’s coming, even if Bob doesn’t know it. …
And that summary doesn’t delve into the film’s nicely-tuned structure, or talk about the perfection of the vocal performances, or the meticulously timed comedy in the film, or the expertly-drawn characters and impressively real family dynamics between the four lead characters. The Incredibles also has a nice, subtle message to it — that great abilities have to be used for the greater good, not squandered on petty vanities or minor tasks — that sits just under the glee and exuberance of the movie. The Incredibles is one of those movies — those rare movies — so good that you can forget how good it is while you’re watching it and just enjoy it for the pure pleasure it is.
Writer-director Brad Bird went on to salvage Ratatouille for Pixar, and he’s working on a live-action film about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which I very much look forward to, but somewhere deep down I hope that Bird at some point gets inspired to go back to the world of The Incredibles. I know, I know — in an entertainment landscape where tedious, unwanted sequels like Without a Paddle 2 and The Pink Panther 2 clog DVD shelves and theaters, why would you want a talented filmmaker like Bird to go back to territory he’s already explored? The long answer would involve articulating my belief that Bird’s so talented, smart and smooth that if he did make an Incredibles sequel, he’d only go back because he wanted to, because he had a story to tell, because he had something new he wanted to say; the short answer is because it would be awesome. Next week I’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival– hopefully without this cold/flu/whatever — taking on a steady diet of angst, apprehension and anomie mixed with dire documentaries and edgy experiments, but this week, sickly and pasty and wrapped up in a fleece, The Incredibles was a welcome reminder of how a movie that’s far better than you’d think can make things better than they are.