There’s a scene in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) when Jeff Goldblum teleports a raw steak from one test pod to another and fries it up for Geena Davis, who spits it out, frowns, and says it “tastes fake.” That’s a pretty good metaphor for most big-budget Hollywood fantasy pictures of the last five years, which attempt to synthesize reality but are notably lacking in what philosophers call “ontological authenticity.” The new batch of Star Wars pictures, the Mummy movies, that visual lollapalooza Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: You just know you’re watching computer animation, billions of ones and zeroes trying to pass themselves off as matter. And now, from Pixar and writer-director Brad Bird, comes a startling crossover point: The Incredibles (Walt Disney), a 100 percent artificial movie that’s made with so much wit, such cinematic savvy, and such a brilliant instinct for the way real bodies—not to mention patently unreal superhero bodies—move through space, that it has more ontological authenticity than a lot of films featuring people who actually exist.
A computer-animated kiddie comedy about superheroes ought to be doubly unreal. But Bird begins with his superheroes being interviewed by an unseen documentarian with a handheld-camera, and they go in and out of focus as they get excited and the cameraman tries to keep them in the frame. Clever! This is another trend in modern fantasy, from the last Spider-Man picture to Comedy Central’s satirical superhero “reality show” Drawn Together: bringing our pop-culture legends down to earth by having them discourse mundanely about their mythic jobs. So, even though these are 3-D computer-animated figures with obvious synthetic skin and impossible powers, they move, react, and talk like real people. Nothing inspires suspension of disbelief like recognizable human behavior.
Our hero is Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig Nelson), an anvil-jawed, red-leotarded guy with a swollen torso on relatively small, bowed legs. Mr. Incredible tells the unseen interviewer he’s at the top of his game, yessir. And he proves it by taking out a series of ordinary criminals and super-villains and stopping a Chicago El train before it plunges off some demolished tracks. His only serious obstacle is a rival superhero called Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), who has a sassy Southern toughness and limbs that can stretch for yards. The pair trade insults, then rush off to a wedding ceremony—their own.
The conceit of The Incredibles is that the superheroes come under fire for causing, instead of preventing, chaos, so they’re relocated and forced to blend in like people in witness protection programs. Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible is incredibly fat and working in insurance. He and his fellow incognito pal Lucius, aka Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), sneak off to relive the glory days and rescue a few people surreptitiously. But Mr. Incredible’s biggest challenges are his and Elastigirl’s superkids: a boy, Dash, who can do just that, at supersonic speeds; and a morbid girl, Violet, with a force-field to die for and a curtain of black hair that, according to my press notes, was very hard to animate. (Public radio listeners will recognize Violet’s voice as belonging to This American Life regular Sarah Vowell.) The pressure is on to keep the kids from revealing how exceptional they are—until Mr. Incredible gets sucked back into the game by a slinky femme fatale called Mirage, and the family finally gets to use its superpowers in tandem.
There’s nothing profound here: The Incredibles is a pop-culture parody, a couple of cuts above a sitcom. But it’s so funny, so gorgeous, and finally so moving when the superhero family gets to bust out and do what they were designed to do, that it transcends its sometimes conventional thinking. If you saw his great The Iron Giant, you know that Bird has an amazing eye—a knack for infusing near-photo-realism with satire. He clearly worships at the altar of Steven Spielberg, and his virtuosity is in the same league. The dimensionality, the retro-futurist architecture, the James Bond pastiche score and the settings that rival Ken Adams’ in You Only Live Twice: Everything works like gangbusters. Bird even gives his voice to the most hilarious character, Edna Mole, a German Japanese superhero-costume designer who looks like a cross between Linda Hunt and Yoko Ono, and whose illustrated riff on the impracticality of superhero capes will have you choking for the next five minutes.
Quibbles? The Incredibles is very, very loud and maybe too kinetic for the littlest kids. And the message feels a tad out of date. Don’t suppress your children’s uniqueness to make them fit in, it says: Let them be exceptional! Well, that might have been progressive in the conformist ‘50s (when The Iron Giant is set), but nowadays parents are inclined not just to let their children be “unique” but to exploit the hell out of their gifts.
My other reservation is more a declaration of bias: I spent time during The Incredibles thinking how it might play with real actors—something that never occurs to me during my favorite animated films. My taste runs to animation totally unfettered by the laws of time and space, animation that flouts ontological reality: Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville, even the squash-and-stretch universe of Bugs Bunny and SpongeBob SquarePants. For all its wizardry, The Incredibles isn’t among my favorite animated movies. Weirdly enough, I think of it, instead, as one of my favorite live-action superhero pictures.