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the Incredibles: a Review
by joseph   November 15, 2004
incredibles, pixar, review

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L Jackson, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Pena

There's this book, The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams, in which he talks about, among other things, the reflection of external reality in art -- the mirror held up to nature. The photorealistic school of painting went after this aesthetic goal with the vigor their namesake implies. They were successful, too, in creating art that mimicked life to an astonishing realistic degree, people like Richard Estes and Chuck Close. Never heard of them? Well, the school didn't achieve much fame beyond a passing appreciation for the technical skill involved (which is considerable, it should be said). People seem to find the ability by artists to exactly display life as it is interesting sometimes, compelling rarely. To Abrams, that's where that lamp comes in, the light that shines from the artist, shines into corners of the world we didn't know existed before they were shown to us.

I bring this up, as you may have guessed, because movies like The Incredibles bring out in many of us a geeky fascination with just how real everything looks. You know you're watching an animated film, but then suddenly you'll see a glimpse of a landscape, or a character's hand, and you'll realize that you can't tell the difference (in the moment, at least; perhaps upon repeated viewings, or with a pause button) between this animation and the real thing. This began happening in the latter half of the movie to an astonishing frequency. It's a tribute to just the sheer craft of Pixar's creative and technical team.

Although I suppose that if I wanted to be strident in my aesthetic philosophy, I could charge that the photorealism of certain scenes distracted me from the narrative, that I kept being knocked out of the universe of the story to examine the meta-film concern of its creation. But this is really more observation than criticism, since you may not have that experience. I don't religiously take in every new animated feature, and I know that I'm behind when it comes to seeing what those folks are capable of.

Were I to find fault in this photorealistic tendency, it would only be because I didn't think that the film had a unifying vision when it came to its approach to depicting reality: characters were heavily exaggerated to varying degrees (I know it's something of tradition, but could one of the female characters at least have a thicker waist than my pinky finger?), but the landscapes were highly realistic. At times the effect was almost like watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Pete's Dragon.

But this is really a minor criticism, and there are worse things for an animated feature than to be a victim of its own technological success. Taken as a whole, though, the film is a delight. It doesn't offer up a lot of surprises, but most Pixar movies are essentially comfort food in the best possible sense: you want to laugh at genuinely clever one-liners, play a few games of "Is that the voice of...", and be swept along by a storyline that cruises along like a semi making up time at 3 a.m. on the freeway. The Incredibles doesn't disappoint on any of these, and its entire latter half has some of the best action sequences I've seen.

Every crappy action director who has ever edited together one of those jumpcut-to-death fist-blurs where you spend countless minutes as a viewer trapped watching a confusing whirlwind of shapes should be forced to watch this movie. Pixar's projects almost always have good pacing, but here it is really exquisite. The fast sequences have such a good sense of rhythm and framing that I never for an instant found myself without any bearings, and in a movie where at one point a character gets trapped in four doors simultaneously, that's no small feat.

I should just mention the animated short at the beginning of the movie (having a short opener has a long history in theatre and film and it's pleasant to see animated features carrying this on). What's interesting about it is that The Incredibles' philosophical underpinning is that some people really are special, and the movie's concern is people who truly are special should not have to live pretending that they're not simply so that non-special people don't feel threatened (smatterings of Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron there). Contemporary academics being what they are, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone do an interpretation of this film as an apology for nationalism or fascism. While I think this is an extreme interpretation of the movie's point, it's notable that the film's opener presents the opposite message, that everyone can achieve a level of greatness. It's not equal time, of course, but it's not every day you find a feature film and its opening short generating an interesting discussion. Add to that some great action sequences, Craig T. Nelson's spot-on performance (they're all exceptionally good), and enough adults-only jokes (Elastigirl's barely detectable sigh at the sight of her aging posterior was my favorite) to keep you filled up until next time.


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