What's not to like about Disney and Pixar's latest computer-animated feature, "The Incredibles?"
The story? No way. Animation veteran Brad Bird (who worked on "The Simpsons" and directed 1999's "The Iron Giant") came to Pixar with a script about a family of superheroes obliged to live as normal suburbanites and the adventures that ensue when a real supervillain intrudes on their very typical - and thus slightly dysfunctional - world.
Though the superhero element will hook kids of all ages, some of the more sophisticated workings of the adult world will elude the younger set, it's true. The family's dad, Bob, a dashing hulk formerly known as Mr. Incredible, now works as an insurance claims adjuster, his career change a result of a rash of lawsuits against him and other "supers" and implementation of the federal "superhero relocation program."
At home is wife Helen, aka Elastigirl, and their kids, junior high basketcase Violet, 10-year-old speed demon Dash and baby Jack-Jack. Viewers' hearts will ache as stay-at-home Helen tries to keep the family together through crises of various magnitudes, from refusing Dash's pleas for permission to go out for school sports to easing Bob's dissatisfaction with his dead-end job and humdrum life. Bird writes the characters so well, we're rewarded when they genuinely grow and develop throughout the film.
How about the visuals? Fantastic. Pixar's first feature, "Toy Story," wrote the book on computer animation in 1995. But five movies later, the world of "The Incredibles" is so far advanced, it's ... well, incredible.
The big problem for the animators was making human-like characters stylized and cartoony, but still believable. Never ones to back away from a challenge, the Pixar guys simply wrote their own programs for animating muscles, hair and clothing, plus designed hundreds of indoor and outdoor sets as well as outlandish crime-fighting equipment and special effects. In closeups, the characters' faces still seem rubbery, like a baby doll's vinyl skin - but that's intentional, according to Bird. He wanted to maintain a clean, comic book look, without wrinkles, freckles or imperfections; so the animating team focused on manipulating the facial "muscles" to give these characters more subtlety, more finesse in their expressions than has even been seen before.
And the voices? Only the best. Bird nabbed a handful of big names - Craig T. Nelson as Bob, Holly Hunter as Helen and Samuel L. Jackson as their friend and co-hero, Frozone - and rounded out the cast with excellent character jobs by Wallace Shawn and Elizabeth Pena. As the supervillain, Syndrome, Jason Lee ("A Guy Thing," "Dogma") is wonderfully maniacal and self-absorbed. ("Oh, man," he shrieks to the recently captured Mr. Incredible, after starting into a speech about his secret plans to take over the world, "I can't believe you got me monologuing!")
Bird himself provides the voice for Edna Mode, the supers' no-nonsense fashion designer, a tiny woman with Zsa Zsa Gabor's voice - only two octaves deeper. "E" steals the show with her diminutive figure and the funniest lines in the film.
So I ask again, what's not to like? Regrettably, the short feature that precedes "The Incredibles" is nowhere near as clever as its Oscar-winning predecessors "Geri's Game" and "For the Birds." It's a fable told in verse about how a sheep gets his self-esteem back after being shorn. The audience's reaction at my showing was ambivalent, at best.
Nope, "The Incredibles" is everything Disney and Pixar fans have been hoping for, and then some. Whatever will they think of next?
Rated PG for action violence
Starring: Voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Pena, Wallace Shawn
Directed by: Brad Bird
Length: One hour 55 minutes
Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema Center in Seaside
Short take: Improving on their own amazing accomplishments, the digital animators of Pixar lend their talents to a superb story by Brad Bird about a family of superheroes trying to fit in as normal people until a maniacal supervillain turns up to destroy the world. It's clever, warmhearted, eye-popping and a gem for the whole family.
Rating: Three stars (out of four)
Movie trivia: Near the end of the movie, two old men in the crowd exchange a couple of lines. Who are they meant to caricature?
Answer: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt Disney's master team of nine supervising animators from the "classic" era of animation, provide voices for their own caricatures.