It's not easy being a superhero in the invented world of Pixar's latest creation, "The Incredibles."
It was hard enough when Mr. Incredible, his soon-to-be-wife, Elastigirl, and good buddy Frozone were expected to swoop in and foil bank robbers, prevent suicide plunges from tall buildings and pluck stray cats out of trees. But shortly after the movie opens -- and after Mr. Incredible performs a series of rescues while en route to the altar -- the over-litigious regular folks who populate his universe decide they're fed up with all the residual damage (broken windows, privacy issues, etc.) that ensue when superheroes do their heroic work. And so, in a flurry of lawsuits that would bankrupt the government, Mr. Incredible and his cohorts find themselves banished to the superhero relocation program, forced to live out regular-Joe existences.
Being average, it turns out, is a lot harder than saving the world.
Produced by the folks responsible for last year's blockbuster success, "Finding Nemo" (as well as the "Toy Story" movies and "Monsters, Inc."), "The Incredibles" is a departure for Pixar (which also departs from its Disney partnership next year). The film has a P in front of it's usual G, and instead of being driven by its warm, squishy heart, the plot is action-propelled. This is not your fuzzy, cuddly "Monsters, Inc." story line; this is your old-school Saturday morning TV superhero cartoons on technologic steroids.
As always, Pixar excels with its animation, but what makes this family film even more appealing is the smartness of the script, which is clearly written, end to end, to appeal to adults as well as children. Instead of simply using double-entendres and sight gags, "The Incredibles" is a superb send-up of stereotypical suburbia, complete with bland tract house, endless commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic, smiling stay-at-home mom and, for dad, a cubicle job in the decidedly white-collar insurance world. They even have leftovers night.
Fast-forward 15 years from Mr. Incredible's heyday, and we find him living as Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), married to Helen Parr (formerly Elastigirl, who is made all the more rich by Holly Hunter's earthy voice). The Parrs have three children: the teenage Violet, the hyper, elementary-aged Dash and baby Jack Jack.
A midlife crisis looms: "Mr. Incredible" just can't handle not being, well, incredible. And so when he ostensibly goes out for "bowling night" once a week with his old pal Frozone (hilariously voiced by Samuel L. Jackson -- sadly underutilized in the film), we find the two instead listening to a police scanner, looking for opportunities to flex their now-flabby superhero muscles.
Enter Mirage, a mysterious woman who offers Bob Parr a mysterious opportunity to resume his former identity. Unable to resist, Mr. Incredible squeezes his now middle-aged, love-handled body into his old superhero suit and jets off to a volcanic island, where he meets up with the man he later discovers to be his nemesis. What ensues is a series of clashes as the entire Incredible family gets sucked into trying to save the world from a villain who's plotting to kill off all the superheroes.
The movie is full of wonderful little touches: Syndrome, the bad guy, is drawn to remind viewers of "Heat Miser" from the classic Christmas cartoon "The Year Without a Santa Claus." Director Brad Bird practically steals his own picture with his voicing of Edna, the costume designer with the black bob, the oversize black glasses and the deadpan, laugh-out-loud lines we can't do justice to here.
But at its heart, the film is about family. Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) is instantly familiar as the teenage girl who pines for the cute boy, fights with her little brother and is so uncertain of herself and her changing body that she literally hides behind her own hair. Dash is the classic rambunctious little boy, driven nuts by the fact that his superhuman speed prevents him from being able to join any sports teams (he'd just be too good). Their interactions with Helen as they race to help their father fend off Syndrome include some classic parental moments. "I know what I said," Helen tells Violet, while frustratingly trying to convince her daughter that it's now okay to use her long-denied superpowers. "Listen to what I'm saying, now!"
While "Incredibles" doesn't have the visual lusciousness that marked "Nemo" -- or the high-stakes, heart-rending pull that comes with the traditional "Bambi's mommy is dead!" kid-film moment -- Pixar geeks will love the trademark high-tech animation, including Elastigirl's ability to slither into all means of Twister-like positions, and a wonderful sequence when Dash finally lets loose his superhuman speed on the island. In the end, it's Helen who captures the essence of the movie when she gently tells her daughter, "You have more power than you realize." Her point is simple: It really is okay to not be average after all.
The Incredibles (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for a lot more action-related violence than is usually seen in animated children's movies.