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Movies: All Too Superhuman

9 minute read
Richard Corliss

Poor man–he’s addicted to heroism. Late for an important date, he can’t help helping an old lady whose cat is up a tree (by uprooting the tree and shaking the kitty down). He leaps tall buildings to catch a thief, and zooms into the air to save a man plummeting to the ground. All right, so he’s late for his date. All right, the date is his own wedding. But a man’s got to do his job. And when his name is Mr. Incredible, most stalwart of all superheroes, a job can be an obsession.

Maybe we all don’t think of ourselves as demigods in Spandex, like the protagonist of the latest Pixar astonishment The Incredibles, which opens Nov. 5. But we can understand the love a man has for his work, no matter what the obstacles, no matter who’s left at home.

Brad Bird felt that tug of loyalties in the ’90s when, as a Disney-trained animator who had helped launch The Simpsons, he was trying to get backing for cartoon features he would direct. Except for The Iron Giant, a critically praised fable that didn’t do Lion King business, “I was always getting my films on the runway, but I wasn’t getting them off the ground,” recalls Bird, sitting in the huge playpen that is Pixar headquarters in the San Francisco suburb of Emeryville. “And I wanted so bad to make movies. I also had a family that was getting bigger”–his second son was an infant–“and demanding more attention. I wanted to be a good filmmaker and a good father. If you spend too much time on one, you’re shorting the other. That fueled this idea of somebody whose mind is elsewhere when it really should be on what’s happening under his own roof.”

Thus was born The Incredibles, a fantasy rooted in familiar family angst. The town has turned against superheroes–in part because of rising insurance premiums from unwanted rescues–so Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his bride Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and their kids Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) have gone into some witless protection program. The Parrs, as they are known, now endure a subpar life. Dash is punished at school for flashing his gift of meta-speed. Violet, who can disappear, is invisible to the boy she adores. Mom, now called Helen, copes with raising two troubled kids, while Mr. Incredible, now just plain Bob, faces a joyless desk job with thinning hair and a gigantic spare tire. He still does furtive good deeds, but when he makes a celebratory air punch, he throws his back out. He sounds like an ex–high school football star mired in memories as he says, “Reliving the glory days is better than acting like they didn’t happen.”

Wait a minute. This is a Pixar cartoon? Instead of toys, bugs, monsters or funny fish, we get a midlife crisis and, in the first half-hour, enough domestic strife to fill a Mike Leigh film. But yes, this is Pixar, the studio that pretty much invented and perfected computer-animation entertainment, with such spectacular success that it wiped out the traditional approach that its distribution partner, Disney, had virtually patented. (The two animation titans have fallen into a rancorous dispute that’s likely to end with Pixar’s boss, Steve Jobs, taking the company elsewhere.)

Pixar, though, is also the studio whose previous two blockbusters, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, were about fathers or father substitutes fretting over their young charges. And it’s the place that routinely achieves the unexpected and finds a huge audience to devour it. “Oftentimes people call animation a genre, and that’s completely wrong,” Bird says. “It’s a medium that can express any genre. I often think people stress the technology too much. The heart of the matter is still characters.”

The Incredibles has those characters, that heart. And after that poignant stretch of family dysfunction, the movie brings on its supervillain–Mr. I’s onetime groupie Incrediboy, now the cunning, gadget-obsessed Syndrome (Jason Lee)–and explodes into the year’s wittiest, zippiest adventure, with each knockout action sequence eclipsing the last and with echoes of ’60s James Bond films and Fantastic Four comic books. But it’s still unusual: in its length (nearly two hours), in its rating (PG for “action violence,” a first for G-loving Pixar) and in its cast of human characters.

“It’s a simple rule of thumb,” says John Lasseter, Pixar’s creative director and the auteur of its first hits, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story II. “The more geometric a figure is, the easier it is to do with computer animation. The more organic something is, the harder it is. Everything about a human is organic. The audience looks in the mirror every day, so if you don’t get it right, it’s obvious to them.” The solution: comically distort the subjects’ features, make ’em cartoony. As Bird says, “You want them to be caricatured and believable. Disney used to call it ‘the plausible impossible.'”

In the past, a Pixar human was essentially a model of hollow skin, which was manipulated to mimic human body move- ment. The computer models for the lead cast of The Incredibles had muscles over which a sheath of skin was placed. So when Bob or Helen moves, it’s the muscle that’s animated, which causes the skin to move, which in turn gives the humans a much more solid presence. The Pixar team also worked hard to make the fabrics realistic (it took three months to nail one brief scene of Bob sticking his finger through a hole in his superhero costume). Another challenge was making the hair look natural. Violet’s long, floppy mane kept flying off her head every time she shook it. When producer John Walker pressed the lead simulator to diagnose the problem, he was told, “Dammit, long hair is still theoretical!”

Computer-animated movies were still theoretical back in 1975, when Bird, now 48, and Lasseter, 47, met as freshmen at California Institute of the Arts. “Brad and I were in the first year of the character-animation program,” recalls Lasseter, “and we bonded with our love of cartoons. At that time animation was thought of as something just for children. But Brad and I believed animation was for everybody. That’s the way Walt Disney made his films. That’s the way Chuck Jones made his cartoons.”

That wasn’t the way the Disney studio was making them in the late ’70s. “When Brad and I both went to Disney, we had this fire in our bellies to do great animation. But the creative vision of the studio was more concerned about control than the potential of the films.” Bird landed at Turner Pictures (which was folded into Warner Bros.); Lasseter became an Oscar-winning auteur at fledgling Pixar.

Bird’s one feature was The Iron Giant, which he says “had the highest test scores in years” but wasn’t marketed well.”About two weeks before it opened, I saw people utterly confused by the poster. They were going, ‘Is that Japanese?'”

If Bird battled indifference at Warner, he met some resistance when he and a dozen of his top lieutenants came to Pixar in 2000. Some Pixarians had been waiting impatiently for their turn to direct; now Lasseter had hired an outsider. “There’s a tremendous amount of internal pressure here,” says Walker, one of the new boys. “Other directors have gone to the plate, stretched a little, taken one swing and hit it out of the park.” The Bird bar was raised with the runaway success last year of Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo. “After Andrew won the Academy Award [for Best Animated Feature], I said to him, ‘What’s next, a knighthood?'” says Walker. “But it’s a wonderful kind of pressure because it’s not about winning. It’s about making a movie as great as you can. Not good. Not very good. Great.”

Even Pixar needs real actors sometimes–not always the big stars courted by rival DreamWorks for its Shrek and Shark Tale hits but gifted, lower-wattage voice artists like Nelson (TV’s Coach), who can appreciate the Pixar culture. “These guys haven’t become jaded,” Nelson says. “They maintain a filmmaking sense that’s fun, kinetic and spontaneous.” Vowell, the comic essayist who’s a regular on NPR’s This American Life, notes “how smart and funny and cool every single last person who works there is. And it extends beyond the people. Every offering for lunch at the lunch counter is delicious.”

Bird, who nearly steals his own show as the voice of Edna, catty costumer of the super-Parrs, sees a difference between Pixar and its rivals. “Pixar films are personal passion projects. They are not concocted by a focus group or somebody saying this latest trend is important: ‘People like kangaroos, hip-hop is hot, so let’s have a hip-hop kangaroo. Grab three animators, they’re all interchangeable, have them direct. Get five sitcom writers and throw them in there.'”

At the heart of The Incredibles is a melancholy for lost opportunities, in art and life. “The superhero can do all these marvelous things,” Bird says, “but no one wants him to. To me that’s the medium of film. It can do all these great things, and yet so many times it isn’t allowed to.”

At Pixar, marvels are allowed, encouraged, demanded. That makes Lasseter, Bird and their cohorts the superheroes of animation: the untoppable Incredibles. –Reported by Desa Philadelphia/Emeryville

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