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Review: The Incredibles & The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant

Directed by Brad Bird.
Starring Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney and Eli Marienthal.

The Incredibles

Directed by Brad Bird.
Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña and Brad Bird.

Brad Bird’s first feature film, The Iron Giant, was a tiny masterpiece that, despite almost universal critical acclaim, slipped in and out of theaters with almost no audience whatsoever. (The film made back only half of its $50 million budget.) Loosely based on Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s book, The Iron Man, the less-suable-by-Marvel-Comics Iron Giant is the story of Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his giant, monosyllabic robot (a perfectly typecast Vin Diesel) from outer space, set during the Russophobic 1950s. Sent to investigate what is initially believed to be a meteorite landing, Kent Mansley (Happy Gilmore‘s Christopher McDonald) quickly learns that something else is wandering out in the woods near the Hughes’ home. Once Mansley finds his proof, General Rogard (Frasier‘s John Mahoney) comes in to destroy the giant at all costs. At turns hilarious, poignant and thrilling, The Iron Giant gets a bit heavy-handed with its anti-gun message, but not so much so that those of us without racks on our pick-ups would be turned off.
Terrific animation by the short-lived Warner Brothers Feature Animation Division (in its second and final production, after the disastrous Quest for Camelot) provides the only seamless integration of computer-generated and 2D animation that I’ve ever seen. By adding outlines to the robot and the various vehicles, and by not over-rendering them, Brad Bird’s team created a giant robot that comes across like a giant kid, in the best possible way. When the army sets off the giant’s defense mechanisms, all hell breaks loose. The Iron Giant was like nothing before or since — that is, until The Incredibles came out last weekend.

Cribbing a plot point (and that’s not all) from the greatest of all superhero comic books, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, The Incredibles centers on Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), who has been forcibly retired for the past 15 years, and sent with his family into hiding through something like the FBI Witness Protection Program, as have all of the other “Supers.” (“Super-hero” is a trademark jointly owned by Marvel and DC Comics.) But he isn’t the only Super in the family. His wife Helen, the former Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), can stretch her body like the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic. Their two older children have superpowers as well: the roughly 14-year-old Violet (This American Life’s Sarah Vowell) can turn invisible and create force fields just like the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl, and Dash (Spencer Fox) is super fast, like the Flash. Only the baby, Jack-Jack, seems to have no powers at all.

Bob, who has superstrength and some level of invulnerability, occasionally relives the good old days with his pal Lucius, a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), who can create ice from the moisture in the air, like Iceman, but Bob’s adventures attract attention. When a mysterious woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) identifies Bob as Mr. Incredible, she presents him an offer he can’t refuse: the opportunity to be a Super again. He gets back in shape and outfits himself with a new costume courtesy of his old designer, Edna Mode (a hilarious, scene-stealing performance by none other than director Brad Bird). But Bob doesn’t realize that Mirage’s shadowy employer has ties to his golden days…

Also reminiscent of Watchmen, which featured variations of the obscure Charlton Comics characters that Watchmen publisher DC Comics had just purchased, the powers of the major characters in The Incredibles are almost all obvious riffs on familiar DC or Marvel superheroes. However, their personalities are changed enough that they rise above mere carbon copies. In addition, the family dynamic (not to mention one especially familiar villain) makes it clear that the Incredibles themselves are a thinly-disguised variation on the Fantastic Four, minus the elemental motif and the silly origin. But while some critics have mistaken the derivative and comedic elements of The Incredibles for parody, it’s not. It’s a periodically light-hearted superhero action flick, but it is firmly entrenched in its genre, not a parody of it. Bird is brilliantly using the existing characters as the basis for a mythology, and even a passing familiarity with the source of his borrowed ideas adds depth to the background of an already richly textured film.

In the first half-hour of the film, we see a fair amount of history concerning how things were before the Supers went into hiding and what Mr. Incredible has been doing in the 15 years since. This provides much more back story than any Pixar film to date. But, with a running time just shy of two hours, we get more story than in any Pixar film to date, too. I quickly realized I was watching something Pixar had never done before: The Incredibles is not an outright kiddie flick like Finding Nemo or the Toy Story movies. Instead, The Incredibles is an action-adventure story aimed at a somewhat older crowd, along the lines of the Indiana Jones movies or the original Star Wars trilogy, and the pacing of the story follows suit. Some critics have called the first half-hour of the film slow-paced, but they are saying that in the wrong context. The first act of the film is only slow-paced compared to Finding Nemo or other children’s movies. When compared, as it should be, to other superhero films, live-action and animated ones alike, it speeds by faster than a speeding bullet.

Live-action superhero films such as X-Men 2 or Spider-Man 2 cost $125-200 million to make and only have relatively few, small-scale action sequences to show for it. But the $92 million budget of The Incredibles can stretch much further because it is animated. Never mind that super-hero costumes just look faintly ridiculous on real people; if every shot in an animated film is a special effect, why should it cost significantly more to make that shot an action sequence, as live-action action sequences do? Without the need to add another budget-minded scene of Peter Parker or Superman agonizing over whether or not to take up the costume again before finally trouncing the bad guys, The Incredibles is able to stage action sequence after action sequence, tapping the full potential of the superhero genre, arguably for the first time on film.

Yet The Incredibles is far from just a lightning-paced, slam-bang action picture. The human element so prominent in Bird’s Iron Giant and all of Pixar’s films remains at the forefront of this film, too. Pixar’s animation team manages to convey human form and movement shockingly well in their first film featuring an all-human cast of characters. For example, the hair is amazing: wet, blowing in the air or just hanging in front of Violet’s face, it looks almost real. On a different head, it probably would look real, except that Pixar does not make the mistake of trying to duplicate reality that the upcoming Robert Zemeckis-engineered Polar Express makes. Where Polar Express looks as if fresh corpses have been propped up on broomsticks and shaken around for your amusement, the world of The Incredibles, from its cars to the chin on Mr. Incredible’s head, is a beautifully sleek, streamlined ’60s-inspired affair, bursting with energy.

Absolutely note-perfect, The Incredibles is hands-down the most faithful, most exciting and most intelligent superhero movie ever made. But The Incredibles is even more than that: it is also one of the finest animated films ever made and one of the most purely enjoyable films, animated or otherwise, I’ve seen this year or any year.

The Incredibles is playing in theaters everywhere. It is rated PG for action violence: people die (off-screen or hidden by explosions), guns are fired and other scariness occurs for which the little tykes might not be ready, but it is nothing worse than anything in the original Star Wars movies. Although The Incredibles is not exactly cute or cuddly, compared to Pixar’s earlier work, the short film before it, the huggable “Boundin’,” is more than enough of both to satisfy any need you may have for either.

The Iron Giant: Special Edition DVD will be released November 16, with a new digital transfer, commentary track, deleted scenes and eight featurettes on the making of the film that weren’t on its initial DVD release. It is rated PG for violence and mild language. Rent it. For the love of God, rent it.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on November 12, 2004.)


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