The Incredibles Review
The Parrs are no ordinary family: they have superpowers. While mom Helen tries desperately to keep the burgeoning powers of the children - Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack - under control, her husband, bored white-collar worker Bob, yearns for the old days when he was known as Mr. Incredible, a valiant superhero and protector of the innocent. A series of lawsuits forced the world's superheroes to hang up their costumes and settle for lives as everyday human beings, but when Bob receives a mysterious call for help he jumps at the opportunity to once again become Mr. Incredible and save the day. All is not as it seems, however, and soon the whole family find themselves plunged into danger and forced to rely on their superhuman abilities to save not only themselves but the whole world.
The Incredibles is arguably Pixar's best film to date and certainly their most atypical. While all of their past films have conformed to a fairly standard formula featuring two unlikely buddies teamed up for a comedic romp (A Bug's Life diverged somewhat from this routine but had essentially the same tone and structure), The Incredibles launches the studio in a new direction, thanks mainly to its writer/director, Brad Bird. Brought to the studio with the very intention of shaking it up to prevent the staff from becoming complacent (a not unfounded fear, given how closely their previous efforts followed the same basic structure), Bird here builds on many of the themes established in his previous directorial effort, the criminally underrated The Iron Giant, and also brings to the film a quirky, offbeat sense of humour that has more in common with the likes of The Simpsons (with which Bird was involved during its early years) than the typical Disney/Pixar fare.
Indeed, one of the movie's greatest strengths is how unlike any of Pixar's previous efforts it is. Visually, the scale is far larger than anything Pixar has done before - including A Bug's Life, their "epic" - and both the character acting and compositions are staged to a far more extreme level. Bird makes full use of the Scope aspect ratio, frequently using dramatic camera angles to accentuate the depth of the various locations and to give the characters the room they need to emote, with the compositions often recalling comic book panels. The character designs, by Teddy Newton and Tony Fucile, are more heavily stylized than those of any other Pixar movie and, with their exaggerated features and bold, simplified shapes, I only wish that the film had been realized as a 2D production, as was Bird's original intention. That said, it certainly goes further than any previous 3D animated film towards dispelling the myth that CG can only be used for hyper-realism. Far from simply looking different, however, the subject matter is also new ground for the studio. Abandoning the buddy picture format in favour of a family dynamic, Bird has crafted a film in which the relationships are far more complex than, say, the sparring between Woody and Buzz in Toy Story. Additionally, it marks the first time that humans have been the main focus of a Pixar film. It is also by far the studio's most adult-oriented offering to date, since although it has more in the way of cutesy humour than The Iron Giant, it includes significantly more hints at adult situations than the likes of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., with a couple of references to sex, implications of death and even a depiction of (attempted) suicide. While all of Pixar's movies have appealed to both children and adults, the balance is certainly tipped more in the favour of the grown-ups this time, containing a fair amount of material that will probably go over kids' heads completely.
Bird clearly has something with an affinity with the 1950s, something that was quite pronounced in The Iron Giant and is still present here, albeit in a more subtle form. While the exact time period during which the film is set is never spelled out (unlike its predecessor), the production design and costumes have a decidedly retro look, which makes for an interesting pairing with the decidedly modern medium of computer animation. Don Shank and Lou Romano's exaggerated, cartoony sets and gadgets evoke a long-gone era, and it's just a shame that the unavoidably clunky nature of 3D prevented the style from being pushed further. Musically, the film also recalls the 50s, with Alias composer Michael Giacchino provided a rousing score complete with brass instruments and elements of jazz. Former Bond composer John Barry was originally set to provide the music, and although his absence is slightly disappointing (his signature style would have been perfect for Syndrome's heavily Bond-inspired island hideout), Giacchino capably fills his shoes. That this is the first time a member of the Newman clan has not provided the music for a Pixar film is further proof of just how different The Incredibles is from their earlier efforts.
One grand Pixar tradition that The Incredibles certainly does continue is in the quality of the voice talent. Whereas DreamWorks have constantly attempted to market their films' voice actors as the "stars" (ignoring the fact that, in this medium, it is the animators rather than the voice-over artists that provide the bulk of the performances), Pixar have always gone for gifted performers rather than names more likely to sell tickets and been confidently quiet about the quality of talent behind their characters' voices (barring Toy Story 2, in which Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were headlined for contractual reasons). It's a diverse cast, to say the least, ranging from The Osterman Weekend star Craig T. Nelson as the voice of Mr. Incredible to Samuel L. Jackson as his buddy Frozone. By far the most interesting casting choice comes in the form of the inclusion of Sarah Vowell as the voice of Violet. A writer and radio critic, this marks the first time she has acted at all, let alone provided a voice for a major animated feature, but her performance is excellent, bringing to the film a level of subtlety and believability that is often missing in animation, where the mantra of "bigger is better" all too often applies. In a hilarious turn, Brad Bird himself provides the voice of the diminuitive Edna Mode, the eccentric fashion designer who crafts the heroes' outfits, and just as in The Iron Giant, veteran Disney animators Ollie Johnston and the late Frank Thomas voice themselves in a brief cameo. Finally, Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger also shows up for a short but amusing turn, which I won't spoil here.
To produce such a string of uninterrupted hits is in itself a monumental achievement, but to beat its entire back catalogue, as I believe this film has done, is exceptional. The Incredibles is not only a runaway box office success, it is also a truly wonderful film. With Pixar's somewhat strained relationship with Disney coming to an end, we can only hope that they continue to grow and reinvent their image as arguably the best modern-day feature animation studio. By shying away from repeating their tried and trusted formula, yet still managing to top their past successes, Bird and his team have done the unthinkable: the animated equivalent of reinventing the wheel and making it even better.
The Incredibles is presented anamorphically in its original 2.39:1 Scope aspect ratio. In the US, separate widescreen and reframed full frame versions are available, but the only version released in the UK is the widescreen edition.
Reviews of the Region 1 transfer so far have ranged from very good to excellent, with the usual suspects predictably claiming the transfer to be pixel-perfect without a single glitch (as they seem to do with just about every major release), whereas the more astute reviewers have pointed to edge enhancement, a slight softness and some compression artefacts - none of which are particularly surprising given Disney's track record of late and the rather disappointing Region 1 release of Finding Nemo. Having gone through the Region 2 transfer with a fine toothcomb, I am happy to report that the flaws mentioned regarding the Region 1 DVD are not present here, and those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that I am more critical of image quality than most. The transfer is as perfect as the flawed MPEG2 is capable of, with a virtually unbelievable level of detail, glossy colours and superb encoding. Even in the overly grainy news stock footage used in the film's prologue, there is no blocking or any other kind of artefacting. This really is very, very impressive, and is shows not only how DVDs should be done, but how they can be done. Indeed, the only possible imperfections I could locate were a very slight amount of edge enhancement that is so minor it hardly seems worth worrying about, and some slight mosquito noise around the text and during the energetic Dash chase sequence. Therefore, I am more than happy to award this transfer with a perfect 10/10 score: only my third since I started reviewing for DVD Times nearly two years ago. This rating is handed out all too often for transfers that, in actual fact, are really not very good (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?), but I can honestly say that this time it is completely deserved.
In terms of audio, separate English and Hindi tracks are provided in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. While some might lament the lack of a DTS track, which was included for the UK releases of A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, the Dolby track on offer is an excellent affair that I imagine would be difficult to top. Not only is the mix powerful, with plenty of split channel effects and deep bass, it can also be extremely subtle when the need arises, with virtually every seen including some form of ambient effects or processing of the dialogue to accentuate the atmosphere of the various locations. This is a testament to the great work done by sound designer Randy Thom, who is every bit as talented as regular Pixar sound designer Gary Rydstrom. Indeed, I was slightly disappointed to find that an isolated sound effects mix, similar to the ones featured on every previous Pixar release except Finding Nemo was not included.
A 2.0 Surround-encoded audio descriptive track is also included. English, English Hard of Hearing and Hindi subtitles are provided for the film; however, none of the extras are subtitled.
Extras - Disc 1
The first disc begins with an Introduction by Brad Bird and producer John Walker, in which they explain why it is important to watch the film in its original Scope aspect ratio as opposed to watching a cropped version. Personally I'm very glad they included this: anything that puts across the pro-OAR message can only be a good thing.
Two audio commentaries are included - another first for Pixar: a Director/Producer track featuring Bird and Walker and an Animators track featuring a grand total of thirteen speakers. The former is by far the best of the two, focusing on intelligent discussion of the film's story and the various technical challenges raised by the production. It is definitely interesting to hear Bird, who is very much a 2D animator, talking about the problems that this unfamiliar medium posed with regard to executing his vision. In contrast, the animators' commentary is unsurprisingly technically oriented, and while all the speakers are enthusiastic about their craft, the material they cover is less interesting.
Rounding off the first disc is a preview for Cars, the next Pixar film and the studio's final collaboration with Disney. If I didn't know any better I'd say that this looks like a rather uninspired piece of work, but I know Pixar well enough now to trust them to deliver, particularly considering that none of their previous teaser previews have looked particularly impressive.
Extras - Disc 2
Like the first disc, Disc 2 opens with an Introduction, this time featuring Brad Bird on his own, musing about how wonderful DVD extras are. Indeed, Brad.
The major selling-point of this set seems to be Jack-Jack Attack, a brand new short created specifically for the DVD. It is actually of a very high standard and fits in well with the main feature, in that it shows some of the trouble baby Jack-Jack gets into with his babysitter while the rest of the family are away fighting evil.
A collection of six Deleted Scenes follows. These are approached in a rather novel way, in that they can either be played separately, or as part of a larger documentary feature interspersed with footage of Brad Bird and story supervisor Mark Andrews discussing the material on display. Culled from various stages of the film's pre-production process, a number of the scenes are clearly part of a vastly different version of the story in which the sole Incredible child is baby Jack-Jack. Others come from a later point in time and the points of their intended appearances in the final product are fairly clear.
Up next is a Behind the Scenes section with several sub-sections. Making of The Incredibles is a 27-minute overview of the making of the film, and it proves to be a surprisingly candid affair. Using a format similar to the documentary on last year's Finding Nemo release, it doesn't go into a huge amount of detail but has a great "fly on the wall" approach and covers a lot of ground in a very efficient manner. Highlights involve Brad Bird engaging in a couple of screaming matches with producer John Walker and some very interesting looks at the eccentrically-designed Pixar offices.
More Making of The Incredibles is a collection of 10 shorter featurettes, each focusing on a specific aspect of the production, specifically: story, character design, E volution (concentrating specifically on the character of Edna Mode), building humans, building extras, set design, sound, music, lighting and tools. One of my biggest criticisms of the bonus materials on the Finding Nemo DVD is that the 30-minute documentary on its own failed to provide enough detail on the making of the film. By including these specific featurettes, these criticisms have been dealt with and more besides.
Incredi-Blunders is a series of "bloopers" that run for slightly under two minutes. There are a handful of jokes created by the animators, but unlike the usual faux outtakes that have adorned the end credits of many of Pixar's films, this feature mainly showcases genuine technical glitches, set to a cheesy music score with over the top sitcom-style audience laughter.
Also included is an extensive Art Gallery, containing storyboard panels, colour scripts, character designs, lighting demonstrations, set designs and some heavily styled collages. This is a great resource and shows many of the more extreme designs that were toned down to some extent for the final film's look. In particular, I enjoyed seeing Teddy Newton's wacky character designs and gag panels, the style of which should be instantly familiar to anyone who bought the Special Edition DVD of The Iron Giant.
Completing the Behind the Scenes section is Publicity, which showcases the film's teaser trailer and two theatrical trailers.
The next main section is entitled Top Secret and includes two major pieces. The first is Mr. Incredible and Pals, a pastiche of bad 1960s superhero cartoons. Running for four minutes, this is a hilariously accurate piece of work that perfectly captures the miniscule budgets, dreadful writing and ham-fisted moral preaching that encapsulated this period in the history of animation. For extra value, a commentary by Mr. Incredible and Frozone is also included, in which they react with horror to the portrayal of their characters. The Top Secret section also includes NSA Files, which provides fact files on numerous superheroes, complete with vital statistics and voice samples.
The final main section is dedicated to the short film Boundin' that preceeded The Incredibles in cinemas. In addition to the film itself, there is a Commentary with writer/director/voice actor Bud Luckey, as well as Who is Bud Luckey?, a four-minute featurette introducing the man behind it. While this is one of Pixar's weaker shorts, the amount of personal control Luckey exerted over it, and the fairly unique look of the final product, are commendable.
Annoyingly, a ten-minute featurette presented by Sarah Vowell that was included on the US version is not present on this release, which is disappointing given how highly it has been praised. It is also the only extra to focus in any way on the voices behind the characters, and while I usually complain about the over-emphasis of the vocal talent in bonus material accompanying animated films, exactly the opposite is true here and this extra would have rounded out the package just a little more.
It's hard to criticize this package overall, however, as it covers virtually every aspect of the film's production and includes a number of genuinely fun extras. More commendably, Pixar have wisely shyed away from including any of the pointless virtual games that can frequently be found wasting space on Disney's DVDs.
I should probably also point out that the second disc is jam-packed with Easter Eggs. Head over to Rewind for a complete listing.
My personal vote for the best film of 2004, The Incredibles forges new ground for Pixar and is sure to entertain young and old alike. Presented on an absolutely superb 2-disc set, this release gets the highest award possible for a DVD, receiving top marks in every single category. It's early days yet, but I think we have a contended for the best DVD of 2005.