All Too Superhuman

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ILLUSTRATION BY PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS

The Incredibles

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.


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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."

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