The key to making a good animated film is not, as you might think, the animation. It's the script. Think of the brilliantly animated films like "Finding Nemo" or "Monsters, Inc." They are flashy, full of amazing visual tricks, they wallow in their expertise. But they're boring. They're not funny. What they lack is the emotional content that gives resonance to any real work of art. Compare them to the two "Toy Story" films." Or to the American anime film "The Iron Giant." Those films have a resonance that continues to speak to our children and ourselves because they were written with genuine emotion and pose important questions. We care less about the animation, good as it is, because we're so wrapped up in the stories. And then consider "The Simpsons," or "South Park." They're barely animated at all, but we treasure them because they're so well written.
Which brings us to "The Incredibles," a lovely story about real people who just happen to be animated. And also happen to be superheroes as well. The film was written and directed by Brad Bird, who cut his teeth on "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," and went on to make "The Iron Giant." Pixar, the animation studio here, was wise to hire him, I assume for his story sense as much as for his expertise in animation. And it has paid off handsomely.
As the film opens Mr. Incredible, a superhero working for the government (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), has just paid a great price for being overzealous in his work: he was successfully sued for millions of dollars in property damages and the feds have given him and his family a new identity in the witness protection program. Now, years later, he's working as an insurance claims adjuster under the name Bob Parr, and his wife, Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) is home raising their three children, Violet, Dash and the baby. They've put away their costumes and try hard to conform. Violet isn't allowed to set up force fields anymore and Dash isn't allowed to go out for sports because he's, well, superfast.
But trouble is brewing. Young Buddy Pine, a boy without superpowers, tried desperately but vainly to be Mr. Incredible's assistant back in the good old days, and now he's grown up to be the evil Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee), master of a hidden island in the Pacific and determined to wreak revenge on everybody. For the first hour the film holds off on this comic-book device, focusing instead on life in the family. Mr. Incredible can't keep away from his old work, and meets his old super-pal Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), telling their wives that they're going bowling. Instead they listen to the police scanner and head for trouble spots. Not only that, Bob the insurance adjuster is too nice to the policy holders and keeps paying them what they're entitled to, until his boss, voiced by Wallace Shawn, fires him.
And now the film moves a bit downhill and teeters dangerously on the edge of cliché, climaxing in a trite version of "Spy Kids," when the family, reunited as superheroes, finds itself on Syndrome's island and in desperate straits. There are homages to everything from James Bond to the Island of Dr. Moreau to Gilligan's Island, and they're not bad at all. In fact before they go to the island, they get involved with a wonderful couturier named Edna E. Mode (voiced by Bird as a Coco Chanel clone), who dresses the family in new superhero work clothes of her own design.
But the film is never self-conscious about it all, surviving every temptation toward excess, and emerges as, simply, a wonderful movie. You can put it in the same class as the very best to date, "Toy Story 2." And that's as good as it gets.