Before Disney started affixing the word "classic" to all its animated fare, there was a time when the term actually applied–mainly during the stretch where Walt Disney himself presided over the cels. "Classic" suggests endurance over time, but Disney films starting with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and carrying on through a series of song-and-sass entries, haven't always been built to last. At worst, they're like a cross between a Jay Leno monologue and a Broadway musical, choked with topical references to Joan Rivers and Botox, and their insidious influence has dictated the terms of family entertainment in Hollywood. With few exceptions, the thin pop-cultural references in these films evaporate after opening weekend.
Thank goodness for Pixar, which has rivaled the glory days of Disney with a run of bright, distinctive, whiz-bang animated films that could be seen 50 years from now without a moment being lost on anyone. With The Incredibles, an endlessly clever riff on superhero tropes, Pixar furthers a tradition of personal, character-driven storytelling that has the speed of a Warner Bros. cartoon, but doesn't rely too heavily on verbal gags to hang together. Written and directed by Brad Bird, who also contributes the funniest vocal performance as an artsy designer for the cape-wearing set, the film expands the possibilities of what computer animation can accomplish. But for all the artisans involved in putting it together, The Incredibles doesn't feel machine-processed: Like Bird's superb The Iron Giant or the films of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), it rings with the small, idiosyncratic touches of a single auteur.
Facing a career crossroads not unlike the one at the center of Spider-Man 2, all-purpose superhero Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) saves the world with almost tedious regularity. But the world takes him and his costumed comrades for granted. With taxpayers burdened by the lawsuits and damage to public property that follow their heroic deeds, Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and others are forced to take regular jobs and quietly assimilate into society. Fifteen years later, a pot-bellied Mr. Incredible has squeezed into a cubicle at an insurance office, while Elastigirl has become a suburban housewife who looks after their children, who are under orders to suppress their special powers. But when a supervillain threatens to unleash a killer robot, The Incredibles spring into action.
By emphasizing a hero's dual identity as Peter Parker and Spider-Man, Clark Kent and Superman, citizen and idol, Bird not only plays around with the superhero myth (a montage on the perils of capes is especially funny), but also with the conformist standards of ordinary society. It's not uncommon for animated films to celebrate their protagonists' "specialness," but The Incredibles goes further in showing how constricting the roles of middle manager and housewife can be if the costume doesn't fit. The action sequences are choreographed with the crackerjack timing expected from Pixar, but the film's funniest and most affecting moments exploit the tension between a special family and a world that insists on dulling them down. Fortunately, The Incredibles and Pixar continue to prevail triumphantly over mediocrity.