Film: Really Real People

Ask and it shall be given— sometimes. “Why does nobody make feature-length cartoons for adults?” I wrote in this space not a year ago, apropos of The Triplets of Belleville. Now Pixar, the digital-animation studio that brought you Finding Nemo, has seen and raised me with The Incredibles, a digitally animated cartoon so adult in its way of looking at the world that small children will probably find it boring. (The ones at the Manhattan matinee I saw certainly looked as though they’d rather have been elsewhere.) Witty, emotionally engaging, and animated with unprecedented imagination and skill, it is—up to a point—a movie aimed as much at parents as their teens and ‘tweens.

The most striking thing about The Incredibles, in fact, is not the way it looks but the way it’s written. Written and directed by Brad Bird, it tells the story of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), a pair of retired superheroes who live incognito in the suburbs with their two children (Sarah Vowel] and Spencer Fox). He works as an insurance adjuster; she raises the kids. Why did they stop fighting crime? Because they were forced into premature retirement by frivolous lawsuits filed by the villains they captured as well as the victims to whose aid they so unselfishly came. Faced with an avalanche of court cases, the federal government offered to grant all the superheroes in America immunity from litigation if they agreed to hang up their capes, enter a Superhero Relocation Program, and disappear. Nowadays, says Mr. Incredible, our reflexively egalitarian society shuns those who have great gifts and dare to use them. “They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity,” he sighs.

I’m not sure when the word “subversive” became an accepted term of critical praise, but the central conceit of The Incredibles really is subversive, and in an unabashedly conservative way to boot. For not only are Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl dismayed by the postmodern culture that refuses to recognize their excellence, but the whole film is built around their family life, which is as conventional as an episode of Father Knows Best, though far from insipid. Bob and Helen Parr (as they’re known in mufti) are as devoted to one another as they are to their children. In fact, I can’t think of the last time I saw a film in which an old-fashioned nuclear family was portrayed so affectionately, and with so little irony.

Needless to say, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are catapulted out of retirement by the skullduggery of a super-villain, and after much derring-do by all four Incredibles (the little ones are superpowered, too), the world is saved and everyone lives happily ever after. Therein lies the one weakness of The Incredibles: The derring-do goes on slightly too long, thus causing an intelligent domestic comedy to degenerate into a knock-’em-dead action picture. It’s not that the action isn’t cool, just that it’s excessive, which throws the film out of balance (the same thing happened in the otherwise exquisite Lilo and Stitch). Other than that, I can’t think of a thing wrong with it.

Aside from the sheer cleverness of Bird’s script, The Incredibles represents the most technically advanced use to date of digital animation, and though the folks at Pixar still haven’t worked through all the inherent problems of the new medium—they still can’t “draw” a plausible-looking crowd of human beings, for instance—it’s obvious that they’ve come a long, long way from Finding Nemo. No doubt it helps that the principal characters are all superhuman rather than just plain folks, and that they are for the most part seen in the ultra-modernistic environment of a skyscraper-rich city (even the Parrs’ suburban ranch house is designed in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright). This permits Pixar’s animators to play to their solidly established strengths while simultaneously experimenting with the kind of fully articulated character animation that has heretofore been their main weakness. No matter how committed you may be to the survival of traditional pen-and-ink animation, I expect you’ll be impressed by most everything you see on screen in The Incredibles.

As always with Pixar, the voices are brilliantly cast, especially Holly Hunter as Elastigirl, who is at once sexy and reassuringly domestic in a way I haven’t seen since Anne Archer went up against Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Like everyone else in The Incredibles, she seems…well, human. But the person chiefly responsible for that impression is Brad Bird, who understands that the best animated characters are the ones who act like real people, even if they should happen to be animals—or superheroes.

The characters in Sideways, Alexan der Payne’s gently satirical look at two midlife crises and their consequences, are no less believable than the ones in The Incredibles, and they have the further advantage of being made of flesh and blood. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who saw Payne’s last two films, Election and About Schmidt, whose effectiveness arose in large part from how closely they mirrored the look and feel of everyday life.

The difference this time around is that Payne and Jim Taylor, his co-writer, have opted, as Dr. Johnson might have put it, for the triumph of hope over experience. In Sideways, Miles, a would-be novelist (Paul Giamatti), and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a washed-up actor, spend a week’s vacation together in search of one last fling for Jack, who is about to remarry.

Whereas Jack is looking for sex, Miles longs for romance (he is divorced and desperately unhappy to be), and his hapless quest for a new love, for all its grotesquely comic aspects, is both deadly serious and truly poignant.

I suspect that more than a few readers of Crisis will find several moments in Sideways explicit to a fault, in particular the brief but horrific bedroom interlude that supplies the film with its single funniest moment. If such things make you squirm, pass it by—but keep in mind that you’ll be missing a riotously funny comedy that, like Election and About Schmidt before it, takes a morally aware view of its characters and the pitfalls that confront them. Add to this the pitch-perfect performances of Giamatti and Virginia Madsen (who plays Maya, the slightly shopworn but still beautiful waitress for whom Miles falls hard), and you get a film that made me cry as often as I laughed.

I want to think about it a little longer, but at the moment I’m disposed to call Sideways the best American film of 2004, better even than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Garden State. At the very least, it firms up my belief that Alexander Payne deserves to be ranked with Whit Stillman and John Sayles as one of our finest writer-directors. Like those two oddly similar artists, Payne makes movies about real people in recognizable situations—and makes us care about them. That’s what I like to see on the silver screen.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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