When Mr. Incredible, aka Bob Parr (Nelson), catches a jumper who doesn't want to be saved, he opens the door to a wave of legal compensations that puts all superheroes out of business and into a relocation programme. Years later, Bob and Helen - formerly Elastigirl - are trying raise a 'normal' family when they receive a mysterious call for help.
Writer-director Brad Bird has been shopping his cartoon riff on comic books around Hollywood for nigh on ten years. During that decade, a digital revolution has sucked the lead from the pencils of traditional animators. Bird, who earned his stripes as a key member of The Simpsons' creative team and gave The Iron Giant a defiantly lo-fi sheen in 1999, may once have intended to hand-draw his superhero family, but it's no surprise that, once the 3D-CG era dawned, the director was himself drawn to Pixar Studios.
If it ain't broke, so they say, don't fix it, and - with five home runs from five at bat ù-the only thing Pixar has broken so far is the bank. And yet, Finding Nemo proved to be the company's biggest box office whale so far, it was also apparent that the Pixar formula was now perhaps picked clean. Like A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. before it, Nemo's design was drafted straight from John Lasseter's Toy Story blueprint - mismatched buddies, colourful supporting cast, road movie, yada, yada, yada. Bird, however, is the first outsider to be welcomed into the Pixar family, and he has parlayed the creative freedom afforded him to deliver something altogether different: part domestic sitcom with human characters and adult concerns, part costume caper with breathless action sequences and production design ripped from Bond boffin Ken Adam's most fevered dreams.
Most superhero movies employ a number of costume changes, but The Incredibles features just one of note. Following a bit of historical business to explain the crimefighter relocation programme, the first half keeps the suits - and the powers - firmly in the closet, as our humbled hero fights corporate tyranny as an insurance clerk by day and mines cheap thrills by listening to the police scanner at night. Only when Bob is lured out of retirement and into danger do he and the family call upon a celebrated fashion designer - voiced by Brad Bird himself in full "dahling" mode, and an unmistakable highlight - to provide the obligatory threads.
The little black masks subsequently remain on, but for adults it is the earlier interplay between Bob and Helen that'll likely linger longest. Unlike, say, Shrek, Bird never scatter-guns gags at the screen or short-changes character for a joke. He has a smattering of bulletproof set-pieces to lean upon - look out for the bit with capes - but mostly the gags are organic, generated by the story rather than offered in place of one. In fact, the oddly melancholy first half is closer in tone to superior suburban indie comedies like Office Space or The Good Girl than anything Pixar has so far produced.
The younger demographic will doubtless be relieved when the evil mastermind is unmasked and the Incredible kids finally get in on the action, but the relentless - and overcooked - final reel inevitably leaves less room for character grace notes. And while the action is expertly tooled, those critics of CGI who feel cartoony FX can diminish the sense of jeopardy in live-action movies are hardly likely to be sweating bullets over the fates of drawings. Indeed, it's perhaps a shame it's taken Bird's movie a decade to reach the screen, as the recent glut of live-action superhero feats has inevitably stolen some of the thunder from his cartoon marvels.
Still, even if The Incredibles is just an arranged marriage between superhero romp and classic sitcom, this hybrid has enough highlights for everybody to guarantee Pixar another critical and commercial hit. Looks like 2004 has given birth to a new superhero franchise after all.
Brad Bird strays from the Pixar formula but still delivers enough colour and thrills to keep the faithful happy. The Incredibles also registers as the most human movie the second Golden Age of animation has produced since Toy Story.