While chubby European intellectuals might not be sharp-minded enough to see it, what sets Americans apart from the rest of the world is the greatness of our comic books. In World War II, when Nazi soldiers carried volumes of Rilke's obtuse poetry into combat, they were met by our fresh-faced American hoplites whose back pockets were stuffed with rolled-up copies of four-color comics like Captain Normal and Super Employee. While Hans and Rolf quoted kraut-verse, Johnny and Jimmy were shouting, "It's clobbering time!" and transforming into brightly-costumed champions of goodness and healthy-minded conformity.
Thus did we win the war. But did we lose the peace? In 1954, in the dank halls of SuperVillian Headquarters (i.e. Congress), a heinous hearing was held by Sen. Estes Kefauver, halting the heroes and demanding the demise of the comic industry, ostensibly because comics were "bad for children." Thus did Congress strangle the sole source of America's strength, and we entered the next two wars without the real benefit of our colorful, costumed avengers. As everyone knows, we have not won a decisive military victory since.
The Incredibles is about this dark time in America's past, when the heroes were outlawed and only outlaws were heroes. While the architecture, clothing and cars in the film are all drawn (literally!) from this period (the mid-1950s), the means by which the heroes were vanquished is a bit more modern: It wasn't crazed congressional cowards and their drooling media lap-dogs who offed our champions, but rather the threat of lawsuits.
The Incredibles begins with one of the best action sequences ever to be doodled on a computer screen. We thrill as Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and the icy vigilante Frozone meet a sudden series of sinister scenarios. We gasp as speeding trains, shimmering towers and small toddlers are placed in, and then removed from, harm's way. And we sigh as love comes to our heroes like a kryptonite-laced cupid's arrow.
Sadly, this world of wonder cannot last, as the world of lawyers has dawned. Like Cro-Magnons destroying their Neanderthal betters, the evil jurists create such an avalanche of lawsuits that the poor Mr. Incredible and his flexible bride, Elastigirl, must retire to the (shudder!) suburbs, where they begin to raise a ranch-home family, as was the custom at the time.
Fast forward 15 years into the fabulous future, and fearsome forces fester on the face of our fine nation. But for the incredible Mr. Incredible and all the other heroes of yore, the call to action does not come. Still stifled by the lawyerly and litigious forces of irresponsibility, they wait on the fringes of society, hoping to help.
And then ... a mysterious message offering superheroic employment arrives. But is it legit? You'll have to see the film to find out if Mr. Incredible, his winsome wife, Elastigirl, their speedster son, Dash, and their vanishing daughter, Violet, suit up, go back into action, form a family-oriented super-team and defeat the forces of felonious foul play. But if that doesn't happen, the rest of the movie will be pretty dull, and as a critic, it's my duty to mention that the rest of the movie is not, in fact, pretty dull.
The middle of the movie, though, is a bit dull. After the opening action sequence, there's a long delay while the home-bound heroes live a Levittown lifestyle lacking in adventure and action.
That's really the only flaw, though, in this otherwise fine feature. And it's not the worst flaw: Even though the mid-section is slow and not terribly funny, the animation is so amazing that you could just spend that half-hour staring at the minutely-rendered hair on Mr. Incredible's head and be pretty well entertained.
Of course, when the action starts, the animation also kicks into high gear, and it's some of the most creative computer cartooning ever crafted for cinema. Characters stretch, bend, fly and flip with an overwhelming hyper-reality that'll make you wish that you, too, were animated.
The Incredibles was written and directed by Brad Bird, who previously made The Iron Giant, which was probably the best animated film of the '90s. Incredibles lacks the pathos and complexity of Iron Giant, but it's still fine family film. What Mr. Bird gave up in depth, he made up for in flash.
Still, I'd be happier if he could have made a film with the consistency and integrity of Iron Giant and the glitz and box-office receipts of Incredibles. See, I don't think we need the simplified world view of comic book heroes to help us in our current struggles, because the United States has already shown that it's the toughest kid on the block. Who knows, maybe now that our problem isn't defeating Europeans, but trying to find a way to come together with them, some filmmaker or comic book genius will reunite the deep and the dashing with Super-Rilke's Letters to a Young Sidekick, a movie that's sure to heal the trans-Atlantic rift. That would be really super.