Originally created 11/05/04

'Incredibles' shows human side of heroes



LOS ANGELES - Superheroes are typically loners, not family guys.

The powers of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman make them outcasts from the very society they protect and drive them to hide their powers from even close confidants like Lois Lane, Aunt May and Commissioner Gordon.

But what if Wonder Woman was a soccer mom? Or the Hulk was a workaholic suburban dad who longed for the good old glory days?

This is the comic book genre-teasing premise of "The Incredibles," the latest computer animated fantasy from Pixar that follows the impressive pedigree of "Finding Nemo," "A Bug's Life" and the "Toy Story" movies.

"I just thought it was silly idea for a superhero movie," said writer-director Brad Bird, a veteran of "The Simpsons" who also made the cult-favorite cartoon "The Iron Giant." "The concept is a superhero that is a little past his prime. Is he married? What if he married a superhero and who is that person?"

And what would it be like raising superpowered kids? Can you put the Flash in a corner for being hyperactive? Or ground a teenage Supergirl?

These are the dilemmas facing Bob and Helen Parr (also known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) as they try to live with their children as a quiet, normal family following a government ban on the display of superhuman powers.

In "The Incredibles," after a series of accidents in which superheroes caused more problems than they resolved, all so-called "Supers" have gone into a sort of witness protection program to shield them from would-be villains who may seek to exploit the ban on their abilities.

After Bird found that many of his projects had difficulty getting approval from studios and he struggled to balance his career with his marriage and raising three sons he began to envision himself in the same position as his characters.

"I was feeling that movies were magical things that were grounded. The stories I was invested in were things that couldn't happen for very boring reasons," he said. "It's not that I saw myself as a superhero - more that I saw the mundane sort of grounding the fantastic."

He described "The Incredibles" as a mixture of his favorite things. "I love superhero movies and spy movies and action movies and I love my families, the family that I grew up in and the family that I have now with my wife and sons," Bird said. "It's all the stuff that I love rolled together into one crazy stew. "

Craig T. Nelson, the sturdy patriarch from such movies as "Poltergeist" and the TV sitcom "Coach," said that, like "Finding Nemo," this superhero story delves beyond jokes and action to explore the modern family dynamic. He liked the idea of a person who wished he could make a big difference in the world, but never realized what a big difference he made in his own little home.

"He's this guy who is absolutely driven to keep people safe, and without that he's nothing. He's lost. He's in a vacuum," Nelson said. "But he does have his family and he's trying hang on to them the best way he can. That kind of determination and struggle is something I identify with being a father and grandfather."

While Mr. Incredible sneaks out at night to rescue people from minor disasters with his ice-blasting old friend Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), his wife (voiced by Holly Hunter) juggles their teenage daughter Violet, their troublemaking son Dash and their baby Jack-Jack.

But a villain named Syndrome (Jason Lee) is on the prowl - a one-time comic book geek who's using a fortune earned from inventing gadgets to round up and destroy the heroes he once idolized who shunned him as a pest.

"He is the non-superhero who is holding a grudge," said Lee, who played a comic-book fanatic in "Chasing Amy." "Through those insecurities, he's trying to take over the world and thinks he's better than a real superhero. He's the guy who didn't get the girl in high school, and people made fun of him for being a nerd, and instead of being able to be happy with the power and money he has now, he has to shove it back into everyone's face."

Soon the whole family is united - a la the Fantastic Four - in the fight against Syndrome's mechanized terror, where they learn to disarm weapons of cartoonish destruction while learning to cooperate with and trust one another.

Each of the Incredibles has a power that is symbolic about their place in life, Bird said.

"I tried to base everybody's powers on archetypical family roles," he said. "So the Dad is always supposed to be strong, so I made him VERY strong. Mothers are always pulled in a thousand different directions, so I had her stretch like taffy. Teenagers, particularly teenage girls are uncomfortable with their looks and kind of defensive, so I gave her invisibility and able to make force fields. And 10-year-old boys are hyperactive energy balls, so I made him move super fast."

Jack-Jack's power is a secret he wants to keep hush-hush until the end of the movie. "Babies are kind of unrealized potential," Bird said. "Do you know what your baby's going to be?"

Bird chose a non-actor for the voice of Violet - essayist and pop-culture writer Sarah Vowell, whose wry gumdrop voice is familiar to listeners of the public radio show "This American Life."

Vowell said she had been offered animation roles before because of her distinctive voice but had to be convinced by Bird that she could do it.

"I was scared to try something new, especially around people who were so good at what they do," Vowell said. "I knew I could do it when they showed me some drawings of various characters, and there was a line-up of Violet and all the other kids at her junior high and it was a lot of very clean-cut, smiling, gleaming-teethed teenagers. But right in the middle there was this dark, sort of crouching girl with her hands in her pockets sort of hiding behind her hair. That was Violet and I thought, 'I can be her. I AM her."

If "The Incredibles" proves to be as big a hit as its Pixar predecessors, Bird said it will be for the same reasons that have made blockbusters out of movies of traditional comic-book heroes - the attention to the human part of superheroes.

"I think that people are fascinated by flawed gods," he said. "I think the idea of powerful beings that have weaknesses of character is something that has always been fascinating, part of mythology, and it's only natural that it would survive to this day under the guise of superheroes."