But sometimes the really interesting stuff happens outside of these supposedly optimal conditions. The Matrix made live-action comics work because it deviated from what moviegoers expected both of the genre (superheroics) and its medium (live-action), while holding fast to what makes those kinds of comics tick.
The same is true of The Incredibles, Brad Bird's first CGI feature. When public opinion forces superheroes to hang up their masks, Mr. Incredible—now Bob Parr, family man and insurance-company drone—finds it increasingly difficult to deal with being normal. Bird mines the same wellspring of suburban angst he explored in The Family Dog in 1985 (Helen Parr, the former Elastigirl, is a smarter but no less domestic version of Dog's mom, Bev Binsford), only with a different focus. Mr. Incredible has had a hard time letting go of his younger, superheroic days, feeling constrained by the need to appear mundane and angered by the roadblocks he faces in helping people even in little, everyday ways. When opportunities arise for him to recapture his youth, he embraces them on the sly, sometimes in the company of his old friend Lucius Best, aka Frozone. So really, The Incredibles is a mid-life crisis comedy—just with skin-tight outfits and superpowers.
Visually The Incredibles is an inventive film, largely because it pulls back from the trend toward increased realism in CGI. Bird first explored the boundaries between the hand-drawn and CGI worlds in 1999's The Iron Giant when he tried to keep the titular robot from being too crisp and smooth; here he resumes his experiments from the other side, with the characters looking more stylized and slightly asymmetrical—you know, as if they were drawn. The character motion, too, is at times almost imperceptibly jittery, suggesting hand-crafted stop-motion.
But there were things that surprised even me, not despite my long-standing familiarity with comics but because of it. For decades, I have complained that, outside of anime, few directors really get a sense of speed across in superhero movies and TV shows—and if they do, it's generally a confused mess. The Incredibles, however, merrily embraces the fast-moving world of super-powered combat, with one of the best scenes being the breathless high-speed battle that Dash, the irrepressible Incredible middle child, gets himself into.
It's clear that Brad Bird loves superhero comics (and the space they share with spy films), and that unabashed affection for the form is up there on the screen. As Pixar continues to grow and hand the reins to new directors, I suspect this will be what defines a Pixar film; that its directors are encouraged to pour their enthusiasm for certain subjects—toys, bugs, monsters, comics—into each frame, and let the audience discover (or remember) what there is to love about them.