How fast can an art form mature in 10 years? Two new releases, The Incredibles and The Polar Express, show computer animation growing up -- or at least trying to. The Incredibles, Pixar's first PG-rated feature, discovers humor and derring-do in costumed heroes, yet also explores themes of identity and responsibility that'll strike chords with parents more than their kids. Express attempts to push the form's evolution further along, but both its new-fangled technology and its old-fashioned script prove stillborn.
Pixar's previous films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo belonged in an all-ages cartooniverse with Bugs Bunny and Robin Williams' Aladdin, but The Incredibles fits better with the big-screen Marvel Comics features. The film begins on the night muscle-bound crime-fighter Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) weds rubber-bodied Elasti-Girl (a hilarious Holly Hunter). That same evening Mr. Incredible rescues a would-be suicide from a fatal fall -- but since the jumper didn't want to be saved, he files a personal-injury suit against Mr. Incredible. Soon all superheroes fall out of public favor and must pass as ordinary citizens.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Mr. Incredible has swapped his colored tights for a white collar as corporate cube rat Bob Parr. Bob and soccer-mom Helen (the erstwhile Elasti-Girl) play loving parents to Violet (NPR commentator Sarah Vowell), whose invisibility powers match her adolescent shyness, and Dash (Spencer Fox), who doesn't understand why he must suppress his super-speed in public.
Chafed by his grown-up, "domestic" responsibilities and seeking to re-live his youthful glory days, Bob sneaks out at night to do good deeds. After he rescues innocents from a collapsed building, Helen inspects his clothes: "Is this ... rubble?" she asks, as if finding lipstick on his collar. When a mysterious millionaire gives him the chance to become Mr. Incredible again, Bob discovers that fighting robots run amok can cure his midlife crisis.
Eventually Helen and the kids must rescue Bob from a world-threatening trap, and The Incredibles features an astonishing series of set-pieces that keep the family themes present. When Dash out-runs a squad of flying henchmen, the thrills come not only from a brilliant chase scene, but the boy taking joy in his own potential.
While Pixar devoted its previous films to toys, monsters and animals, The Incredibles features an entirely "human" cast. Iron Giant director Brad Bird gives the Parrs simplistic but engaging demeanors, but some of the gnomish supporting characters look like walking ventriloquist dummies.
The Polar Express attempts a breakthrough by matching live actors with computer animation. Director Robert Zemeckis oversees a technique called "performance capture," which records not just the cast's physical movements (a la the animated Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) but their facial expressions.
At first this approach draws us in, as we watch a doubting boy (Tom Hanks, in numerous roles) one quiet Christmas Eve. He hopes against his better judgment to find proof that Santa Claus really exists, and in close-ups his features reflect remarkable subtleties of emotion, from eagerness to disappointment.
The boy gets his Christmas miracle when a huge train suddenly appears on his snowy suburban lane to deliver him and other lucky kids to Santa's workshop. But as the film continues, the artifice becomes harder to ignore. We can't help but notice that the boys' new friends have glassy, taxidermy-eyes and the blemish-free skin of Hummel figurines. The North Pole, populated by half-pint, chipmunk-voiced elves, looks no better than a department store window display.
At times, Polar Express takes your breath away. A golden train ticket flies out a window, and we watch as the wind carries it over a frozen landscape, past a pack of wolves, up into trees and down along a waterfall. But as Zemeckis expands Chris Van Allsburg's lovely children's book to feature length, he relies on contrived crises, like the train skidding across a frozen lake. When the giant star topples from the top of Santa's redwood-sized Christmas tree, and elves bungee-jump to rescue it, Express leaves a taste in your mouth like tainted eggnog.
And at heart, Express' story falls short. Since the boy witnesses magic trains and flying reindeer, we never doubt that he'll ultimately find faith in Santa Claus. And the elaborate technology undermines rather than enhances that message. Since we never lose ourselves in the eerily unreal setting, the film's bullying exhortations to "believe" ring increasingly false.
No doubt future films will improve on The Polar Express' technology, but The Incredibles finds true innovation simply by wrapping wild effects around a thoughtful metaphor. Superman's not the only one who's more powerful than a locomotive.
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