Even if you don’t have a 5-year-old in the house, you’ve probably caught one of Pixar’s offerings in the past few years. The hot name in computer-generated animation since its groundbreaking “Toy Story” hit screens in 1995, Pixar has kept kicking down the walls of traditional animation with smart, funny, beautifully made films like “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.”
While those were all mega-hits, Pixar’s new flick “The Incredibles” might just be the best yet. With a thrill-a-minute script, deep themes about family, modern society, and growing older — not to mention the most realistic CGI animation to ever come from the House of Pixar — it’s a movie with appeal far beyond its pre-pubescent target audience.
“The Incredibles” opens on a kind of superhero utopia; an oddly parallel universe where dozens of comic-book-style heroes always succeed in saving the day and all the cars look like they drove straight out of the Eisenhower administration. Chief among the superheroes are Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — who, we soon find out, are about to be married. Trouble brews, however, after Mr. Incredible saves a man from committing suicide. In true Pixar style, the man hires an ambulance chaser and files suit, claiming he was injured while being saved from killing himself. A record civil judgment brings on a flood of lawsuits against superheroes. After paying a huge class-action settlement, the government puts all the “supers” into a relocation program, on the stipulation that they live anonymous lives and never use their powers again.
A decade later finds Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl living in suburbia as Bob and Helen Parr. The meantime has seen them sire three kids: Dash (Spencer Fox), Violet (NPR regular Sarah Vowell), and baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile), all with their own super abilities. Working as an insurance agent in cubicleland, the only thrills Bob gets are when he and his old superfriend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) slip out at night, don ski masks and break the law by saving civilians from crime.
Approached — and soon betrayed — by an old face from his past (voiced by indie actor Jason Lee), Mr. Incredible soon finds himself trapped in the volcano lair of evil genius Syndrome. To save their uber pater familias, Elastigirl and her brood must suit up and head into the fray.
With its stunningly wrought animation, “The Incredibles” is always a joy to look at. Too, with a witty and wise storyline that surpasses every past Pixar film short of the original “Toy Story,” it is also a rip-roaring good time, one that often had my 5-year-old white-knuckling the arms of his seat. A moving and deftly made family film — equal parts comedy and blazing action — it has enough slapstick to charm your grade-schooler, and enough in-jokes about suburban life and the dreaded middle-age spread to keep the chaperones enthralled as well. It’s a must-see no matter which side of the generation gap you fall on.
— By David Koon
You’ve heard the story of “Head in the Clouds” before: a man torn between two women, set against the backdrop of a time of plenty that soon deteriorates into war. And though there’s nothing new under the sun, this is a film that works its well-worn subject matter to the fullest, turning what could easily be stock characters — the wild flapper heiress, the hanger-on with a heart of gold, the dewy-faced young scholar hardened by war — into real, live people.
Though it sometimes feels like a film in search of a story, when “Head in the Clouds” finally does get to its spies-and-war climax, we know enough about these characters that we actually care about their fates.
The aforementioned wild flapper heiress is Gilda Besse (Charlize Theron, coming off her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster” — sans dental appliances this time). The heir to a French champagne fortune, Gilda already has earned a reputation as a modern socialite-about-town with more than her share of sexual daring when she ducks into an Oxford University dorm room to get out of the rain and meets working-class Irish freshman Guy (Stuart Townsend). This chance meeting sets off an odd, on-again off-again relationship, with Guy and Gilda dropping in and out of each others’ lives over the course of the next decade in France and England, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as friends, and often accompanied by their mutual acquaintance Mia (Penelope Cruz), a Spanish dancer whose dreams of ballet were crushed when Fascists broke her leg.
As soon as I said “Fascists,” you knew where this was headed, didn’t you? Soon enough, the afterglow is ruined by the clouds of war, and Hitler’s growl is fogging out of the radio that once played the music they Lindy Hopped to. While Gilda claims a kind of pan-European neutrality and turns her back on her friends’ convictions, Guy and Mia head off to the Spanish Civil War to fight the Fascists, with tragic consequences.
Though “Head in the Clouds” builds slowly, when it does hit its mark, the character development we’ve coasted through makes sure that it packs a punch. This is mostly thanks to the hard work of Charlize Theron, who handily shows here that her Oscar wasn’t a fluke. She is close to brilliant in a role that could have been severely one-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actress. Instead of the spoiled Paris Hilton type, we get a woman whose fear of her own potential keeps her in a kind of self-defeating spiral — until, that is, she redeems herself with a surprising, final act of bravery.
Thanks to her, what might have been a dull potboiler with a war-colored backdrop becomes a treatise on emotional selfishness, and the lengths a person must go to in order to break that chain.
“Head in the Clouds” opens Friday at Market Street Cinema.
— By David Koon
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