Incredibles, The

Artistically speaking, the difference between The Incredibles and The Polar Express is the difference between A (as in grade) and C.

There are many ways to compare and contrast films. The only rationale for doing it is that both The Incredibles and Polar Express are animated features, and both film open theatrically within less than a week apart. There are many elements that show why the Pixar production of Brad Bird's The Incredibles is superior to the Bob Zemeckis-Tom Hanks' effort, Polar Express. In gauging the merits of each picture, I suggest to use the following evaluative yardsticks: Conception, overall vision, storytelling, use of technology, star power, emotional tone, and audience appeal.

Arguably, The Incredibles represents Pixar's most ambitious genre-expanding animation to date. This is not a minor feat, considering that the company has already made five groundbreaking, and Oscar-winning films, including: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. The Incredibles is writer-director Bird's highly anticipated follow-up to his much admired 1999 animation, The Iron Giant, an intelligent, delightfully entertaining film, adapted from Ted Hughes' anti-Cold War children's book.

With their sixth production, the Pixar team has taken the animated feature into the realms of narrative and visual design never seen before, showing that animation is not a genre, as it is often misperceived, but a mode of filmmaking that can accommodate any type and story of film, drama and comedy, children or adult fare.

Benefiting immensely from its fresh concept, The Incredibles tells the story of a reluctantly retired family of superheroes that needs to regain its strengths and put them back to use for both personal and collective reasons. Like Iron Giant, The Incredibles elevates ordinary into extraordinary life through twists and turns of a rich plot full of adventures. Unlike the stale Shark Tale, and other animations, Bird's concept is not movieish and doesn't rely on inside-jokes or pop culture references. More importantly, unlike Polar Express, the story goes beyond children and Christmas. I mention Christmas because it's a holiday that always scares foreign distributors due to the different meaning of this holiday oversees, including Western Europe.

An imaginative film, The Incredibles is smart in accessible, enjoyable way. Unlike most animations, it is neither frivolous nor escapist fare. For a change, the story does not depend on animals, toys, or eccentric creatures. The fresh, often sophisticated humor, works on multiple levels, which should please children as well as adults; the latter may be more intrigued by the film's subtext than text.

The story brings back, in a positive not retro, way the ethos of a more naive America, the late 1950s and early 1960s (before the Kennedy assassinations and Vietnam), when superheroes, extra-terrestrials, and the sci-fi genre ran supreme. In context, it resembles Iron Giant, which is set in 1957 (the year of the Sputnik launch) and concerns the friendship between a young boy and a brain-damaged, war-oriented machine.

The saga follows the adventures of a family of former superheroes who rediscover the source of their powers–in one another. One of the world's top masked crime-fighters, Bob Farr (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson) made a living by fighting evil and saving lives on a daily basis, so to speak. Fifteen years later, Bob and his wife Helen (Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter), a famous former superhero in her own right, have been forced to take on civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs. They are now normal people leading boring ordinary lives with their children.

The irony is that the Farrs go out of their way to appear normal to the outside world, but they don't enjoy it. In fact, they're so embarrassed by their normality that they're unable to talk about it even among themselves. Reduced to a clock-punching insurance, Bob is now fighting boredom and middle age. Itching for action, the sidelined superhero gets his chance when a mysterious communication summons him to a remote island for a top-secret assignment.

The casting of the lead roles is also original. Shark Tale and Polar Express rely heavily on the recognizable voices of mega-stars and celebs. The former boasts the appearance of Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, and in Polar Express, the estimable Tom Hanks plays five parts, to which he either lends his body language and/or his voice. In comparison, The Incredibles uses talented actors with voices of human size, not superstars. Well-cast, both Holly Hunter Craig Nelson sound like ordinary people, with just the right touch of snap eccentricity.

The message of the Pixar film is uplifting and inspirational, but not in the fake way of politically correct family values of other animations. The underlining ideas have to do with such uniquely American values of the rejection of mediocrity, the fear of becoming average, the dread of living stale, uncreative lives. The movie encourages its protagonists–and the viewers–to work up to their very best, not to compromise or to reduce their potential to lower standards. The idea is that society's talented and ambitious members should always aspire higher, not for fame or self-aggrandizing (as in the cynical Shark Tale), but for self-fulfillment and serving the good of collective larger than themselves. Centering on the family, and dealing with a two-generational plot, The Incredibles is conceived as an entertaining fare for kids as well as adults.