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One Hot 'Toon

Pixar takes a risk with ''The Incredibles'' -- With a new director, a PG rating, and some out-of-shape superheroes, the animation studio's new project marks a leap of faith

Pixar Animation Studios is no stranger to superheroic feats. In the fall of 2001, its Monsters, Inc. took in a hair-raising $62.6 million on opening weekend, setting a box office record for animated films. Jaws dropped. Production partner Disney beamed. Randy Newman warbled. It was all . . . vaguely reminiscent of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 — right down to the buddy comedy and the Newman ballad. Pixar should have been soaring like Superman. Instead it brooded, Batman-like.

''You could smell it,'' recalls Andrew Stanton, Oscar-winning director of Pixar's record-smashing follow-up, the somewhat darker but still kid-attuned Finding Nemo. ''We could see exactly how we could make the same picture again and again from now on. And the fact that we could even smell it meant we should be concentrating on how we make sure that doesn't happen. Because there's plenty of examples out there of how to do it wrong.''

So far, none of those examples — Disney's Brother Bear, for one, or the notorious Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, which cost DreamWorks a reported $60 million — have borne the imprimatur of Pixar. Which is why the studio decided to mess with success, shaking up its award-winning formula — responsible for more than a billion in revenue — before it became, well, formulaic. The solution? Bring in an outside creative team and add more vivid animation techniques (designer hairstyles and tights!), not to mention a heretofore unimagined level of thematic intensity. Thus was born The Incredibles, Pixar's first PG-rated film. It's the thrilling saga of a restless fat man, his rightly suspicious wife, and their kids: a withdrawn Goth girl and her ADD-addled brother. Oh, and did we mention they all have superpowers?

With hygiene-challenged green ogres pillaging at the box office, and fish of any stripe shoring up profits, CG animation's domination of Hollywood seems, for now, complete. But Pixar, the undisputed industry leader, isn't resting on its high-resolution laurels. It's got larger designs: grappling with themes like suburban angst and the spectre of infidelity. Diversifying its boutique with outside directors while continuing to grow its own. Making films that happen to be animated, not just ''animated films.'' And, eventually, winning Oscars. The grown-up kind. Nemo's screenplay nomination was just the beginning — Disney plans to push The Incredibles for Best Picture. Believe your eyes: The denizens of Toontown are about to paint themselves right out of their corner.

With only one feature under his belt — The Iron Giant, a Cold War adventure from Warner Bros.' now-defunct feature-animation wing — plus eight years as an executive consultant on The Simpsons, 48-year-old Brad Bird was an unlikely fit at Pixar. The studio had previously relied only on its in-house savants, many of them waiting years for their turn to direct. But when Warner passed on his latest idea, Bird brought it to his old Cal Arts classmate John Lasseter, cofounder of Pixar. The pitch was a new one for feature animation: midlife crisis. It followed a married superhero couple discarded by a world too petty for paragons. They now labor heroically to negotiate the equally dangerous territory of daily life — dead-end job, family squabbles, and spousal suspicion. Recalls Bird: ''I think they were a little concerned at that point that we were going to make an animated Bergman film.''

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