One Hot 'Toon

To be sure, The Incredibles is no Cries & Whispers & Hovercrafts. It's sumptuous jet-age exceptionalism, culled from James Bond and the Fantastic Four, with a little Jonny Quest thrown in for good measure. But the real action emanates not from any secret lair, but from the family den. Herculean Bob ''Mr. Incredible'' Parr (voiced by Coach's Craig T. Nelson) yearns not for fast cars and a fitter bod—— okay, he yearns for those things, too — but to get back into the hero game of his storied youth as a go-it-alone do-gooder. His wife, Helen (Holly Hunter), formerly the rubber-limbed Elastigirl, has adapted to family life only by completely denying her past as a masked vigilante. Daughter Violet (NPR's Sarah Vowell) shrinks from the world by using her invisibility and impenetrable force fields, and hyperactive Dash (newcomer Spencer Fox) has a short attention span exacerbated by his supersonic speed. In the pallid suburbs of Bird's imagination, every extraordinary attribute has become a curse. Sounds like fun, right?

''The ironic thing is, it's marketed as just another wacky fat guy rolling around on the floor in a supersuit. I know exactly what movie people think they're going to see,'' says Stanton. But instead of a spandex spoof, ''it's a legitimate action picture with more emotional maturity than people expect of live-action hero pictures.''

It's a sign of the times that Disney — a company that just 10 years ago made the bulk of its money on musical, G-rated tales of princesses with talking pets — was sold on the gambit. ''We had a meeting with Thomas Schumacher, who was head of Disney animation when we started the film,'' recalls Bird. (Schumacher has since left the company's animation division after presiding over job cuts that slashed its 2-D 'toon force by 40 percent.) ''He said, 'Now, we've seen the story reels, we know what it is, and it's time we either talk about softening some of these moments . . . or hold hands and say we're doing something different here, and go ahead with it as is.' My hand shot out and I said, 'Let's hold hands.' And that was the end of it.'' ''It was clear that Brad had a real vision for the film,'' Schumacher says. ''John and I agreed that it would be senseless to stifle it.''

Those moments that didn't get softened include scenes of a mother warning her children of enemies who ''will not show restraint'' and plain old oh-my-God-they-killed-Bambi's-mom death — with humans this time, not talking critters. The danger doesn't feel all that cartoony. To which Bird says: ''Viva la serious jeopardy!''

''The biggest thing to him is, to feel for the character, you have to have the stakes,'' says Mark Andrews, an Incredibles story artist who worked with Bird on the similarly intense Iron Giant. ''He pushes that life-and-death thing, which just happens to be in the types of stories he tells. There was some concern about how intense we were getting. But Brad is very conscious of how far he can push it.''

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