For decades, kids have enjoyed following the out-of-this-world exploits of comic-book heroes, learning along the way about courage and heroism, and the need for the forces of good to triumph over the nefarious plots of those possessed by evil. Every generation needs to learn their own duty to sacrifice and fight for the good.
But lately, ever since the first "Spiderman" live-action movie roared at the box office, fans of the long-lasting Marvel Comics stable of superheroes have been inundated with big, noisy, expensive blockbusters bringing these two-dimensional pen-and-ink heroes to life. Unfortunately, in attempting to dramatize Marvel honcho Stan Lee's formula -- paper heroes deepened on the page by troubled private lives in their worlds of secret identity -- these films have all suffered in varying degrees, growing ever more dark and gloomy, almost hopeless.
While the "Spiderman" films have retained a fraction of whimsy, movies like "Daredevil" and "The Incredible Hulk" have left many fans hoping they'd seen more righteous heroism and less sulky realism. In the final analysis, superhero comics work best when the reader is inspired, not left seeking Dr. Phil. Complex superheroes can make for a nice, dramatic storyline, but when they're so tortured by personal demons, they can't be very super, can they?
For those who do like their heroes a little less super-serious than the superhuman characters of old, there is a surprisingly mature option: Pixar's new cartoon "The Incredibles." This film unfolds like a comic book, with lots of action, but in between its animated lines, it offers real lessons about heroism, the use of talents and commitment to family. It's not often that a cartoon carries a line where a child worries, "Mom and Dad's life could be in jeopardy ... or even worse ... their marriage!"
Believe the critics on this one: It is a terrific film for the whole family. As with all the other Pixar movies, this film is not only brilliantly animated, but rich in character and plot. And yet the surprising thing about the new picture is how adult it seems. Instead of the parents struggling to find fragments of adult enjoyment -- often found in snarky asides -- it's more likely the grade-school children will fidget in spots that become so real you have to remember you're watching a cartoon.
The plot of "The Incredibles" starts with some surprising social criticism. After saving a man trying to commit suicide, the film's lead superhero, Mr. Incredible, is sued by the man, who didn't want to be saved. That suit is followed by a tangle of torts that causes the entire cavalcade of caped crime-fighters to enter a secret federal Superhero Relocation Program.
Demoted to the prototypical unspectacular job of insurance agent, Mr. Incredible (now known as "Bob Parr") gripes that "They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity." He's hiding away with his wife Helen (formerly the stretchy heroine Elastigirl). His son Dash, blessed with super speed, is banned from competing in school sports, lest he betray the family secret. "Dad says our powers make us special," he protests. "Everyone is special, Dash," his mother replies. "Which is another way of saying no one is," Dash complains.
If that sounds like some Ayn Rand capitalist fable of the mediocre punishing the talented, there is always the offsetting fun the filmmakers have with Bob's insurance work. While Bob's oily supervisor wants every insurance claim rejected for the health of the company bottom line, heroic Bob can't help but whisper to his customers every tactic to circumvent company bureaucracy to ease their pain and suffering. This ends badly, with Bob losing his temper and tossing the boss through several walls, something even superheroes succumb to when their patience is taxed.
Bob loses his job, of course, and to make up for the lost income, he is recruited into secret superhero work with a slinky mystery woman named Mirage. (That's where the worries about the Parr marriage creep in.) What happens next draws the entire Incredible family -- father, mother, the son Dash, and the invisibility-powered teenage daughter Violet -- into a titanic superhero struggle with a super-villain, replete with a morality play of good versus evil.
Too often, we know what to expect from Hollywood, and we get it, in all its sensation-seeking, nihilistic glory. But it's a nice departure when someone in the entertainment world can dazzle us with a movie that everyone in the family can savor and enjoy. In fact, it's incredible.