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THE INCREDIBLES

Producer: John Walker
Director: Brad Bird
Writer: Brad Bird
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Elizabeth Pena, Wallace Shawn and Brad Bird
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

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This latest Pixar-produced computer animation flick from Disney is as visually magnificent as you’d expect. From a purely technical perspective “The Incredibles” rivals the best of the genre–not only the company’s earlier efforts but the DreamWorks offerings like “Shrek,” too. The widescreen images are fluid and elegant and the backgrounds clean and occasionally amusing, in those respects even outshining its remarkable predecessors.

In terms of story, though, the picture isn’t nearly as impressive. “The Incredibles” is a send-up of the super-hero genre–a type of movie that’s been attempted plenty of times in the past, almost always unsuccessfully. This time around, it’s pulled off more cleverly than usual by writer-director Brad Bird (who also voices one of the characters), but the result still doesn’t have the sort of imagination and wit the best animated films possess. The premise is outlined in a prologue showing musclebound, self-assured Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) going through his super-hero paces despite the interference of nerdy fan-boy and would-be sidekick Buddy Pine (Jason Lee): one of the fellows he saves claims to have been injured in the process and sues him, starting a flood of litigation against all super-folk. To settle the claims, the government forces all the heroes into a protection program, requiring them to live ordinary lives and to refrain from using their powers anymore.

When we find him fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible is lumbering malcontent Bob Parr, who has a miserably unfulfilling job at an insurance firm and rides around in a car a few sizes too small for his huge frame. He lives a suburban life with wife Helen (Holly Hunter), who was once the bouncy Elastigirl, and has three kids, a gurgling infant named Jack Jack and two older siblings who have inherited powers they have to hide, too. The older is shy, dark-haired Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible and create force fields, and the younger a precocious little blonde boy, Dash (Spencer Fox), who’s a miniature version of The Flash.

The only diversion that Bob gets from the familial bickering is an occasional night out with his old super-hero buddy Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson), also known as Frozone, a kind of good-guy Mr. Freeze. The two pretend to go bowling, but actually engage in surreptitious heroics to recall the old days. The routine changes, though, when Bob is fired from his job after manhandling his smarmy boss (Wallace Shawn), and is recruited to don his tights again as a “product tester” for a weapons firm owned by a mysterious billionaire. The position, however, proves to be a ruse devised by the inevitable master villain Syndrome–who bears a close resemblance to Jim Carrey’s Riddler, and whose front-woman is slinky Mirage (Elizabeth Pena)–to destroy all the hidden super-heroes and, in the usual phrase, conquer the world. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the identity of this fearsome foe, but he does have a connection to Mr. Incredible’s past and a reason as plausible for his rage as the ones usually used in comic-book stories. Suffice it to say that in order to defeat him Mr. Incredible must summon up all his strength, Frozone has to come out of retirement, and Bob’s family must don costumes and employ their powers, too. And though this doesn’t constitute much of a spoiler, rest assured the world isn’t destroyed.

This scenario isn’t terribly inventive, and although Bird scatters sporadic witticisms throughout, both verbal and visual, most of them are on peripheral matters (like the Parrs’ home life and Helen’s ability to twist herself into the most unusual but useful shapes). The central plot is actually played straighter than one might expect, and includes a remarkably high quotient of high-octane violence (explosions, shots of characters being slammed about and plenty of shooting); the picture certainly deserves its PG rating, and may well be too intense for younger kids. The fact that the characters involved are drawn rather than real makes some difference, of course, but overall the latter portion of the picture isn’t really much watered down from the sort of stuff found in the “Batman” flicks, and the insertion of the younger Parrs into the equation also gives it the feel of a more down-and-dirty “Spy Kid”-dish offering. Those aren’t the best models for a Pixar presentation, and one gets the feeling that “The Incredibles” could easily have been made as a live-action feature starring somebody like Tim Allen–a sort of “Galaxy Quest” clone. And if you set aside the amazing CGI imaging, like that film it’s moderately engaging but hardly a classic.

Nonetheless, there are still those wonderful visuals, and the voice cast is perfectly fine too, although Bird has reserved for himself the best part–that of Edna Mode, or “E,” a thickly-accented costume designer who’s a near-ringer for Linda Hunt. The picture will surely bring in a ton of money, not only in ticket sales but in the later DVD market. That’s in spite of the fact that it’s decidedly inferior to Bird’s earlier effort, the conventionally-animated “Iron Giant,” which he co-wrote with Tim McCanlies, which was not a financial success. Go figure.

DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT

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When “Donnie Darko” was released in 2001, it was dismissed by some important mainstream reviewers and largely ignored by audiences. It was embraced by other critics and many of the viewers lucky enough to have seen it, though, and in the intervening three years it’s become a cult classic–a fixture at midnight screenings and a success on video and DVD. Now Newmarket, which rather bungled the original marketing of the picture, has allowed writer-director Richard Kelly to assemble a “director’s cut” of “Donnie Darko,” at 133 minutes nearly twenty longer than the original version.

In this expanded form it’s still an exceptionally challenging film, amazingly assured for a first feature–a haunting, hypnotic mixture of black comedy, domestic drama, coming-of-age story, mystical science fiction and psychological study. But it’s not quite the equal of the one some of us found so extraordinary in 2001. The added narrative footage consists of most of the deleted and expanded scenes already found on the DVD issue, now inserted within the picture rather than simply given as appendices; presumably many, if not all of them were present in the print shown at the Sundance Festival early in 2001, which was trimmed to get the picture under the two-hour mark for fall release. (Happily, not all of the material on the DVD has been used; the final shot of Donnie in his bedroom remains, wisely, unseen.) Some of the new footage is amusing, but none of it is really necessary, and it does make for slow going at times. Still, by itself that wouldn’t seriously impair the picture. The problem is that Kelly has also attempted to clarify the story by adding what amounts to explanatory linking matter, in the form of brief excerpts from the book on time travel penned years before by Rebecca Sparrow, the woman now known as Grandma Death, and repeated shots of a huge eye apparently reflected on some sort of computer screen and, in turn, reflecting other images. This is problematical, first of all, because it makes too explicit the secrets that remained marvelously ambiguous in the original release, turning a deeply enigmatic fable into something much more direct. But beyond that, the means Kelly has chosen are weak. The book excerpts, with their talk of tangent universes, receptors and manipulated dead, read exactly like the pseudo-scientific babble they are, and the computer-screen stuff is all too reminiscent of the repeated shots of Dave Bowman’s eye witnessing the journey beyond the infinite in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and of HAL-9000’s gleaming red eye, too). Ordinarily I’m as much in favor of a Kubrick reference as anybody, but this one was a mistake.

Of course none of this diminishes the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Donnie, or the fine turns by Maggie McDonnell, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant and James Duval. (The last-named deserves special credit for playing a six-foot rabbit so well.) And the widescreen cinematography of Steven Poster, the score by Michael Andrews and the pop songs used to complement it remain stunningly effective. Even in this expanded form “Donnie Darko” stands head and shoulders above most other movies, and the opportunity to see in a theatre shouldn’t be missed. But like so many directors’ cuts, it’s not an improvement. (A clue: when such cuts are longer than the original–the usual case–it’s ordinarily a problem.) My advice? If you’re a afficionado of the film, or never had the opportunity to see it on the big screen, by all means check out this new version. But be sure to acquire a copy of the DVD with the original film as well; one never knows whether it will remain in circulation after a new one of the director’s cut is inevitably issued. Whatever Kelly might want you to believe, that’s still the true “Donnie Darko”–and a great film it is.