One of The Incredibles'credits reads Hair And Cloth Supervisor. Someone else was in charge of Water and Weather. Animation has gone far beyond flick-books and rotoscope and, with every film, Pixar ups the power of the pixel. The Incredibles IS funny, charming and smart, but principally it's a technical wonder. There's a sense that those armies of texture-buffers, hair-strand sculptors and water-wobblers were given the shiny, gold-plated office, while the script and story guys had to make do with the broom cupboard.
The set-up is glorious: a batch of scratchy vox-pops of our heroes in their heyday. Mr Incredible (Nelson) is the self-imposed power-patriarch, a pumped and chiselled all-American do-gooder - Captain America with an Arnie twist. Then there's Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), a sleek and, literally, supercool über-dude, zapping out and speed-surfing waves of instant ice. Flying is so last century. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is made of softer stuff: infinitely stretchy, Mr Tickle arms and bendy, extendy legs. Tackles tall buildings with a single step.
Skip forward a few years and Mr Incredible is domesticated, forced out of super-service after a series of lawsuits from those reluctantly rescued. Elastigirl is the mother to his kids and all are forced to suppress their own superpowers. Daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) has invisibility skills, while son Dash (Spencer Fox) is in trouble for using his speed at school. Like his dad, he feels punished for being too good. "Everyone's special," Elastigirl tells Dash, who shoots back, "Which is another way of saying no one is."
This isn't the first time Pixar have sought out a Simpsons influence (series producer David Silverman co-directed Monsters, Inc), but ex-exec Brad Bird shouts his credentials more loudly. The sequence where a work-ragged Bob crumples the rim of his car door in anger and then repeatedly slams it - shattering the glass and steaming himself up even more - is pure Homer.
There's also plenty of Simpsons style in the sophistication simmering beneath the main action: sly sight-gags (Mr Incredible's anxious ecstasy as a battering from a giant robot becomes a kind of chiropractory); a railyard work-out that gives new meaning to `training'; sitcom-style domestic bickering (the way Elastigirl knows Incredible has been illicitly super-heroing when she finds "rubble" on his collar). And there's a delightful running gag involving the health-and-safety issues around billowing superhero capes ("Look what happened to Stratogirl - sucked into a jet engine!").
But, given Pixar's peerless standards, The Incredibles doesn't quite live up to its name. The signature pre-feature short is their weakest yet: a hokey little vignette on lamb-shearing season, which seems mostly designed to show off the new texture software. The tone is pretty uneven, too, with a talky, more Simpsons-satirical opening half-hour suddenly swept aside in a barrage of breathless set-pieces, with only the final 20 minutes effectively mixing both.
And while most of the gags have that familiar Pixar glimmer, some of the references feel a little jaded: the Bondish bad guy Syndrome (Jason Lee) living under a volcano; a face-off between Mr Incredible and his nemesis that lazily recalls Buzz's infiltration of Zurg's lair in Toy Story 2. What's more, comics doyen Alan Moore must be eyeing his lawyer's number over the Watchmen-esque, decommissioned superheroes concept. Still, Bird's script is extremely sharp and the use of relatively low-profile voice talent pays off in a non-jarring ensemble effect, with Samuel L Jackson's Frozone wisely not overused.
More of Bird's Simpsons class plays out in the strong secondary characters. Bob Incredible's boss is a chimpy, hot-headed little nebbish of a middle-manager, while costume designer Edna (voiced by Bird himself) is an instant cult-heroine classic - a pixieish parody of a Euro-fashionista, all frosty glare and clipped, Greta Garbo twang.
But the Pixar-standard, strong, buddyish relationship at the centre has been bypassed. Mr Incredible and Elastigirl are likeable, but they're no match for Mike and Sulley, Buzz and Woody or Marlin and Dory.
When Pixar channel the technical flair into their true strength (attention to detail) the results are immaculate: the watery greys of Bob's office drudgery; nemesis Syndrome's micro-modelled tics and tantrums; his gormless goons' gyroscopic flying saucers; the shifting, squishy musculature that gives the characters' weight and presence. Every single scene - every frame - is dripping with exceptional depth and craft, while the comic timing is still as fresh and finely honed as ever. No one else can deliver a bubble-gum burst gag with just the right level of pre-pop delay.
Pixar have one more film to go (Cars, out in 2005) before they sever ties with Disney completely and go it alone. The Mouse House should be in mourning; they will never find themselves better tenants.
Slight on story and soul but strong on style and humour, The Incredibles impresses even if it's not quite Pixar perfect. Most will find it superduper.