A new superhero is about to appear in theaters. He is middle-aged, with thinning hair and a gut so big he can barely fit into his costume. His name is Bob Parr, aka "Mr. Incredible."
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He was dreamed up by writer and director Brad Bird in what is, to say the least, one of the most unusual superhero backstories ever created: The reason Mr. Incredible grows so out of shape is that he and other superheroes have to retire, go into hiding and take boring desk jobs because they keep getting sued for trying to be good Samaritans.
"This assumes that in our highly litigious society, it becomes a burden to constantly bail the superheroes out and get them out of trouble," Bird said. "For instance, if somebody's in trouble and you knock down a wall to save them, who pays for the wall?"
Bird's computer-animated story, "The Incredibles," opens Nov. 5. It was made at the Pixar Studios and released by the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC.
The concept of a retired superhero brings with it some familiar issues that everyday mortals face. The former Mr. Incredible is trapped in a desk job where he can't make full use of his abilities. He must balance his dreams against family obligations.
"I came up with the idea when I was having trouble going into movies from television," Bird said. "At the same time, I had a new family. And the anxiety of trying to be good at both things kind of filtered its way into the story. I wasn't aware of it, at the time. At the time, I just thought it was just a goofy movie about superheroes that I found myself entertained by."
Training With 'The Simpsons'
Since childhood, Bird has been fascinated by the potential of animation as a storytelling medium. While he was growing up in Corvallis, Ore., his mother once made a marathon drive to a faraway theater so he could see a re-release of a historic milestone, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first full-length animated feature.
"I found it in this tiny little hole-in-the-wall theater outside of Portland -- I mean, just one step above a urinal. And my mom drove me two hours through the rain. And we sat in this horrid little theater. But I was transfixed," he said.
"I couldn't talk about anything other than animation for a while. My friends would indulge me for, you know, up to two minutes."
At the age of 11, Bird began drawing and photographing his own animation, a cartoon version of "The Tortoise and the Hare," which he finished before he turned 14. It brought him to the attention of the Walt Disney studios and helped start a career in animation in which he has made films worth millions of dollars, often enlivened with what he calls a "Northwest sense of humor" that's "slightly darker but still friendly."
He worked as an executive consultant and director on the long-running television series "The Simpsons," where he combined his love of animation and caricature with the work of writers focused on jokes and dialogue. For Warner Bros., he made what fans consider an animated classic, "The Iron Giant." He gave emotional punch to a mechanical figure in the story of a boy and a robot caught in Cold War paranoia.
"We had a really unusual reaction," Bird said. "When you get into making movies, you get hit with these pie charts, and everybody sends out tests. Animation typically scores very low with adult men. But for some reason, ["The Iron Giant"] scored high with adults … I don't think adults nowadays have the prejudice against animation that a lot of people used to. I think less and less people see it as a children's medium. They see it more as just another way to make a film. And that's the way I look at it."
Scoring a First for Pixar
In several ways, this man who was so fascinated by the history of animation is making a bit of history on his own.
With "The Incredibles," he is the first outsider to direct a film at Pixar. Moreover, the film stars an all-human cast.
Pixar -- which pioneered the art of computer graphics animation -- has stuck to nonhuman lead characters in its previous five releases, including "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." Animators traditionally have encountered trouble making humans look realistic, from the mechanics involved in physical movements to the skin tones, which often appear cold and plastic.
Pixar's computer animators worked to create not only more realistic, nuanced skin tones for their human characters, but also more luminous eyes, and clothing that responded naturally to the characters' musculature and movements.
"We had to design costume changes and practically tailor them, just like a real tailor does … make the fabric respond, as real fabric would," Bird said. "If you were to list the top 10 things that are the hardest things to do in computer animation, we were doing all 10."
Bird said he is frequently asked why he doesn't use real actors. "Why?" he asks in reply. "Animation's much more fun. If the only reason to make animation is to have fairies and talking animals, then pretty soon, animation would be extinct. To me that was never the reason to do animation to begin with. It was all about caricature and distilling down the essence of something."
For example, in "The Incredibles," Bob Parr is the father in a family of superheroes. His wife, once known as Elastigirl, retired for the same reasons he did. Two of their children also have superpowers. Those were the caricatures Bird used to distill an unusual take on family relations, using real-life dynamics.
"Anyone who's a mother knows that you're pulled 10 different ways at once, and so it seemed only natural that her power would be elasticity," he said. "The 10-year-old boy is hyperactive, so he's 10 places at once -- he has super-speed power."
Teenagers, Bird says, often feel awkward and want to hide. So he gave the teenage daughter the powers of invisibility, along with the ability to throw up a defensive shield.
How the family eventually unites to use its powers is the core of the story.
As a storyteller, Bird is critical of writers who try to be too hip and cynical. "I think that there's sort of a safety in detachment. If you can show that you're above the material, and keep an emotional distance from it, then you never risk looking foolish. But … you never get great moments that way, either, by pulling every punch. And I think that if you're willing to look foolish, if you're willing to be emotional, there's a tremendous payoff, if it works," said Bird.
"The important part is, do you have characters that people care about? And do the characters draw you in? Do you find yourself scared or moved to tears, or are you laughing?" he said. "If we are making you feel all those things, then we are doing our job as filmmakers. And the animation part is just secondary, you know? And I wish it was seen as that. We're not some subgroup," Bird said.
The movie is the sixth of seven features to be released under the sometimes uneasy relationship between Disney and Pixar. If it does well, it could help Pixar negotiate a new deal with a studio, with the aim of keeping more profits from its immensely successful films.
Bird said if Pixar is interested, he'd like to return to the sprawling Pixar complex in Emeryville, Calif., to make another film.
"I think that on a really basic kind of bonehead level, animation is just cool," said Bird. "It's like the magic trick that you can't ever figure out. It's like the characters are thinking, living things with pasts and desires and dreams, and things they are afraid of. They really look like they are alive. And yet, you know they are not alive. And there is something that's mesmerizing about that, on a real simple level. Once you get a little taste of that, you want to see more.
"Yes, it's a tedious road sometimes to get to that point," he said. "But once you get there, the feeling of creating life in a sense is amazing."