Saturday, July 24, 2004

Sombrero Grande saw something “Incredible” at this year’s Comic Con
Trip report by Sombrero Grande

2004 was my third consecutive year going to the San Diego Comic Con but it was the first time I’d ever made it to one of the panels. Normally, being the frugal cowboy that I am, Sombrero Grande will go on the “cheap day,” Sunday, when the price of admission drops from $25 or $30 to just $15. But not this year. This year, on Friday, Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant and many early episodes of The Simpsons) would be there to talk about his latest directorial effort, Pixar’s upcoming The Incredibles.

How on Earth could I miss that?!

So, on Friday, I made my way past Stormtroopers, Harry Potters, Indiana Joneses, Hellboys and even the real-life Matt Groening (who I would have loved to have talked to or asked for an autograph, but I suddenly found myself without any Simpsons item in my immediate possession or anything intelligent to say other than, “you’re Matt Groening!”) and made my way to Ballroom 20 for the presentation.

The presentation began with one of the advertised “surprises”...a screening of the teaser trailer for next year’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In true teaser trailer fashion it revealed nothing about the film other than the fact that it’s coming to theaters next year, but that didn’t appear to have any lessening effect on the very enthusiastic, cheering crowd. As the Earth slowly spins the vastness of space, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” plays...until the whole planet explodes and the words “Don’t Panic” fill the screen in large, friendly letters. It was exciting, but what excites me most about this movie is that fact that Martin Freeman (best known to me for his amazing performance as Tim Canterbury in the brilliant BBC comedy series The Office) will be playing Arthur Dent, the one Earth native who manages to hitchhike off the planet moments before it ceases to exist. Can’t wait for this one. One of the “freebies” attendees of this panel received was a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy towel. As David Brent would say, “brilliant.”

Next up, Brad Bird came out to talk a bit about The Incredibles. From what he said it sounds like the story of the film was almost entirely created by him with the Pixar team mainly just executing it and acting as “bubble wrap” to protect it. Bird remarked that, unlike other studios, all of Pixar’s films were created because someone REALLY wanted to make them. John Lasseter’s love of toys and classic autos are what spurred the Toy Story movies and next year’s Pixar film, Cars. Finding Nemo was based on writer/director Andrew Stanton’s relationship with his father. The Incredibles, about a family with superpowers headed up by the out-of-practice and out-of-shape “Mr. Incredible,” is based on Bird’s feelings of juggling his family life with his work. When Bird was brought on board at Pixar he immediately presented The Incredibles as the movie he first wanted to make. He remarked that the idea had been bouncing around in his head for so long that the baby in the story was based on his now middle child.

Bird revealed that The Incredibles was originally developed as a traditionally animated film and that led to the highly stylized look of the characters in the final CGI work. While not naming any names, Bird explained his revulsion for CGI human characters that look too realistic and “scary,” but you could almost hear Final Fantasy and The Polar Express under his breath. He said his favorite CGI “human” was the highly stylized old man in Pixar’s short Geri’s Game that ran before A Bug’s Life in theaters, which encouraged him that Pixar was the place to go for what he wanted.

He also admitted that, as a veteran of 2D animation, Bird was unaware of some of the new challenges that computer animation presented. In CGI, having a giant robot smash a building to pieces, throw automobiles into the air and scatter pieces of rubble in all directions is pretty simple and straight-forward, but when he’d ask for a subtle “shirt-grab” the animators would go pale and costs would soar. He joked that The Incredibles has some really great but few shirt-grabs.

Then the lights in Ballroom 20 dimmed and we were treated to two never-before-seen-outside-the-halls-of-Pixar scenes from the film. (There are some minor spoilers here, but I’ll refrain from giving away the really good stuff.) The first scene had Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, embarking on his first heroic mission in fifteen years, coming out of retirement for a secret mission to stop a rampaging robot on a tropical island. Bob (voiced by Coach’s Craig T. Nelson) is informed that his target is a “learning robot” which means that as he’s fighting with it, the robot will be figuring out his weaknesses and adapting to them. The confrontation on the island is rather intense (surely part of the reason why The Incredibles is expected to earn Pixar’s first PG rating), playing roughly like a much higher-octane version of the infiltration of Zurg’s base in Toy Story 2. Bob is trying to get back into the swing of things but his years away from fulfilling his superhero duties have left him with a significantly larger waistline and a bad back, which goes out in the middle of the fight.

The second scene we saw had Bob paying a visit to a very eccentric and very short clothing designer named Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird of all people!). Bob needs a new superhero outfit made and Edna’s the one to do it. The audience learns in this scene the darkly comic reasons why Edna believes superhero outfits shouldn’t have capes.

Bird explained that The Incredibles is a very different kind of film compared to Pixar’s previous efforts (and he praised Pixar for being the only studio that never falls into the trap of repeating a formula when something makes money). Not only is The Incredibles Pixar’s first PG film and its first all-human story, but the movie “skews more adult” than any of Pixar’s previous products. Bird illustrated with his hands how Monsters, Inc., for example, “skewed” younger, and then moved his other hand twice as far in the opposite direction to show The Incredibles' more adult “skew.”

All in all, there was some very exciting, clever and funny stuff shown in the film clips and I’m more excited than ever to see The Incredibles this November. One slightly disappointing thing, though, is the surprisingly large number of “fat jokes” that appear to be in the film. In the two scenes we saw I counted no less than four pokes at Bob’s weight. In my mind, fat jokes are “too easy” and usually feel more mean-spirited than is often necessary, but hey, that’s just me. Knowing that Brad Bird comes from working on The Simpsons, the jabs at Bob’s girth felt highly reminiscent of ones about Homer Simpson. With all the clever gags elsewhere in the two scenes we saw, it felt like Pixar was “stooping” with the “look at how fat Bob is” jokes, but time will tell if the rest of The Incredibles continues in this way or not.

Speaking of The Simpsons, Matt Groening wasn’t the only celebrity I saw at the San Diego Comic Con. After the presentation and while in line to redeem my Incredibles “freebies,” I happened to run into none other than the MMS’s long-lost Bolsa de Queso! The last time we’d heard from Bolsa was a brief e-mail about the Kill Bill panel at last year’s Comic Con. Rest assured, folks, Bolsa is still alive and well...and apparently still in San Diego.

Of course the San Diego Comic Con wouldn’t be what it is without action figures. Lots of companies were there showing off prototypes and offering Comic Con exclusives. I stopped by the booth for Palisades Toys, my current favorite action figure producer, and picked up the very cool Adventure Kermit exclusive.

A last stop for the day was the panel discussing the upcoming extended edition DVD of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Billy Boyd (who played Pippin in the films) is a really funny guy. I’d love to see him star in a high-profile comedy. Like Bob Parr, I’m not as young as I used to be, and I was getting pretty tired by the end of the day so I only stopped in for a few minutes for this last panel. I did, though, get to see a pretty elaborate scene that was completed for the Return of the King extended edition involving countless skulls pouring through the walls of the Paths of the Dead. With fifty minutes of extra footage being added for the extended edition, the panel left me with the feeling that I “hadn’t seen anything yet.”

Sombrero Grande reporting from San Diego...back to you in the studio.


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