Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: one of the biggest hits of the ten features to have preceded Toy Story 3 in the extraordinary run of masterpieces and near-masterpieces made by Pixar.

It is not popular, and in many cases not in the least wise, to talk of "authorship" in mainstream American animation; though there are certain exceptions. Generally, for example, it's easy to tease out the differences in the films made by each of the five men who have so far directed a movie with Pixar, the shining star of family entertainment in this country in the last 15 years (and, to be fair: probably the shining star of mainstream cinema, period). You've got John Lasseter, whose films tend to feature inanimate objects given life, and who is of all the Pixar folks the one most given to making good old-fashioned "gee whiz, that's cool" entertainment; Pete Docter, the unabashed sentimentalist; Andrew Stanton, a creator of visual tone poems with a strong emotional throughline; and it's early to say what drives Lee Unkrich, though I hope it's more than "doing his level best John Lasseter impersonation".

But most prominently, you have Brad Bird: the only Pixar director (to date) to make a film outside of Pixar, and the mind behind the most uncharacteristic film in the studio's history - the only one to come from a story developed outside Pixar, by Bird himself - 2004's The Incredibles. It was indeed this film's pronounced dissimilarity from the five features the studio had produced before it that first made it clear that Pixar was very much the "directors first" company that it had sometimes claimed to be; especially given how very similar it is in some ways to Bird's feature debut, the disgustingly under-seen masterwork The Iron Giant.

At the same time, it's hard to say exactly what unifies Bird's three film projects (the third is, of course, 2007's Ratatouille, arguably the most flawless of all Pixar films). They're all family stories; two of them take place in a romanticised (but not too romanticised!) version of the pre-'68 Cold War America; they all have, to one degree or another, stylised faux-cinematography. I am tempted to take the lazy man's way out, and say that what unites them most of all is that they're all made with the highest level of craftsmanship - not in terms of animation alone, but as works of classical cinematic language, assembled with an intense amount of care and love so that every cut, every sound, every movement, builds to a euphonious whole.

Not bad for a superhero movie. Though to call The Incredibles a superhero movie, as though it was just another of the glut of men-in-tights adventures of the '00s, would be as crudely reductive as anything you can say. It's about family, and the way that husbands and wives can grow apart by inches without ever falling out of love; it's about being true to yourself; there's a line of thought that calls it Objectivist propaganda, which Bird has always denied was the intention, though when you've got a sympathetic character complaining that if everyone is special, then no-one is special, and the villain echoing and reversing that sentiment, declaring with wicked delight that he's found a way to give everyone a level playing field... it has, at least, the tang of Objectivism. Though if Ayn Rand were one-tenth the artist that Brad Bird is, I suppose that Objectivism would seem like a much better philosophy.

So! In what seems loosely like the 1960s, we have the Parr family: father Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), mother Helen (Holly Hunter), teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), preteen son Dashiell (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack. They are like a great many American families of that fuzzy time when the Eisenhower years were mutating into the Space Age: Bob doesn't like his job, but bottles that up because he has to be a good provider; Helen loves her family and children but they're not as fulfilling as her life when she was young and single; and so on. Unlike most American families of that fuzzy time, they're also all superheroes: years ago, Bob was the charismatic, indestructible strongman Mr. Incredible, while Helen was the infinitely stretchable Elastigirl. They still have those powers, and have given a legacy to their kids: Violet has the ability to turn invisible and create force fields, while "Dash" can run faster than the eye can see. They are, in effect, the exact powers of the Fantastic Four of the Marvel universe, though if you stop at the reference, you've missed the way that this is just an extension of their personalities as members of the Parr household: Bob as the strong, infallible protector, Helen as the homemaker who has to be everywhere at once to keep things together , Violet as an easily-embarrassed teenager who just wants to disappear, Dash as a kid with way too much energy for his parents to keep up with.

It's part of the profound genius of the movie that just about every detail has two distinct meanings like that: its function as a superhero trope, and its metaphorical value the film's "real" conflict, about how a middle-class suburban family comes back together after having slowly drifted apart through boredom. At times, this isn't even the subtext, but the text: one of the chief driving elements of the whole plot is Helen's terror that Bob is having an affair (perhaps the most adult theme in all of Pixar; the only competition to my mind is Finding Nemo's theme of "over-protective father learns how to respect his son's independence, though Up's "octogenarian widower is able to find a reason to live without his wife" certainly gives them both a good run for their money). At any rate, to look at The Incredibles and say "what an excellent superhero adventure", while eminently reasonable - besides Nolan's Batman movies, it's readily the best film of the contemporary superhero cycle - deprives the film of much of its meaning and most of its emotional resonance. But I shall harp on this no longer; it's there to be seen by anyone who's looking for it.

Besides, I need some space left over to talk about how incredibly (erm...) well-made it is. From the cheeking opening gag, a vintage interview that introduces our main characters, to the outstandingly fleet, exposition-packed opening sequence, set in whatever period is meant to be 15 years before the rest of the film (it looks like the '30s, but it almost has to be 1949 or 1950 or thereabouts), and onward, Bird's command of pacing and structure is awe-inspiring, propelling us through the movie's generous 115-minute running time (the longest, by 15 minutes, that Pixar had yet essayed; even now it is their second-longest, barely nudged out by Cars) with abandon that stops at exactly the best moments to keep the dramatic elements of the film constantly in play, while devoting plenty of time and energy to making sure that the action sequences are realised with a level of achievement rare even in the best live-action movies. Then too, the constant switching from straight-up superhero pyrotechnics to '60s-style intrigue to goofy comedy is timed with the skill of a master; you'd never once expect that Bird had only a single directorial credit to his name, from the evidence onscreen here. Even if he'd never made his masterpiece, Ratatouille, The Incredibles would still make a good argument that he belongs in the conversation about the most excellent directors of mainstream entertainment now living.

But animation being a collaborative art form, we should probably stop and pay our respects to the many other people responsible for making The Incredibles such a marvel: the film's design, led by Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston, is an unholy perfect slurry of time-specific designs that at once evoke both the over-the-top spy movies of the period and the physically-impossible look of the period's great pulp comic books (the spirit of Jack Kirby hovers over every frame and every story beat of the whole picture); hell, even the design of the end credits is about as visually appealing as anything else in a mainstream film in 2004. Helping to nail down the sense that we're in an eternal Space Age is Michael Giacchino's ludicrously delightful score (his first collaboration with Pixar, and if I also call it his worst, that is only because his music for Ratatouille and Up is so damn brilliant), sounding for all the world like a lost James Bond score written by John Barry, without ever once directly quoting Barry's work.

The cast is uniformly excellent; long before 2004, it had become clear that Pixar films were noteworthy for their against-the-grain but tremendously effective celebrity voices, but even so, Craig T. Nelson was a left-field choice if ever the company made one: how many people besides rabid fans of CBS's The District even remembered he existed? And yet he embodies the very soul of the certain form of flawed male bravado on display here, just as surely as Tim Allen does in that other Pixar series. Holly Hunter needs no praise from one as lowly as me, but even so, she's an unintuitive pick for an cartoon character, and she carried it off magnificently - my pick for the best performance in the film, finding all the right parts of Helen's worries and frustrations and domestic pride. There are plenty of other wonderful grace notes: Jason Lee seems like a stupidly obvious choice to play a comics-inspired villain, but he did wonderfully nonetheless, and so on and so forth from Samuel L. Jackson's expectedly fine cool badass down to Wallace Shawn nailing the banal manager who makes Bob's life hell, in his only non-Toy Story performance with Pixar.

As saturated with nostalgia as any of Lasseter's films, and as grand in its world-building as any of Stanton's, Bird's first Pixar feature won him not only a legion of fans, but instant elevation to the company's highest echelon of artistic leadership, and for good reason: it's a nigh-perfect entertainment that never lets up and never treats its audience with any condescension, and never lets spectacle overwhelm its humanity. Though it's not, ultimately, anywhere near the most emotionally probing of the studios' work (anecdotally, this and A Bug's Life are the only two Pixar films that have never made once made me tear up even a little bit), and its emphasis on thrills over lower-key narrative delights leave it still the outlier among Pixar's output, it's pretty great altogether: a fantastically fun movie with brains and a heart. Heck, if that's not the very essence of Pixar, I don't know what is.