Brad Bird seems like the most indomitable optimist. Where most directors would take the fantastic and make it plausible, he takes it and makes it implicit. People with great abilities who go on great adventures are a part of human nature. This is a world in which men bench-press train engines and punch through walls. It’s also one where they frown at how big their butt is when they pass a mirror. Something so familiar should not join so closely to the implausible, but this is how the world of The Incredibles becomes our own, and Bird among all the modern directors of animation most worthy of it.
The film opens in the “glory days,” the golden age of newsreels and derring-dos when a superhero sighting was not such a rare thing. “I’m just here to help,” says Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to a pair of grateful policemen, after turning a cat rescue into a burglar-napping through some clever feats of strength. Whether in a rooftop tete-a-tete with lithesome fiancé Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), or bro-five with Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), or celebrity rage-out with hero-wannabe Buddy, Mr. Incredible is a figure study of the era: confident, colorful, ageless. He’s always there to help.
So the transition to the present day is as striking as color to black and white, as nostalgia to reality. After the “supers” were lobbied underground by lawsuits from people who “didn’t want to be saved,” the government absolves and absorbs them. They are relocated to quiet lives, normal jobs. “Average heroes,” they are called. They can live, under one condition: they must never be above average again.
From the cover of Time to grainy anonymity, in the present day, Mr. Incredible is Bob Parr, insurance agent. He works in a comically small cubicle for his monolithic middle-aged frame, ruled by a bureaucratic cynic voiced by Wallace Shawn (the guy in The Princess Bride who says “Inconceivable!”). The boss rails on Bob for helping his customers too well. "We're supposed to help people," Bob says, a practiced statement of heroism. "We're supposed to help our people," the boss squeals, "starting with our stockholders." Though the government tried to make Mr. Incredible an average hero, he could only manage to be a quiet one.
The Parr house is tense, though rosier than Bob's office, which is grey as a newspaper clipping. Dash (Spencer Fox), their manic son, terrorizes his teacher while mousey daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) just tries to get by. The boy wishes he could fulfill his potential; the girl wishes that they didn’t have any. Elastigirl, now christened Mom, tries to hold everyone together. Their superpowers are clarified by their archetypes and need no formal introduction. Dad is the strong one, Mom is flexible. The son is hyperactive and the teenage daughter just wants to disappear. Their powers match them so well they feel less like superpowers than extensions of their inherent natures.
Trouble starts when Bob’s mid-life heroic moonlighting gets him noticed by the foxy agent of a private weapons company. “The supers aren’t gone, Mr. Incredible, you can still do great things,” she tells him. In the gloom of his den, surrounded by the ghost of himself, he accepts her offer to don his costume again. But all is not as it seems, as the company’s true intentions become more opaque and Mr. Incredible more absorbed in flexing his old talents.
The villain in this situation is intensely perfect. Syndrome (Jason Lee) used to be Mr. Incredibles' biggest fan. Now he feels so disempowered, unable even to worship those more powerful than him, that he hopes to empower everyone in the world with abilities, to destroy the superheroes not by physically killing them but by eradicating their idiom. He wants to make everyone powerful so that powerful people will no longer be needed. He doesn't care if they exist or not: he wants to make their existence mean nothing. He wants the very idea of superheroism to become poisoned. Has any villain ever sought to defeat their hero so completely?
Syndrome completes the tale of Mr. Incredibles' crisis by representing his failure as a father and a man, by victimizing the superheroes based on Mr. Incredibles' own hubris, and by reuniting his family under the threat of such total destruction. In an age where the superhero film has become common, Syndrome represents something that Marvel would do well to learn: a great sense of integration. Everything Mr. Incredible has done has motivated Syndrome to become his villain. Even the Bond films never figured out how to give James a perfect opposite.
Mr. Bird injects his affection for classic action films into every scintillating car chase and jazzy interlude. When Mr. Incredible sneaks into the enemy stronghold, the film score switches to subtle noir, and when the family dynamic explodes into action, trumpet squeals echo the triumphant opening of Hawaii Five-O and the helicopter longshots in the early James Bonds. Composer Michael Giacchino gives the director a tonal canvas. Bird seems positively childlike in painting a work of such affection to the best the genre offered on our Saturday morning screens.
Herein lays a secret to The Incredibles: it’s not a superhero movie. The film is deaf to all the tropes, from the dead parents to the origin story to the Kryptonite weakness. Instead, the film blasts an affectionate symphony of action spy movie set pieces, which Bird composes with such a self-believing style that he reminds me less of a director than of a virtuoso performer. And even they become a backdrop to what is essentially a mid-life crisis film, about a man who misses himself so much that he doesn’t even notice he has a family. Bird offers a genre fattened on mythic pretension a trimming alternative of joyous energy and dazzling characters, even those not in the Parr family. Samuel L. Jackson offers some of the most memorable lines as ice-throwing surfer Frozone. Bird himself squawks as the delectable auteur fashion designer Edna Mode, his perfect grinning “dahling” in the film’s funniest lulls.
Bird approaches a story that might have been preoccupied with focus shots of stoic gods and genetic triumphs and instead crafts a primal tale of a man rediscovering his life’s purpose. Mr. Incredible throwing out his back mid-battle is more than funny, nor is Mrs. Incredible sighing after noticing the width of her hips in a reflection. These scenes never tempt to be parodic. These clever details defeat the superhero film’s most central problem—a lack of relatability—to give us the hero figure as a real-world possibility rather than a myth, somber and aloof. When this happens -- when the Incredibles interact with their image on our level -- they become much more possible. Human nature is the heart of Bird's optimism.
The trick is that for The Incredibles, talent and willpower are the true superpowers, merely given an allegory as super strength, speed, stretchy arms. Frozone doesn't just have ice powers: it's more important that he's so super chill. This even applies to the villain. The truest villains hate the hero not for their faults but for their virtues, as the thief who most despises the heroism of his adversary (Shakespeare’s Iago), or the villainess who attacks the princess for her beautiful purity (Snow White’s Evil Queen). So the supers are ostracized not for their mistakes but their uncommon virtues. By both Syndrome and the once-adoring public, superheroes are blamed for all the problems in the world not despite but because they are the few people with the power to do something about it. Not everyone can be a hero. How is that fair? Isn’t everyone special?
If they are, Dash reminds us, “it’s just another way of saying no one is.” Here is a film as unapologetic of heroism as it is of its pseudo-60s kitsch. Animation, known for teaching morality with the subtlety of a PSA, has never so fully integrated an argument for personal achievement with the inherent flaws of being a person in the world. Among other animated fare, Bird’s electric pacing is just as exceptional as the Parr’s.
Not every cartoon is special. If they were, such an incisive triumph of warmth and imagination would have, like its citizens, extolled mediocrity at the cost of its virtues. Such is the grey everyman of the animated feature, not content even to be mediocre and anonymous, but who must also own the lives of its betters, allowing them to live but only in exchange for suppressing their abilities. That everyman is the perfect comparison by which Bird’s tremendous tableau of action and style can be recognized for its brilliant clarity, as confident as a great speaker but without the pretension, as striking in our “Ice Age” of animation as the figure study of a Greek god against the scrawl of a medieval peasant, uplifted as great art because it’s how we see ourselves. Bird sees us as better than we are. What better reason is there to have heroes?
Cast & Crew
|Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible||Craig T. Nelson|
|Helen Parr/ Mrs. Incredible||Holly Hunter|
|Violet Parr||Sarah Powell|
|Dashiell "Dash" Parr||Spencer Pace|
|Buddy Pine/Syndrome||Jason Lee|
|Lucius Best/Frozone||Samuel L. Jackson|
|Edna Mode||Brad Bird|