The Incredibles Revisited

(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights The Incredibles.)

For nearly a decade, Pixar Animation Studios was an island among animation studios. It worked with the Walt Disney Company on having its films distributed and its characters and worlds turned into theme-park and merchandising fodder. But its films were very homegrown in every possible respect. It took until their fourth film, Monsters, Inc., for the studio to have a film not directed or co-directed by John Lasseter. But their first five were all made by people who’d worked at the studio since before the release of Toy Story

Another common thread in those five films is that humans were part of the overall stories being told, but never the main attraction. And the last common thread was that Pixar’s films weren’t driven by a single author; even Lasseter had co-directors, and Toy Story, as excellent a film as it was, had a script credited to a handful of writers. That would all change with Pixar’s sixth feature. It was from the mind of someone who hadn’t started at Pixar, it was written and directed by the same person, and…oh, yes. The Incredibles was a film entirely about humans.

Something Amazing, I Guess

The Incredibles began with its writer-director, Brad Bird. Bird, like Lasseter, had been among a key group of young animators who studied at the California Institute for the Arts, or CalArts, in the 1970s. (Aside from these two legends of the industry, their peers included Tim Burton and legendary Disney director John Musker.) Like Lasseter, Bird moved from CalArts to Walt Disney Animation Studios at an especially fraught period of the studio’s history. And like Lasseter, Brad Bird was fired from Walt Disney Animation Studios, though he didn’t even last through the production of the 1981 feature The Fox and the Hound

On the face of it, Brad Bird wound up doing pretty well for himself in the 1980s and early 1990s after being let go from the House of Mouse. His first major claim to fame afterwards came with an episode of the recently revived anthology TV series Amazing Stories. The two-season riff on The Twilight Zone was produced by Steven Spielberg, but the episode in question was fully animated. Written and directed by Bird, it was called “Family Dog” and consisted of three short films in which the eponymous pooch (voiced by Bird himself) had to deal with his dysfunctional family. 

Bird’s largest claim to fame came after he joined the Klasky Csupo animation studio in 1989 and became heavily involved in a half-hour animated sitcom about a truly dysfunctional family. For its first eight seasons, Brad Bird was credited as an executive consultant on The Simpsons, a show for which he also directed the season-one episode “Krusty Gets Busted”. (It’s almost certainly a coincidence that Bird left the show right after it gradually became a lot less funny. But still.) By the time The Simpsons wrapped its eighth season, Bird had successfully pitched Warner Bros. Feature Animation on his first feature, The Iron Giant. The 50s-set story of a boy who befriends a large metallic robot has deservedly gained a cult audience over time, but was sadly a flop at the box office in the late summer of 1999.

No Capes

Those details are important to consider because they no doubt fueled the creative direction of the story that really inflamed Bird’s creative mind. Bird’s deal with Warner Bros., as noted in David Price’s The Pixar Touch, was coming at the cost of the time he could spend with his family, and he had to weigh whether or not he could pursue his artistic ambitions while being a present, decent, and good father. Yet the struggle in balancing the personal and professional would become a jumping-off point for the final film and its characters.

For a film about a nuclear family of superheroes, each of the characters would essentially embody archetypes within each of their roles. The perception of the paternal member of the family unit (at least, the 50s-era stereotype of a dad) would mean that Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) would be super-strong. The mother, who often feels as if she has to be in multiple places at once, would be Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), able to stretch her limbs to impossible lengths. Their eldest child would be a teenage girl, awkward and unsure of herself. So Violent (Sarah Vowell) would have the power to make herself invisible. Her younger brother, Dash (Spencer Fox), would be super-speedy to reflect his ultra-fast-paced personality. And their youngest sibling, Jack-Jack, would be the infant terror to end all terrors, with a slew of powers only revealed in the finale at the most hilariously inopportune moment.

In many ways, The Incredibles would have to be a major leap forward for Pixar. Though the film was full of science-fiction derring-do, it was a deliberately human story. There were no talking toys, no talking monsters, or the like. The characters were human, and the animation would have to be up to snuff, especially since those humans had extreme abilities and gifts. And The Incredibles would be, like any superhero film worth its salt, fairly violent if not actually gory. But when Bird, in the spring of 2000, pitched Lasseter, the idea touched a nerve and Bird was contracted to join the studio for multiple projects.

These Guys Are Not Like Those Guys

The Incredibles makes it clear within its first minutes that this will not be the same kind of Pixar movie. Though the early marketing campaign leaned on physical humor – a teaser trailer attached 18 months in advance to the release of Finding Nemo showcased a different version of a gag in the finished film, in which Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr tries without success to fit into his super-suit, which he’s now too fat for thanks to the onslaught of middle age – The Incredibles begins by telling its audience that this is a film that will earn its PG rating. (Notably, this was the first Pixar film to receive that rating.)

Mixed in with the opening credits, we see old talking-head footage of some of the core players: Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, who became the first black actor with even a supporting role in a Pixar film), each talking about their lives as superheroes and whether the allure of an average life appeals to them. And then, immediately after the title is displayed on screen coupled with Michael Giacchino’s delightfully retro score, we hear gunshots. The ensuing action setpiece – in which we gradually realize that Mr. Incredible is performing intense acts of heroism mere minutes before his wedding to Elastigirl – is both thrilling and somehow more complex and adult than anything previous in the Pixar filmography.

The Incredibles, like the previous Pixar films, is largely dominated by its male perspective, though the action takes a lengthy pause in the first half. (At the time, The Incredibles, clocking in at 115 minutes, was also the longest film from Pixar.) Among other things, one of Mr. Incredible’s rescues in the opening section comes back to bite him, as he frustratedly realizes that a suicidal man he saved from plummeting to his death did not actually want to be saved. The ensuing lawsuit and others like it leads the American government to ban superheroes and force them to live real lives. 15 years later, Bob Parr, as he’s known to everyone, suffers through a dead-end job at an insurance company, where he tries his best to help out clients in ways that infuriate his boss. It’s only when a mysterious woman (Elizabeth Pena) spots him and Frozone stopping a robbery in secret that Bob is given the chance to be Mr. Incredible again, though with unexpected results.

Celebrating Mediocrity

The Incredibles is among very few Pixar films, in that it’s not trying to make you cry. (This is an important distinction: there are Pixar films that try and fail to make you cry, Pixar films that make you cry, and those that aren’t even trying. This is the latter.) Though Bob has to grapple with his mid-life crisis, and the desperate angst he feels at having to hide his own special gifts, even when he believes his family is in mortal peril at the hands of an evil supervillain, Brad Bird isn’t aiming for tearjerking pathos. The Incredibles, much more than its predecessors, is aiming more for social commentary than anything else. You can look at films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo as commenting on the emotional pitfalls of parenthood. But The Incredibles is about the commodification of distinct skillsets.

Bob Parr is gifted with super-strength, even as he’s forced not to use it. Conversely, he lives in a society that has graduation ceremonies for fourth-graders. As he rants to his wife Helen/Elastigirl, “They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity!” In moments such as these, as well as those in which the bad guy Syndrome (Jason Lee) reveals his nefarious plot to fool the world into thinking he’s a superhero in part because he’s eliminated all the true supers and created a bad guy only he can defeat, it’s hard not to wonder if we’re hearing directly from the brain of Brad Bird, in ways that caused minor controversy because of how his characters seemed culled from the work of the right-wing writer Ayn Rand.

Rand is best associated with Objectivism, a philosophical concept that sees man as a heroic being whose happiness is his sole moral purpose. Bird, for his own part, has never hesitated in shooting down any direct connections, dubbing it “ridiculous” in multiple interviews. Whether or not the comparison is intended or direct, there are clear signs of Bird’s own personality shooting through. When Syndrome describes his plan to not only show off his “powers”, but to turn those powers into products people can purchase, he says, “When everyone is super, no one will be.” (This theory is echoed by Dash early in the film, when he asks his mom why he can’t try out for track and field by using his actual super-speed. In response to Helen saying, “Everyone’s special”, he mutters, “Which is another way of saying no one is.”)

Run As Fast As You Can

It would not be hard to parse through the messages of The Incredibles and find some flaws. (For one: in the 15-year period when there are no superheroes publicly doing their duty, there are apparently also not any supervillains, because the world seems to be spinning perfectly naturally. If there aren’t any villains, what would heroes need to fight against?) And it’s also easy to perceive the push against supers using their powers as a strawman argument in a fantastical film where superpowers are intended to be incredibly cool. (It’s not entirely clear who exactly wants supers to not use their powers after that opening montage where we see politicians complaining about them.)

Yet all this can be left aside, as can any wonder of Bird’s politics. (At best, we can file it under “Two things can be true” that Bird’s arguments in films such as this and others that we’ll get to in this series later line up with Objectivist principles, and that he doesn’t declare himself a Randian in any way.) Why? Because whatever else is true, Brad Bird knows how to craft eye-popping, remarkably exciting action sequences. Bird would end up as the first major director from Pixar to make the leap to live-action in the 2010s, and watching The Incredibles, it’s easy to understand why. It’s not just that each of the major characters has their own distinct power, thus enabling him and his animation team to build setpieces centered around those powers. It’s that the setpieces have stakes within them, raising tension. It’s that Bird knows how to choreograph animated action, allowing the camera to move fluidly, but not impossibly. 

The standout comes in the back half, once Elastigirl and the Parr kids, Violet and Dash, are stuck on Nomanisan, trying to reunite with Mr. Incredible. At this point in the film, Mr. Incredible has realized that Syndrome is a grown-up version of an old superfan of his, once named Buddy. As a kid, Buddy was desperate for approval from Mr. Incredible, and clearly a whiz kid when it came to building gadgets in place of having innate powers. But Mr. Incredible spurned him, Buddy chose to stew in his bitterness and resentment, and then he transformed himself into a villain with his own private island, straight out of a James Bond movie. (Giacchino’s delightful score, his first major feature work to boot, is a throwback to the work of Bond composer John Barry, who Bird had tried to get for The Incredibles.)

Now, the Incredibles family is at risk, with each member split up in separate areas of the island. Dash has been instructed by his mother, however reluctantly, that he needs to run as fast as he can. That request could sound desperate or frightening, but not to Dash. When he’s beset upon by some of Syndrome’s lackeys, he follows her advice, and the ensuing chase is thrilling and joyous, because Dash is finally getting to feel what it’s like to use his powers at maximum effort. Syndrome is undoubtedly one of the better villains from a Pixar film – it should be noted here that Pixar films largely do not boast truly memorable villains, sometimes eschewing them altogether – but even his threats can’t dampen the excitement for Dash and even Violet in exploring their natural talents.

My Super-Suit

The Incredibles arrived in theaters in the fall of 2004, well before superhero movies dwarfed, or felt like they dwarfed, all other kinds of blockbusters. 2004 was the year of Spider-Man 2, of course, but it was also the year of Catwoman. The following year, Warner Bros. would release the first of Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies, and it wouldn’t be for another few years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off, let alone became a viable option for franchise-building. And yet, most of the humor in The Incredibles works in spite of superhero culture feeling like it was still on the periphery of all things pop. 

The easiest source of humor is Edna Mode, a diminutive fashion designer to the heroes, voiced by Bird himself. (Bird had originally approached Lily Tomlin, who turned down the part.) The refrain from Edna, which ends up being a hilarious case of foreshadowing for Syndrome’s gruesome end, is “No capes!” It would seem like a statement of purpose, that this will not be your grandfather’s superhero story, but The Incredibles is also squarely located somewhere in the 1950s and 1960s, with its retro visual aesthetic brought to life wonderfully by Pixar’s animators. 

The Incredibles still feels super in 2020, because the prevalence of superhero films only has made this feel more distinct. Though there would eventually be a sequel to the film, and we’ll get there one day, The Incredibles was just a slice of life for its lead quartet, as opposed to a naked attempt from a major studio to build a universe. Its characters are distinctly human, talking about serious familial and personal issues, all within the framework of an action-packed extravaganza. Just as the animation itself would take a leap forward – the human designs in The Incredibles are light-years ahead of how Andy and his sister Molly look in the original Toy Story – so too would the studio making the film. 

The Incredibles was a calculated risk for Disney, but one that paid off enormously. Its opening weekend was just over $70 million, the highest amount for any Pixar film to date. Its overall domestic gross was $261 million, and it was one of the biggest-grossing films of its year. Moreover, the film deservedly won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Here was proof that Pixar had not lost its footing. And soon, there would be further proof that its filmmakers were pushing themselves creatively and technologically, in ways that didn’t seem possible when they first started making features. 

But The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s last agreed-upon films with Disney. Michael Eisner, in November of 2004, was still the CEO of the Walt Disney Company and he hadn’t made a new deal with Pixar. By the time their next film opened, things would change dramatically for Pixar.

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Next Time: You either love Cars or you don’t. But we’ve got to talk about it.

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