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Pixar Sundays: The Incredibles (2004)

          Brad Bird was already a master by the time he came to Pixar. Not only did he hone his craft as an early director on The Simpsons, but he directed a little animated film for Warner Bros. in 1999, that though not a box office success was loved by critics and quickly grew a cult following. The Iron Giant is now among many people’s favourite animated movies. Likewise, Bird’s feature debut at Pixar, The Incredibles, his own variation of a superhero movie, is often considered one of the studio’s best. And for very good reason, as the most talented director at Pixar shows. 
          Superheroes were once the world’s greatest crime-fighting force until several lawsuits for collateral damage (and in the case of Mr. Incredible, a hilarious suicide prevention), outlawed their vigilantism. Fifteen years later Mr. Incredible, now living as Bob Parr, has a family with his wife Helen, the former Elastigirl. But Bob, in a combination of mid-life crisis and nostalgia for the old days, is drawn into a series of secret quests that soon forces his whole family to unite as a team to defeat a new super-villain called Syndrome.
          Though it’s set in the modern-day, everything about The Incredibles screams 1960s. My dad grew up in that decade and it’s no wonder this is his favourite Pixar movie. The world and flamboyant costume designs are ripped straight from superhero comics of that era, as is the outlandish plot. But the movie also borrows quite a bit from traditional spy films: the gadgets, the femme fatale, Michael Giacchino’s score, the villains’ secret lair on an island, and again the outlandish plot. I’m particularly reminded of Bond films like Dr. No and The Man with the Golden Gun. Sensational pop culture of the 1960s is an aesthetic Brad Bird really revels in, as was the case too with The Iron Giant. But he also manages to go further back, with the early portions of the film that portrayed the era of Supers, conveyed in a heavy 1930s style -the dawn of the superhero comic in fact. The drawn image is very important to this films’ animation style. The characters are designed in the extremes of the art form, but they also look remarkably unique to Bird. This was Pixar’s first movie to centre on human characters, though there’s no Pixar style in how these characters look. They clearly come from the same mould as The Iron Giant; there are a number of moments where you can see remnants of Hogarth in Dash’s expressions for instance. But Bird leaves his mark on more than just this. 
          The story, for being cobbled together out of a number of tropes from those 60’s cultural points, is still very appealing, if for nothing else than how unique it is in the twenty-first century. Live-action superhero movies like The Incredibles couldn’t be made today because we ask for a lot of relatability and complexity from the genre now. There’s nothing wrong with that, but The Incredibles delights in the fantastical and hyper-realistic elements of the earliest superhero stories, and it’s really refreshing. It’s like the campy 60s’ Batman series …but still with a few touches of the Tim Burton films. This is Pixar’s boldest movie yet -it certainly has the highest body count. We see relatively few deaths, but it’s still made clear Syndrome murdered dozens of people to perfect his robot. As Syndrome himself would say “that sounds a little dark for you.” But it feels earned and really raises the stakes. It also works in tandem with the campy stuff creating a surprising synthesis in tone. And in a way it feels symbolic of the changing tides in the genre, with Mr.Incredible in particular representing the clean old ways. 
          Bob Parr’s arc is especially interesting in this movie. You don’t often see mid-life crises depicted in animated kids’ movies for the obvious reason that no kid can relate to it. And Bob’s inability to cope with not being a superhero anymore is the driving factor behind much of the eventual conflict. You understand him though, as his real desire is just to help people, something he can’t do much of in his monotonous insurance agent job.Coach’s Craig T. Nelson is really good in the role. Even better is Holly Hunter as his wife Helen. She’s wonderfully smart and funny, always in charge and demanding of your attention. Helen’s the heart of the team, and manages to be simultaneously Bob’s supporting partner, a beleaguered mother, and an incredibly assertive leader when necessary. Her elastic superpower also makes her easily the most fun character for the action and espionage scenes. And the movie certainly goes out of its way to make her sexy. Their children Violet and Dash aren’t as interesting, she being an angsty awkward teen, and he a troublemaker; but they’re both given enough good material to work with to overcome that. The stuff with each of their powers is very creative and they both have minor arcs to overcome. Dash of course has super speed abilities, and Violet has the forcefield and invisibility powers of Sue Storm. In fact the whole family is really just a better version of the Fantastic Four. Syndrome is voiced by Jason Lee, who actually manages to be really good. He has a very good origin story, having been an impetuous kid who tried to force himself to be Mr.Incredible’s sidekick. In his defence, Mr.Incredible’s assertion that you can’t be a superhero without superpowers is pretty unfair and ignorant. In Mr.Incredible’s defence though, he was a horribly annoying kid. Though the set-up for his character was flawed and a little too obvious, he wound up being a very fun villain with a really original evil plan: sell his own technology to the world making everyone a Super and thus making the very idea of heroes redundant -not a great plan, or one that makes a ton of sense, but original. Samuel L. Jackson is great as Lucius, Bob’s best friend and also a former superhero called Frozone. He too longs for the crime-fighting days of yore but is a bit more willing to move on. There are some good turns from Elizabeth Pena as Mirage, Bud Luckey, and the ever reliable Wallace Shawn (speaking of Toy Story stars, John Ratzenberger’s cameo as a villain called the Underminer, introduced in the last moments, I’m still hoping will be the villain of the sequel). The scene stealer though is Bird himself as the Edith Head inspired super-suit designer Edna Mode. Edna might be one of Pixar’s funniest characters, from her design, to how she moves, to her eccentric personality and priorities.
          Edna gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie. This movie’s darkness extends to its sense of humour, with her rant on the hazards of capes being illustrated by clips of numerous heroes dying because of them. There are also a ton of jokes easy to miss in her fast dialogue. I love how in the opening the superheroes are being interviewed on television, and of course it’s really funny that Mr.Incredible saving a man from suicide kick-starts the end of the Supers. And subsequently, Supers in hiding are treated like they’re in witness protection. There are some great action-comedy moments, probably the best being when Helen’s caught between multiple doors and has to get the key-card out of a guard’s pocket. In fact a lot of the time, the action is really used to better the comedic timing. It’s sharp, very energetic, and superbly choreographed to the super powers. As fast as the action can get at times, it never becomes imperceptible or loses momentum. I think of the trailer sequence as a good example of this. Oh, and Lucius’ popular bit with his off-screen wife about his super-suit is pretty hilarious. 
          One last thing that makes The Incredibles stand out to me is the skill in its direction. Brad Bird makes some very intriguing choices in this film. Some aren’t quite so distinct, like how grey, claustrophobic, and joyless Bob’s office life is, and how his world brightens after taking on the secret missions. But then there’s the way he shoots Mr.Incredible’s leap and rescue early on, with the camera following him the whole way; or how he later edits Bob’s discovery of what happened to all the other Supers against Helen’s discovery that he’s been lying to her. Also, the quick-cutting, as he’s subdued by the shooting tar balls, struggling to escape, and the different aspect ratio at the beginning to mimic old film. They’re filmmaking methods that are unusual and arguably unnecessary in animation, where there’s no camera or dolly. But they’re incorporated here to the degree Bird uses the non-existent camera as a character, to better convey drama, comedy, or emotion. And Bird’s conscious choice to use these effects makes the film as a whole feel more artful.
          If I had a problem it would be that the climax is a bit underwhelming, especially given the build-up to it. Though it’s consistent with the style, Syndrome features in very little of it, and the defeat of the robot is somewhat unimpressive. Also, the Incredibles cause just as much collateral damage as they were forced into hiding for. Jak-Jak, the Parr’s baby, is sidelined for most of the movie until a funny development near the end. I don’t mind this, especially given how annoying baby characters can be, but he didn’t feel relevant except as a last minute plot device.
          There’s a running theme of mediocrity in this film and the drive to rise above it. The Incredibles rises far above it and it indeed is one of Pixar’s finest. It broke some new ground for Pixar, not just in the occasional darkness of its subject matter, or stylistic visuals, or technical achievements, or human characters, but in how it was so uniquely one artists’ vision. They brought on Brad Bird and let him do his own thing with little input from their own barrel of necessities. And he’s now become not only their best known director, but an accomplished director of live-action, all as a result of this Incredible movie.

          Boundin’ was the first Pixar short I recall disliking. It’s a very odd short for them too. It’s about a dancing sheep in some desert environment who becomes completely disheartened when one day he’s unexpectedly sheared. But a jackalope arrives and teaches him the values of bouncing back after hardships or “boundin’” which the sheep eventually does, learning to live with the routine shearing. And it’s all presented in song -which is the first bad sign, considering none of the previous Pixar shorts have featured any dialogue, and I like them that way. Purely visual humour and storytelling is a rare thing these days after all. It doesn’t help that though it imparts a good message, the song is pretty annoying. I see what it’s going for -it’s trying to be a kind of Dr.Seuss morality tale with an odd character who comes in to impart sage wisdom. The jackalope is very much a Cat in the Hat figure in the story being told. And maybe it’s just the rhythm and western setting, but it gives me unfortunate flashbacks to Home on the Range. Boundin’ was Bud Luckey’s project. He wrote, directed, starred in, composed the music for, and did a lot of the animation himself. And maybe he ought to have had someone else on the project. It’s definitely the first Pixar short that but for some decent animation, is an easy skip.

Next Week: Cars (2006)

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