I’m sending my spotlight on Pixar films out with a bang before I move onto films from other companies. The Incredibles is a novel and insightful glimpse into the lives of a family of superheroes, who grapple with issues much more mundane than deciding whether to go to school or save the world. How are sibling rivalries resolved when your children both have superpowers? Do those powers give children an unfair advantage when competing against others, or is this no different from normal children triumphing over those with less skill or ability? Perhaps the most important question the film asks is this: When is the time to be a hero to the many, and when is the time to be a hero to your family?
It would be nice if the world just “stayed saved” for once.
All heroes have secret identities, we are told in an opening interview with two “supers,” these being the remarkably strong Mr. Incredible and the extremely extendable Elastigirl. These aliases allow these heroes to maintain some semblance of a normal life, and every little bit helps when the movie soon shifts to gunmen firing on a police car in an exciting and to-the-point opening scene. There is no slow building up of an origin story. Mr. Incredible has an impressive suit-donning sequence while in his car, which itself transforms and is extremely fast. While the chase continues on, he naturally has to stop to rescue a cat from a tree. This takes an uncomfortably long amount of time, of which he’s already lost too much, but his troubles are just beginning. An obsessive fan sneaks into Mr. Incredible’s car and begs to be allowed to help. This fan causes more problems than he prevents and is unceremoniously rejected as a result, prompting a grudge that he bears for well over a decade.
Elastigirl saves Mr. Incredible from from being in danger himself, and it’s easy to understanad why her jellylike limbs’ immense flexibility clearly has him excited. Helen and Bob Parr aren’t yet married at this point in the story: before the ceremony can go on, Bob has to save a suicidal jumper’s life, stop a bomb, and prevent a mass-transit vehicle from derailing. Then he gets married, the very same evening, complete with a touching message of devotion from the woman who becomes his wife. From then on, they both have to work in order to bless their marriage, but their love for each other is unmistakable.
Or are they just vigilantes?
The suicidal jumper did not want to be saved and files a lawsuit, triggering a long string of many others filed against superheroes. A relocation program is implemented where superheroes are offered amnesty from legal responsibility for their past actions (e.g., collateral damage), on the condition that they live normal lives, never again taking up their superhero duties.
Fifteen years later, a somewhat out-of-shape Bob sells insurance under an unscrupulous boss, while Helen is called into her son Dashiell’s school after he is accused of placing a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. Helen is willing to at least give Dash a chance to defend himself, but then the camera footage is rolled out. Since the boy’s abnormally high running speed would blow his family’s cover in light of the negative legal and societal treatment of superheroes, he is forbidden from playing sports, as his mom wants to blend in and hide her powers to avoid political consequences. The Parrs’ eldest child, Violet, turns invisible and can project force fields; she’s also at the age where she shows interest in boys. The youngest child, a baby named Jack-Jack, does not yet manifest any powers.
Helen seems to be the take-charge person in her family, as Bob is rather inattentive due to his frustrations with work and his resentment of “blending in” for the sake of not offending other people. The responsibility falls largely on her shoulders to discipline Dash and to stop him and his sister from squabbling, which itself is a wonderfully entertaining scene as both siblings show off their powers. This highlights the divide between Bob’s and Helen’s views of their own former superhero statuses, and such common things as marital disagreements do become interesting when remade in the context of fantasy. A recurring issue, however, is that Bob and Helen work out their differences by trying to yell over one another, which quickly turns from humor into annoyance, as well as sadness once the two oldest children fearfully catch their parents arguing. Wishing to fight crime, the sympathetic but not always likable Bob vents his stress by going behind his wife’s back.
One of the funniest characters in the movie is Lucius or “Frozone,” a good friend of Bob’s who also tries to play hero behind his own wife’s back. As his name suggests, Frozone is blessed with ice powers, which are governed by physical rules: they quickly evaporate when near fire–such as a burning building nearing collapse, as the two soon find themselves in–and can’t be used when Lucius isn’t properly hydrated. This sort of extra challenge isn’t often imposed on the other characters’ powers, though Bob has to learn to control his anger and his super strength with it. As a side note, Frozone tells hilarious jokes about how one particular villain he’s fighting just keeps on talking and forgets to actually kill him, which would be even funnier if the film didn’t make this same mistake.
The story eventually swaps from escapism back to realism, at least to a degree. Bob’s drama with his boss soon becomes disastrous, though this and other instances of fairly frequent collateral damage don’t feel like they matter as much to the overall plot as they could. (They do make for a good reminder of why superheroes here became frowned upon to start with.) From a technical perspective, it’s amusing to note the bland choice of setting for Bob’s workplace. It’s a great showcase for how boring he finds his job, and it’s also a simplistic locale that lets the art direction, and Pixar’s computers, focus on the movie’s character models, though other locations are much prettier.
The story makes great use of both of its “halves.”
Bob is tasked with defeating a heuristically self-improving robot known as the Omnidroid, which looks a lot like the tentacles the Spider-Man villain Doc Ock uses, attached to a central spherical frame. He and the machine have a very well done fight with a creative solution, and after getting to be a “hero,” in an isolated context and environment where few people are actually in danger, Bob becomes a new man. He starts getting in shape. He shows more affection to his wife and more attention to his children. It’s a neat little montage, but as with Pixar’s later Ratatouille, the truth has to come out eventually.
Before that happens, Bob enlists the services of one Edna Mode in order to secretly create new costumes for his wife and all of his children. Mode places a lot of thought into her various pieces, such that each suit is individually tailored to complement its wearer. (Elastigirl’s is capable of stretching–and of taking fire from missiles–but I don’t recall head protection being mentioned or shown, which becomes odd in the moments where another suit is tested amid vast amounts of heat.) The designer also dislikes capes, these being highly dangerous in Pixar’s relatively realistic take on a superhero story.
Bob’s mistreatment of his marriage and of his family finally catches up with him when he becomes trapped by, naturally, his former obsessive fan, now turned glory-hungry villain. “Syndrome” is a supposedly brilliant but morally lacking inventor who designs and sells weapons, and his ultimate motive, while very selfish, is more creative than a standard take-over-the-world plot would be. Aggravatingly, the boy doesn’t actually kill Bob even while spinning blades are right up against the latter’s neck. He begins talking at length and realizes he does so, but he doesn’t learn from the very same mistakes that Frozone was quipping about earlier. Even if sparing the lives of Bob and his other captives eventually feeds into his plan, it still sounds very impractical compared to the chilling precision of Syndrome’s previous actions, detailed later in the story.
As this film’s action side tenses up, so does its emotional side, as Helen grows increasingly concerned for the safety not just of her husband but of her marriage. Though Bob isn’t the only “super” who does this, his means of fighting thugs seem rather deadly, which is disconcerting even if he might not have many other practical options. (He can apparently restrain his super strength enough not to hurt his family members, though.) Bob becomes completely trapped by expanding sticky balls in a scene that is not only the film’s strangest but also potentially headache-inducing due to the camera shifting back and forth extremely quickly.
When everyone’s super, no one will be.
This is where the film really takes off. It’s up to Elastigirl to save the day with her chartered plane, except that her two oldest children stowing away without her permission. Watching Dash and Violet blame each other is hilarious, and they do get a sitter for Jack-Jack. Said sitter is a young girl whose knowledge is almost purely theoretical. Even as the situation becomes dangerous, Helen’s love for her children is so intense that it begins to mirror Ripley’s in Aliens. The action itself is equally visceral, such that I’d have a difficult time recommending this film to younger viewers.
Syndrome shows just how callous and sincerely villainous he really is as more of his plans are discovered, but his biggest problem is that he and his plot aren’t nearly as self-aware as he thinks, regardless of how many jokes the film makes at the expense of overly talkative villains. It doesn’t actually learn from them, and Syndrome slips way too many victory-cementing opportunities through his fingers. Elastigirl, meanwhile, demonstrates her empathy by demanding her children to do what they can to remain safe. It’s a heartfelt but attention-demanding scene, because this mother is not one for subtlety when her children are up against enemies who at least try to kill them, albeit with way too many moments of hesitation. The writing itself otherwise becomes exceptional and makes use of everyone’s superpowers, even if Violet’s take a while to become their most useful; the action reaches one of its most exciting and frenetic moments when Dash and his sister accidentally set off several manned spinning-blade hovercraft and end up running for their lives through a gorgeous forest, if also ending those of numerous craft pilots in the process.
The final confrontation, while not all that creative in terms of the actual enemy (it starts to feel like the movie is repeating itself), is a fine chance for the reunited family to be reconciled with one another and to show off their powers, as individuals and as a team, as well as their unique personalities. The family achieves its true strength and potential when it works together, along with a little bit of help, something that can probably apply to any family–and there’s an amazing twist that perfectly concludes the big fight and the movie.
Conclusion: A hero’s work is never done.
Other than a villain whose plans seem to hinge on being either unwilling or unable to actually kill his main enemies off when he’s given the chance, this is an excellent film from Pixar that succeeds in most of its moments both loud and quiet, and the excitement and character development complement each other excellently. I find it annoying to watch people yell at each other, no matter how well written and close to home their dialogue is, but the underlying story and its themes are well told, even if Bob seems rather foolish and distant for portions of the movie.
The action itself is spectacular enough to make films about “actual,” well-known superheroes stand up and take notice, and more importantly, it’s given plenty of significance thanks to how much its protagonists seem like actual people, even if some feel more mature than others. The epilogue is a lot of fun, and even if a movie’s treatment of its enemies as disposable doesn’t feel very heroic, a family that does what it can to make sure each member is encouraged to be his or her best certainly does.