Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Incredibles

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Incredibles

For some reason, I never end up seeing Pixar films until well after their release, often on video. Maybe it just feels weird going to an animated film when you neither are nor have a kid? Although, given the enormous success of these movies, I doubt I'd be the only non-prepubescent/parent in the theater. I'm always entertained when I finally see them, and The Incredibles is no exception. This 2004 feature may be the most acclaimed Pixar picture, with a great deal of credit going to animation auteur Brad Bird. He departs from the usual formula of anthropomorphizing animals, toys, robots, or cars, but his protagonists here aren't exactly normal humans, either...

Actually, the target of The Incredibles' ire is normalcy itself, in a fashion some have read as conservative (more on that later). The clever and often ironic, but also warm-hearted, tale follows the union of superheroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. On the job, they flirt and exchange one-liners while fighting burglars, but as soon as the masks are off, they bicker and barter like any other married couple. And after a while, those masks stay off - a series of lawsuits causes the government to crack down on superheroes, placing them in a sort of witness protection program and banning them from donning cape and tights ever again. Fifteen years and several pounds later, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible have three kids, a suburban home, and the usual family fights and domestic discomforts to deal with (though invisibility and superhuman strength tend to jazz things up a bit). All is comfy, cozy, and somewhat boring. That is, until... well, you get the idea.


The Incredibles gets a lot of mileage out of its "Full House"-meets-"Fantastic Four" gags ("are we there yet?" the kids howl as they zoom along in a rocketship). Out-and-out hilarity does not ensue, but the proceedings are extremely charming and often wryly amusing. Aside from its superheroic action sequences and sitcom-with-a-twist portrait of family life, The Incredibles sustains interest with some offbeat choices along the way. For one, a few characters look a lot like certain celebrities, causing you to wonder if either Bird or the animators had an axe to grind. Actually, the villain is supposed to be based on Bird himself, but there's also the nasty, diminutive boss who bears an uncanny resemblance to Stephen King. The fashionista who designs the costumes looks like political commentator/TV pundit Margaret Carlson (though I'm sure that's coincidental) and a svelte villainess is the spitting image of the extremely sexy Israeli teacher on the Showtime series "Weeds." That's probably a coincidence too, but it was a happy one.

As was hinted before, I recall some conservatives championing The Incredibles when it came out. True, it blames trial lawyers for the defeat of the superheroes (though its portrait of the insurance industry counters this), and the first supervillain we meet is French (remember, these were the days of "freedom fries"). But obviously the right's warm feelings were directed towards the movie's dismissal of a mushy mediocracy, characterized by this mother-son exchange: "Everybody's special." (eye roll) "Which is another way of saying no one's special." Later, the villain - a mere mortal who has developed technology to overcome the superheroes - declares a similar motto, sans irony: "I'll sell all my technology, so that everyone will be super...which is another way of saying no one will be super." The rest of the movie bears out this philosophy.

Certainly Bird is making a statement here and, while not necessarily conservative, it is boldly anti-PC which endeared it to the Reagan right. And yet, the kind of "special" that The Incredibles advocates is different than what conservatives claim to have in mind. The superheroes do break a sweat, to be fair, but their achievements are due far more to innate talent than the hard work ethics that conservatives extol. It is the evil Syndrome who actually represents the entrepreneurial spirit: he invents robots to fight the superheroes and when they are defeated, he gets back to work tweaking them to make improvements. Come to think of it, Syndrome is the spirit of Reaganism incarnate, so his defeat at the hands of the do-gooder, must-take-care-of-the-public, born-into-privilege superheroes (Kennedys, anyone?) should actually been seen as a defeat for the National Review folks.

Yes, if anything, The Incredibles is a celebration of elitism, much like The Dark Knight. In a way, this is conservative too, but it's an old-fashioned kind of conservatism and one that does not have much relation to the free-market, anti-intellectual rhetoric of today's GOP (not to say it's necessarily preferable). Yet in espousing this philosophy, the Pixar cartoon is merely more honest than most movies, which share a similar ethos. Narrative conventions, particularly in adventure stories, are inherently elitist. How many e
ntertainment films follow one or a few more characters, disregarding (and wreaking violence upon) the supporting players, while either ignoring or falsifying their celebration of a certain individual above all the others? The Incredibles and The Dark Knight, while embracing this conventional approach, also let us see what they're doing and open the matter up for discussion.

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