GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles (USA, 2004)
Directed by Brad Bird
Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Spencer Fox

When I first reviewed The Incredibles several years ago, PIXAR were flying high in public opinion. They were the studio that could do no wrong, whose films garnered universal acclaim and pushed the envelope of what animation was capable of doing. PIXAR's offerings from Toy Story onwards caused a whole new generation to take children's films seriously, and they probably saved Disney's bacon along the way.
It certainly feels different re-approaching the film in 2013, when much of the PIXAR lustre has been tarnished by pointless sequels and production problems. It would be easy to just blindly praise it as the project of a golden age; even acknowledging there was a golden age is quite depressing. But for all its plus points (and there are many), Brad Bird's film remains among the lesser PIXAR efforts, in its time and in ours.
PIXAR have always set high standards for the visuals of their films, and The Incredibles is no exception. The animation is technically superb, with a wide range of bright, inviting and distinctive colours. The character models are very interesting, feeling believable despite that balloon-y quality that CG has. This is helped in part by the cartoon-y storyline: if we can accept what the characters can do in terms of speed and stunts, it's not hard to get used to the way they look.
Among all the PIXAR efforts of its time, The Incredibles is perhaps the most period-conscious. While all PIXAR films are set in the present day, this film is in part a tribute to comic book heroes from the 1950s and 1960s. The costumes have a distinctly retro feel in their designs, being shiny and wholesome even with all the modern technology behind them. Bird clearly has great affection for the classic days of comics, which leads us to think that we are safe hands.
On top of its visuals, the film has quite a number of interesting ideas. The first of these lies in its central concept of superheroes being outlawed as the tide of public opinion turns against them. Comics have approached this issue in various ways, with Watchmen looking at the moral implications of vigilantes and Marvel's Civil War series handling the practical implications for our heroes; in the latter, Spiderman publicly reveals his identity and in doing so put his family in great danger.
The neat twist with The Incredibles is that superheroes have not so much been outlawed, as they have been driven underground. Mr. Incredible and his family are forcibly relocated in the manner of a witness protection programme: they are treated as an awkward inconvenience which the government are happier to cover up than work around. They have gone from being the vanguards of the American Way to a national embarrassment, all because of a few quick lawyers.
From this interesting twist, the film puts forward an argument for how modern society actively dissuades people from doing extraordinary things. The Parrs' situation requires them to deny or avoid using their powers for good, behaving normally at the expense of their natural gifts. When Helen collects Dash from school, she remarks: "Everyone's special, Dash". He retorts: "Which is another way of saying no-one is.".
This theme of enforced mediocrity is reinforced in the colour scheme of the film. Bird and his animators fill the screen with browns, greys and pale blues, in a depressing contrast to the bright, flashy colours of the opening. The shot angles are lower and the pacing slower, reflecting the drudge of American suburban life. Syndrome's plan is quite something in this regard, arguing that increased opportunity and access to technology actually makes individuals less... individual.
Being a children's film, The Incredibles also has a strong family message. Mr. Incredible begins with a strong sense of nostalgia, which manifests itself in his scrapes with Lucius and his early adventures on the island. But this eventually transitions into a genuine love for his family, as their potentials are all realised and they are given the freedom to be themselves. It's hardly ground-breaking in this regard, but it's still pretty heart-warming.
For fans of the adventure genre, The Incredibles has several clear and affectionate references throughout. There are big hints of the Bond series all the way through, particularly You Only Live Twice with the rocket and the volcano base. Dash's chase through the dense jungle contains big nods to Return of the Jedi, while the robots that attack the city are clearly inspired by The War of the Worlds.
So far The Incredibles is living up to its name - but there's one big problem. While the ideas that it raises are interesting, that are pitched primarily for an adult audience. Young children will generally enjoy the whizz-bang action but will struggle to get anything out of the conversations about insurance, fashion, lawyers or the like. Much like Ratatouille, Bird's subsequent effort, it feels like a grown-up film in children's clothing, rather than a proper children's film that is aimed at everyone.
In its narrative execution The Incredibles is the most Dreamworks-esque work PIXAR had made up to this point. The humour is much snarkier than normal and more self-referential, with a lot of time being devoted to Austin Powers-style jokes about monologuing and generic convention. This is fun and clever every once in a while, but it ultimately jars with the family-friendly intentions of the film.
The film also has big plot problems. The first hour is very taut and efficient, with the story going through the motions with little slack or reliance on editing. But once things shift entirely to the island, it turns into a series of Bond-style set-pieces, each longer and more drawn-out than the last. The final battle feels somewhat anti-climactic, and all the robot scenes feel like levels in a video game.
There is also a slight mean undercurrent about the role of fans. It's very common to have villains who are obsessed with or inspired by the heroes - Professor Moriarty, for example. But Syndrome's characterisation feels like a double standard, with Bird arguing for people to be themselves but only if it doesn't manifest itself in anything embarrassing for him. It doesn't ruin the film by itself, but it is an annoying niggle.
The performances in The Incredibles are a bit of a mixed bag. Craig T. Nelson and Jason Lee are both great as Mr. Incredible and Syndrome respectively: they exude confidence in every scene and achieve a good balance between the natural and larger-than-life aspects. Much of the remaining cast, however, are quite annoying, with Holly Hunter sounding off-puttingly shrill. As for Edna Mode, voiced by Bird himself, she may just be the single most grating character in PIXAR history.
The Incredibles is a film of good ideas but problematic execution. Its technical prowess and relative complexity demand a very high rating, but the film is ultimately dragged down to mere decency by narrative flaws and a disregard for its target audience. In the end it's enjoyable but not a must-love, and certainly not PIXAR's finest hour.


For more thoughts on superheroes going above and beyond the law in contemporary fiction, check out Don Olson's Folding Ideas episode 'The People vs. Clark Kent'. Warning: it may make you hate superhero films.

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