The Incredibles (2004)

Directed by Brad Bird

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What year does The Incredibles take place?  It doesn’t much matter, but I’m curious about the world design.  Old video footage of the “supers” heyday crackles with film grain, while the plot, taking place 15 years after our introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, looks to occur in the 1960s but with less bigotry.

I kind of love the combination of old and new in this movie.  It feels like the world of Spike Jonze’s Her.  It’s both from our past but with character mannerisms that feel current and technology that feels futuristic.  This makes the whole film feel timeless.

The story is about family, and the cultural subtext, like with X-Men, is a metaphor for systematic racism.  Beyond that this is just a fun, harmless story about a family of crimefighters.  It’s a superhero film made before the dramatic rise of such genre movies with the Christopher Nolan Dark Night trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Incredibles comments on a genre that in some ways it predates.

I mean, there were superhero movies long before 2004, but the action storyline here reminded me of more recent superhero movies, and there are several jokes regarding capes and sinister monologues like you see in most current comic book adaptations.  If The Incredibles is a throwback to anything, it’s the kind of Christopher Reeve Superman type of hero.

I guess I really don’t know what to focus on.  I love this movie, and I watched it in anticipation of the sequel which recently came out.  I’m trying to find the more interesting contextual angle for this movie, and while there are a few of them, it mostly just feels like a well-made superhero story.  I guess it’s a remix of a few things.  You have the superheroes of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, a world of the 60s, the subtext shared with the X-Men movies, genre commentary, a family drama and a kind of The Day the Earth Stood Still robot technology.

I’m more interested in talking about the way this world works than the story itself, which is good, but Pixar almost always nails it.  The Incredibles won’t make you cry like you may have in Wall-EToy Story 3UpCoco, or Finding Nemo, but there is certainly heart to this story.  Even as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl fight off would be attackers, they take time to work out domestic disputes and ultimately strengthen their marriage.  The story never ignores these emotional beats, but it also doesn’t spend too much time on them.

After a 15 year time jump, the story opens with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), more or less a version of Superman, as a middle-aged office worker.  He and Elastigirl are married, have two kids and they are in a government witness protection program for all “supers,” following a series of lawsuits and public backlash.  Mr. Incredible, for example, was sued for saving the life of a man intending to kill himself and for the destruction of an above ground rail track when someone else’s bomb exploded.  Basically, all the destruction you typically see in action movies has come back to burn the Supers.  They all willfully submit to government relocation in exchange for their suddenly accrued debt to be paid off.

While Mrs. Incredible (Holly Hunter) seems to be okay with a quieter way of life, Mr. Incredible sneaks out at night with his super friend, Frozone (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), to listen to a police scanner and fight crime.  When he is presented with some secret superhero work, he gets back in shape and starts fighting crime while Mrs. Incredible thinks he’s away at work.

Eventually he is kidnapped by the man who hired him, Syndrome (Jason Lee), and Mrs. Incredible heads out to save him.  She is joined unexpectedly by her two kids, Dash and Violet.  What follows is a family effort to save their father and then to stop Syndrome and his deadly robot creation.

The Incredibles combines the incredible and the mundane.  The action is often complimented with moments of relatable insecurity, family drama or ego.  In one scene Mrs. Incredible sneaks through the villain’s layer and stops when she catches a glimpse of her reflection, with a few pounds added.  She stops long enough to express some kind of familiar remorse.  Other moments draw attention to Mr. Incredible’s own weight gain.

In many of the most exciting moments characters will break the tension to comment on the dramatic subtext, and most of the time these sensational scenes only call more attention to the human story going on underneath.

Each character’s superpower tells us who this character is.  Mr. Incredible has brute strength, Mrs. Incredible can stretch to accommodate any situation, Violet, as the shy high school kid, can turn invisible while Dash is the energetic middle school kid who can run like the Flash.  At the same time, these are only superficial introductions to the character, but in the case of the children it’s about all we get.

The real focus of the story is the parents.  The story examines their relationship, with subtext of infidelity, and at one point Violet worries that they might get a divorce.  They learn to embrace the things they are good at and in turn each other.  Any tension in their marriage comes from a deeper denial of their respective truths, if you want to use that word.  Which I did.

Mr. Incredible finally shows a joie de vivre once he returns to superhero work, but in doing so he mostly ignores his wife, only turning his affections to her as an expression of triumph for the things truly bringing him joy.  This gets him into trouble, of course, precisely because he’s working alone.  By the end of the movie, Mrs. Incredible encourages him to work with her.  They are a team, and it’s not his job to protect her.

So it’s a nice little story, huh?  Mr. Incredible embraces his calling, but for arguably the first time in his life he begins to do it the right way.  He does what he loves with the people he loves.

The Incredibles just feels kind of neat.  Violet and Dash feel a little underdeveloped, but we understand who they are right away, and the story doesn’t call for much more within their respective arcs.  When we meet them we see what drives them, both in terms of ambition and fear, and the final scene provides a nice bookend to their introductions.  The parents finally allow Dash to run track, and Violet has the confidence to talk to the boy she’s attracted to, showing a triumph over her own shyness.

Actually Syndrome is a little forgotten as well.  He was once a child who idolized Mr. Incredible and after feeling rejected he grew into a super villain.  It’s a little simplistic and convenient, and once he puts the act three actions set piece in motion, he more or less disappears.  His Frankenstein monster, a large bowling ball robot, is the strongest force working against the Incredibles, and Syndrome only returns briefly in the film’s coda.

This is a great movie, overall, maybe as enjoyable as the best of Pixar’s films, but it doesn’t quite have the same emotional depth as those best films.  But perhaps that’s a good thing.  This is a smart, fun kid’s movie.  The action is wonderful, creative and playful in a way many blockbuster action movies aren’t, and there is enough emotional depth to make the story resonate more than most action movies.

Up Next: The Kid with a Bike (2011), Zabriskie Point (1970), The Incredibles 2 (2018)

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