It’s only been a decade since Pixar Animation Studios’ superhero hit The Incredibles hit the screen, but that decade has been an amazing boom period for theatrical animation in America. And in large part, that’s because other studios finally started emulating the Pixar model, in hopes of earning Pixar-like payouts at the box office. It took a long time for the majors to catch up with what Pixar was doing and learn to tell similar stories, the kind that balance personal connections with big action, and small-scale sentiment with big ideas. The Incredibles followed other Pixar hits (most notably Finding Nemo, at the time the studio’s biggest box-office hit) without following their plots or structure. But it did follow their model: original characters, a distinctive visual look that pushed the boundaries of computer animation’s capabilities, an intense focus on close personal relationships, and a story fixated on largely adult issues, with plenty of excitement to keep kids absorbed.
Apart from The Incredibles, 2004 was a lackluster year for American animation. Disney released the awkward, forgettable cel/computer animation hybrid Home On The Range. DreamWorks followed up Shrek with the much less enjoyable Shrek 2, and tried to emulate Pixar’s Finding Nemo with the abominable Shark Tale. Warner Bros. drove a train into the uncanny valley with The Polar Express. At least Nickelodeon got surreal with The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, but most of the rest of the year’s animated features—Teacher’s Pet, The Easter Egg Adventure, Clifford’s Really Big Movie, etc.—didn’t even bother with the adult crowd. Pixar’s film stood out in part because it was a marvel: a fleet, stylish film that efficiently hit a lot of complicated emotional beats without slowing down the action. But it also stood out because its box-office competition was weak. In 2004, no one else was doing what Pixar was trying to do.
To be fair, writer-director Brad Bird managed something with The Incredibles that few filmmakers have gotten right, apart from Sam Raimi and the brains behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe: He located a soft, vulnerable heart underneath the armor of the superhero power fantasy, and made it look like something other than rote audience manipulation. Superhero comics keep shoving women in refrigerators to prompt an emotional response in characters, or killing off heroes to prompt an emotional response in fans. The Incredibles plays with those familiar tropes: Heroes die by the score, and the protagonist believes he’s lost everything when his wife and children are murdered. But Bird has a gentler agenda than the grim ’n’ gritty comics era allowed. In his version of the story, the angry man in the mask, the guy who’s disassociated from society and can’t fit in, the guy who solves his problems with his fists, but at least finds a way to help the world in the process, is just a small part of the overall story. His wife and kids aren’t just barriers, or rewards for success once he learns some life lessons. They’re people, just as much as he is.
The Incredibles starts with a 1950s-era TV montage introducing some of the era’s big heroes: Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) are all happy to talk to the camera, but they all come across as a little self-absorbed and image-obsessed. Elastigirl and Frozone both cavalierly dismiss the idea of relationships—she says she has no intention of settling down and leaving the world-saving to the men, while he laughs about super-chicks who want to “strengthen the relationship” by confiding their secret identities to him. And when a kid named Buddy (Jason Lee) tries to sign up as Mr. Incredible’s sidekick, the hero gets madder and madder as he repeats, “I work alone.”
So 15 years later, after the government has banned superheroes as destructive vigilantes who attract lawsuits and leave cities in ruins while trying to “help,” it’s ironic that Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are retired from superhero life and married, with three kids. As Bob and Helen Parr, they live in a generic suburb with a 1950s lifestyle: She manages the home and kids while he drives off to work at a boring, soul-sucking office job, between bouts of glumly regarding his bulging gut in a mirror. Then a mysterious message draws Bob, then Helen and the kids, away to a secret hideaway (the punnishly named Nomanisan Island) where the grown-up Buddy, now styling himself as the supervillain Syndrome, has built a city-smashing device as part of a plot to give himself a hero’s reputation. The Parrs have to save the day, but first, they have to save their marriage.
What makes Bird’s script impressive—and what makes it feel like a Pixar film—is the way it keeps each character engaged, giving them all discrete personal goals that still work together in the story. Bob wants to be a hero again; Helen wants him involved with the family and their marriage. Their older daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) is shy and awkward, but has a crush on a classmate she can’t look in the eye; their son Dash (Spencer Fox) is a show-off who just wants to fully exercise his superspeed powers. (One of the film’s most telling moments comes when Helen, knowing Dash may be killed by Syndrome’s minions, tells him to run as fast as he can; instead of being afraid, he lights up at the prospect of finally getting to take the brakes off.) None of their goals seem related: They just help each character have a personality, and an arc.
But fighting Syndrome makes Bob feel alive and lets him see his family and himself as people again. It re-engages Helen with her identity outside of her family, lets Violet feel confident, and lets Dash push his limits. They each accomplish something for themselves, but even in achieving those individual goals, they’re coming together as a family. Bird emphasizes over and over how Bob and Helen fight with each other: Without being terrible people, they have fundamentally incompatible desires for their lives, and it takes a supervillain to reunite them. The kids have their own superpowers, but they’re still just unnerved, unhappy children when they see their parents yelling at each other, and part of their late-film joy is in seeing their family reunited and happy.
The Incredibles’ story problems are all directly related to its focus on the family, which approaches myopia when dealing with anything outside the nuclear unit. How does the government deal with supervillains after banning superheroes? Why is Frozone so dismissive of his clandestine hero-work with Mr. Incredible, to the point where he announces they’re never doing it again, seconds after they’ve just rescued half a dozen unconscious people from certain horrible death in a fire? What happens to Mirage, Syndrome’s partner in crime? Why would it be so terrible if Syndrome sold his devices to the public and let everyone experience the kind of superheroing excitement that ultimately fixes all the Parr family’s problems? None of that is really important, the narrative implies, because it doesn’t have to do directly with Bob and his family of Incredibles.
Still, that family focus gives The Incredibles a remarkable power. For one thing, it creates an us-against-them world where most people are generic, tired, and gray, and the only characters allowed to do significant good are essentially adopted family members. In his civilian identity as Lucius Best, Frozone acts as a sort of cool uncle who jokes with Dash, while the film’s other standout character, super-suit designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself) is a cranky old aunt who gets intimately involved in the Incredibles’ lives. She isn’t just content to design their costumes: She divines that Bob is sneaking around doing hero work again, and schemes to push Helen in the same direction and fix their marriage, mostly by whapping Helen with a rolled-up newspaper and yelling at her. She isn’t just a bystander with a hilarious voice, a lot of memorable comic business, and a memorable visual design, dahlink, she’s emotionally invested in the family and its future.
And so is the audience. Bird’s biggest hat trick is in pushing viewers to sympathize with Helen and Bob simultaneously, even though one of them has movie-friendly goals and the other, in any other movie, would be the nagging killjoy trying to shut down the action. Once Bob is slipping off to Nomanisan Island to fight a killer robot and purr suave James Bond banter at Mirage, he’s living out the exciting fantasy that audiences expect from a superhero film. Yet Bird suggests that he’s doing the wrong thing, and that his thrilling sequences are a distraction from the importance of a properly boring domestic life. The Incredibles is full of interpersonal tensions: Bob’s hatred of his venal little tyrant of a boss, Bob and Helen’s squabbling, Violet and Dash’s sibling wars, Mr. Incredible’s face-off with Syndrome, and so forth. But Bird sets up the film’s biggest tension as a matter solely for viewers, who are pushed to hope for the blissful domestic calm that they don’t really want in a film—not when they could instead have superpowered problem-solving, full of clever infiltrations and big explosions.
The audience is also primed to see those explosions as devastating for the Parr family—not just for Helen and her dream of a quiet life, but for Bob, who obviously needs her as much as she needs him, even if he can’t entirely see it when the film opens. The moment where the Parr family drops into a super-team pose on the beach, when they finally come together as a unit, is fantastically cathartic because it’s the point where Bird reveals that being a loving family doesn’t mean they have to stop kicking ass. It’s the moment where the film gives viewers permission to root for a domestic happily-ever-after and a big adventure. In that one shot, all the Parrs have finally gotten what they want—and so have the viewers.
Bird blends two unpleasant tropes in The Incredibles—the mentally absent dad who learns, through big unlikely adventures, to be present for his loved ones, and the family man who loses his family and goes on a fantasy rampage to celebrate his angsty, angsty freedom. Somehow, Bird comes out on the other side with a story that’s more humane and touching than either of those tropes usually allow. The Incredibles trades heavily in the iconography of cool—shiny suits, sleek futuristic gadgets, fencing dialogue, dangerous but sexy relationships, competent super-people doing amazing things—while still letting its main characters fight about which exit to take off the freeway in order to get downtown. It has breathless sequences of capture and escape and capture, and a long sequence where two men argue in a car about whether they should just go bowling. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of movie.
And that’s what other major American animation studios seem to have finally learned over the past decade, in a way that’s pulled the field away from the fairy-tale romances of Disney’s storied past, and toward a faster-paced model that’s more narratively and visually adventurous. There’s no reason an animated film has to focus just on children, or just on one character and one goal, or just on one tone. Pixar’s movies showed animators that it’s possible to have it all: To make all the characters worth caring about, to let them all get what they want, and to make the audience want conflicting things, and still get a satisfying resolution. The Incredibles is meant as fun for the whole family—the onscreen one, and the offscreen ones as well.
Genevieve Koski and Keith Phipps continue the Incredibles conversation over in the Forum, where they take on its place in the superhero-movie continuum, the Parr family resemblance to the Fantastic Four, and how it’s aged over the past decade. Then on Thursday, Charles Bramesco will dig into the Incredibles quote that launched a thousand thinkpieces, and consider how it compares with other superhero features that have been combed for political messages.