Cartoons aren’t just for kids. While Pixar has made its name with mostly sweet, sometimes edgy, always clever and eminently child-friendly animation. And yet, for all the humungous successes of the Toy Storys and Finding Nemo, it’s hardly surprising that the Pixar team might want to move on, to do something else, too. And so they’ve taken a first step with The Incredibles.
Instead of dolls and fishies, the stars of the The Incredibles are angsty adults, specifically, superheroes whose flying-high heyday is over, who have been cowed into mundane invisibility by a population who fears their difference. The loss that such repression entails is illustrated early on, in a brief, gonzo sequence showing a regular day for Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson): veritable king of Municiberg, he’s got a gizmoed-out ride, leaps tall buildings, lifts cars and busts up robberies, rescues kitties from trees. Yes, it’s an exciting life. But that’s not to say that saving the world day in and day out isn’t hard work. As Mr. Incredible notes in an introductory interview, “Sometimes I just want it to stay saved. I feel like the maid: ‘I just cleaned up this mess!’” Likewise, the utterly all-together Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) has her own gripe, wondering why people expect “to leave the saving of the world to the men. I don’t think so!”
Such objections are minor, however, set against the bigger picture, the athletic adrenaline rush and the thrill of victory, and oh yes, saving the world. So the superheroes—as a bloc—are taken aback when faced by resistance from the very citizens they have made it their business to save. Their X-Men-like troubles come to a head when Mr. Incredible saves a would-be suicide who’s just leaped from a window, and the guy decides to sue for damages. Suddenly, the tabloids are all over the case, and the superheroes are subjected to a relocation (a.k.a., “Superhero Protection”) program, sent off to live ordinary lives in places like suburban Metroville and prohibited from saving anyone, anywhere.
And so, Mr. Incredible is turned into Bob Parr, insurance company schlub, dutiful husband to Helen (formerly Elastigirl), and increasingly frustrated father of three kids. Trying to be good conformist parents, Bob and Helen teach young Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox), to suppress their gifts (invisibility/force field powers and stunning speed, respectively), else they scare their classmates; at the same time, the Parrs hope against hope that their cute little infant has no powers at all, that he will conform to his ordained dullsville existence and never know the pain of feeling “different.” Bob sympathizes with little Dash’s irritation with the illogic of such instruction: the kid wants to go out for track, but can’t expose himself, and so he’s stuck, trying to appear average. “You say, ‘Do your best,’” he whines to his parents, “but you don’t really mean it. The world just wants us to fit in.” Helen tries to smooth over this bit of hypocrisy: “Everyone’s special, Dash.” The kid puts on his pouty face: “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
While Helen has more or less assumed the role of suburban mom, Bob finds ways around his boredom. These range from revealing to much-defeated clients ways to get appropriate insurance coverage, or sneaking out late at night to perform superheroic feats. After white-lying to Helen (he’s playing cards), Bob and with his old buddy Lucius, formerly Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) sit in a dark car with the police scanner turned on, responding to calls, then running off from the scene before they’re recognized. When Helen inevitably busts him, Bob’s both apologetic and angry. Now 15 years into his “normal” life, he confesses that he just hates everything about it: “They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity!”
While Helen surely commiserates (she misses her own bendy-flexy days), she’s also practical-minded. They have kids to protect, and so, they must toe lines. And this would be The Incredibles’ most significant point. Given current U.S. culture’s anti-exceptionalist, anti-intellectual inclinations, the film’s general resistance to such thinking seems almost radical. The movie applauds Bob’s ambition, his desire to be publicly exceptional, and exposes the lie of the American Dream, the myth that everyone has equal opportunity. Bob and his family are special. Mediocrity sucks.
Though Bob promises Helen—again—that he’ll stop patrolling at night and just in, he goes on to more secret superheroism, inspired by a mysterious beauty named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña). Thrilled to be so desired, Bob takes his superhero costume out of the display case (he’s got a room full of superhero paraphernalia, hidden away from alarmable neighbors) and heads off to a tropical island to battle a big scary robot called the Omnidroid. His initial mission underlines just how out of shape he’s become, and so Bob starts on a new regimen, exercising and eating right, engaging in regular sex with his pleasantly surprised wife, and sneaking off on “business trips” that really involve battling embodied evils. By the time Bob discovers that he’s being stalked by a former associate, now transformed into big-time villain Syndrome (Jason Lee), he’s also rediscovered his destiny, namely, to be a confident, aggressive, and altogether different superhero.
That Bob’s personal and professional journey threatens disaster for his family (and his mostly un-depicted) community does give him pause, of course. Though he’s rather charmingly insecure and occasionally fumbling, he’s also a big-hearted superhero with a proper sense of obligation to his less-talented fellows. His resulting self-doubt, along with Helen’s decisive action (helped along by her costume designer, the Edith-Head-inspired Edna Bird [Brad Bird]), leads to a Spy Kids-ish reunion and joint (ad)venture, a complicated, half-rousing and half-terrifying (the film includes violence and implied death scenes that might be troubling for some children).
It’s in this complicated sequence (for which Frozone also comes back, his own unseen wifey warning him, loudly from another room, that any such action is forbidden), that The Incredibles reveals the extent of its smart-ass perversity. Yes, the villain is spectacularly vanquished, and yes, the heroes (must) win, be reinstated as publicly vaunted and very special heroes, and keep hold of secret-identities that grant something resembling suburban harmony. Less obvious and more interesting is the film’s proposition that superheroism is not easy, that it involves sacrifice and compromise. The new American Way is less empathetic, more efficient. When no one’s special, everyone starts navel-gazing and feeling arrogant, rejecting opposition, diversity, and responsibility. And this can be downright dangerous.