He starts monologuing! He starts this, like, prepared speech about how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his. Yadda yadda yadda.
—Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson), The Incredibles
Animation is not a genre. A Western is a genre. Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre… And the next time I hear, “Oh, what’s it like to work in the animation genre?”, I’m gonna punch that person.
—Brad Bird, commentary track, The Incredibles: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition
All of my favorite filmmakers have the confidence to slow down, versus—I won’t name names, but a lot of successful hacks, who by having rapid-fire editing all the way through, never have to deal with issue of, “Is anybody paying attention?”.. To me there’s an edge of desperation about that. The kind of filmmaking I most admire takes a moment to savor things.
—Brad Bird, commentary track, The Incredibles: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition
“You have to understand, for John and I here, this is alike a four-year journey and we’re blasting through these four years… We watch these things and all of these battles and struggles that we had go by in an instant. It’s like watching your kids grow up or something like that.” Director Brad Bird and producer John Walker have all kinds of memories about making The Incredibles, recorded for one commentary track of the 2-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD. They like their characters, love their process, and are glad it’s over.
Much of their conversation consists of mutual admiration, which, considering that they did struggle for four years to make the brandy-new Academy Award winner (Best Animated Feature and Sound Editing), is rather charming. Watching a particularly detailed and clever scene concerning young Dash (voiced by Spencer Fox) and his mom Helen (Holly Hunter), the artists discuss their thinking about slowing the narrative to show this domestic drama. Dash has been called to the principal’s office, as a teacher knows he’s been leaving tacks on his chair, but is unable to catch him doing it; a videotape of the classroom reveals, barely, that Dash has been using his super-powered speed to run his prank. Though Helen hides this from the authorities, she’s horrified that her son has been using his powers for such purposes. As Bird and Walker note, the scene, cutting from grainy, fish-eyed video imagery to the more substantive weight of the characters, is a remarkable bit of animation as well as useful storytelling, extolling each other’s intelligence to gat the scene made and then to keep it in, even as they were encouraged to cut the film down (it’s the longest Pixar feature to date).
Helen’s upset and Dash’s frustration are key to establishing the film’s central tension, between desires to fit in and stand out, or again, between diurnal and fantastic experiences. The Incredibles considers superheroes whose flying-high heyday is over, who have been cowed into mundane invisibility by a population of regular folks who fear their difference. What they’ve lost is illustrated in a brief prologue showing a regular day for Mr. Incredible (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!’” For her part, Helen, as superhero Elastigirl, has another gripe: “Girls, come on! Leave the saving of the world to men? I don’t think so.”
This sort of snark—clever but not precisely confrontational—makes The Incredibles one of those cartoons that mainstream, self-knowing adults might appreciate along with their kids. That is, one of those blockbuster cartoons. And The Special Edition is packaged for profits, including a pile of extras that tend to overlap. These include two commentary tracks (Bird and Walker on one, supervising animators Steven Clay Hunter, Tony Fucile, and Alan Barillaro, and way too many other animators on the other: “This is the best film we’ll ever work on,” says one; “Humans are the most difficult things to animate, in 2D or 3D, and [we wanted] to prove to them that we could do it,” offers another). The second disc offers deleted scenes and short featurettes galore, including “Jack-Jack Attack” (breaking down the scene where Jack discovers his powers); a blooper reel, “Incredi-Blunders”; “The Making of The Incredibles” and “More Making of The Incredibles”; interviews with the characters; and “Top Secret Files of The Supers.” Fun fun fun for the whole family.
It’s this sort of distraction that’s missing from the Parrs’ dreary and repetitive existence. Bob is more tan a little undone by the fact that his powers meet with resistance from the very citizens he has made it his business to save. When he 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 Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash to suppress their gifts, 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.” Helen coos, “Everyone’s special, Dash.” The kid puts on his pouty face: “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
While Helen more or less accepts being 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. Bob and with his old buddy Lucius, formerly Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) have taken up sitting 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 creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity!”
Given current U.S. anti-exceptionalist, anti-intellectual inclinations, the film’s rudimentary challenge to such thinking seems almost radical. While it sympathizes with Helen’s acquiescence, it appreciates Bob’s desire to be publicly exceptional, and to that end, it exposes the lie of the American Dream, the myth that everyone has equal opportunity. Bob and his family are special, and they’re bored being mediocre.
Bob is seduced into a return to superheroism 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 nostalgic paraphernalia) and heads off to a tropical island to battle a big scary robot called the Omnidroid. (Watching the jungle footage, Bird comically recalls struggles with the computer, which he likens to Hal 9000: while he was looking for weighty, dirty images, the machine preferred light and clean, to the point that Bird imagined it sighing at him, “Dave…”) Bob’s initial mission underlines just how out of shape he’s become, and so he 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 a villain named Syndrome (Jason Lee), he’s also rediscovered his destiny, namely, to be a confident, aggressive, and altogether different superhero.
That Bob’s journey threatens disaster for his family does give him pause. Though he’s 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 [Bird], whose handling of fabrics apparently caused the animators any number of sleepless nights, as it is so singularly difficult to create and render), leads to a Spy Kids-ish reunion and adventure, complicated, half-rousing and half-terrifying.
It’s in this complicated sequence (for which Frozone also comes back, his own unseen wife warning loudly from another room that any action is forbidden), that The Incredibles reveals the extent of its smart-ass perversity. Yes, the villain is spectacularly vanquished, and yes, the heroes win. 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 that poses real danger.