PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Incredibles (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Its snark makes The Incredibles one of those cartoons that mainstream, self-knowing adults might appreciate along with their kids.

The Incredibles

Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Dominique Lewis, Jean Sincere, Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn Brad Bird
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Disney
First date: 2004
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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.