The Incredibles is exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths. It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that dares to take sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the shallow doctrine of self-esteem that affirms everybody, encouraging mediocrity and penalizing excellence, to the litigation culture that demands recompense for everyone if anything ever happens, to the detriment of the genuinely needy.
Like Spy Kids, The Incredibles is a romantic celebration of marriage and family as an act of heroism, while it also acknowledges the sacrifices that parents make by giving up the pursuit of their own self-fulfillment for the sake of the domestic good. It knows what Spy Kids knew but Unbreakable didn’t, that being a husband and father calls for a kind of heroism beyond that of superheroes or superspies.
The Incredibles recognizes the sacrifice made by a father who spends his day away from his family sitting in rush-hour traffic and marking time in a cubicle. It also acknowledges that a mother who gives up a career and works as a homemaker while her husband leads a life outside the home that may seem or may be comparatively exciting also sacrifices for her family. In its comic-book way, the film pays tribute to how far a mother will stretch and how flexible she will be to hold her family together, and to how deeply a father wants to protect his family and how inadequate he feels to the task, even if he is Mr. Incredible.
The Incredibles suggests that to be able to look up to others, to have heroes, far from being a threat to self-esteem, is an inspiring thing — but it equally recognizes the dark side of excessive hero worship. It also points out that how we treat people, especially children who look up to us, can have far-reaching repercussions on who they become and what happens as a result. It shows us a world fraught with danger and threats — frightening weapons, amoral geeks who use technology to harm others, evil insurance companies, frivolous lawsuits, romantic temptations, supercilious Frenchmen. In this world, the film warns, it can be dangerous not to be realistic about our limitations, but it can also be dangerous to be paralyzed by doubt or fear, to be unable to act to defend ourselves.
The Incredibles does all this — and it does it in a colorful family cartoon in which super powers, giant robots, self-destructing messages, and monologuing villains with remote underground lairs coexist with trips to the principal’s office, sibling rivalry, and the funny faces parents make to get babies to take a bite.
Leave it to writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) and the geniuses at Pixar.
It’s an ideal collaboration, a perfect storm of heart, wit, energy, and style. The Incredibles is Pixar’s first film with human characters in leading rather than supporting roles — to say nothing of the first cartoon from anyone in goodness knows when with leading characters consisting of a positively portrayed, intact family (working father, homemaker mom, and three kids, no less), that doesn’t kill off or get rid of one or both parents by the end of the first act.
Bird’s jaunty visual style brings a flair to the design of the Incredibles that’s stylistically as beyond the look of earlier Pixar humans (e.g., the dentist in Finding Nemo, Al the chicken man in Toy Story 2) as the old Looney Tunes characters (e.g., Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck) are beyond the more pedestrian-looking characters of the 1990s Animaniacs series (e.g., Slappy Squirrel).
The story opens with Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Metroville’s answer to Superman and Batman, at the top of his game. Zipping through the streets in his Incredimobile, he can literally turn in a split second from rescuing an old lady’s cat in a tree to intercepting a fleeing getaway car. No wonder wide-eyed young Buddy (Jason Lee), president of the Mr. Incredible fan club, wants to be his sidekick. “I work alone,” Mr. I says firmly.
He’s a bit less firm about it in a rooftop encounter with rubber-limbed heroine Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and it’s obvious that they’re made for each other. Not much later, at the altar, the bride turns to her husband-to-be and whispers, “You do realize that if we’re going to make this work, you’re going to need to be more than just Mr. Incredible?”
If domestic life will require Mr. I — or Bob Parr, as he’s also known — to be something more than a superhero, the world in which he lives will soon require him to be something less. The sunny days of 1950s trust in institutions like your friendly neighborhood superhero are ending, with cynical 1960s questioning of authority right around the corner. Suddenly, supers are being sued for unsolicited acts of heroism, and squinting media scrutiny calls for “their secret identities to be their only identities.”
Soon lawsuits force the supers to hang up their supersuits, and the government establishes a Super Relocation Program to move former heroes into all-civilian life. Now Bob finds himself facing the daily grind of rush-hour traffic and eight hours a day in a cubicle working for an evil insurance company, where his natural instincts to aid people conflict with his unstated duty to be as unhelpful as possible to clients making claims.
But that’s not all. He and Helen now have three children, two in school, who are also expected not to stand out among their peers, though boisterous young Dash (Spencer Fox) can run like Kid Flash, and adolescent, painfully shy Violet (Sarah Vowell), who hides behind peekaboo tresses that are among the computer wizards’ most noteworthy technical achievements, can turn invisible and generate forcefields just like the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl.
Poor Dash can’t understand why he has to hide his gifts at school. “You always say our powers make us special,” he says accusingly to his mother.
“Everybody’s special,” Helen tries to explain.
“Which is another way of saying nobody is,” Dash grumbles.
That, of course, is precisely the point: If some children excel or stand out, others will feel inferior, which could be detrimental to their self-esteem. Driving home the point, Bob later defends his lack of interest in Dash’s “graduation” by pointing out that moving from fourth grade to fifth grade is not a “graduation,” and that pretending it is is part of a pattern of “celebrating mediocrity” and discouraging excellence.
In one scene, frustrated by the annoyance of the day’s commute, Bob accidentally blows his cover, revealing his super-strength to a saucer-eyed kid on a tricycle. After that, Bob finds the tot loitering around from time to time. “What are you waiting for?” he asks impatiently.
“I don’t know, something amazing,” is the hopeful answer.
“So am I,” Bob replies sadly.
Bob’s nostalgia for the glory days is understandable, but it leads him to make mistakes. Soon he’s effectively leading another double life, keeping his actions secret not only from the public but also from his family. It begins with minor heroics during Bob’s weekly night out with a friend from the old days, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), who exudes coolness in his attitude as well as with his powers. Then Bob is introduced by the mysterious Mirage (Elizabeth Peña), who represents an exotic world of high-powered challenges and handsome rewards that suck him in, while Helen obliviously goes about her housework, thinking he’s on a business trip.
This is tricky emotional territory for young viewers, but The Incredibles handles matters with grace. There’s surprising nuance in Bob and Helen’s relationship, which is loving but not without friction, and while Bob will eventually have to face up to the fact that his response to his midlife crisis was wrong and unfair to his family, he doesn’t come off like a jerk. Indeed, his nobility impresses even one of his adversaries, who criticizes the other for jeering at the hero: “Respect for life is not a weakness — and disregard for it is not strength!”
Eventually Helen wises up and swings into action, and even Violet and Dash find themselves in a world of their parents’ stories from before they were born. Like many parents before her, Elastigirl realizes that she can’t always shield her children from all that could harm them, and must encourage them to find the strength in themselves to face the world as best they can.
If something goes wrong, Elastigirl tells Dash, “I want you to run as fast as you can.” The little speedster, who all his life has been told to slow down, can hardly believe what he’s hearing: “Really? As fast as I can?”
Meanwhile, the storytelling bristles with wit and constant invention. Among many highlights, one of the best set pieces is a brilliant sequence in which Elastigirl infiltrates the villain’s lair and runs into a series of increasing complications. And in a film less thematically rich than this one, I would certainly have mentioned before now the film’s most hilarious character, tiny, imperious Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself), fashionista to the superhero set, whose devastating critique of capes will forever alter my perception of hero couture.
It’s saying too little to call The Incredibles one of the best superhero movies of all time. This is family entertainment of the highest order, ranking with the very best of Pixar’s impressive body of work. Walking out of the theater with my kids, I felt like that tyke on the trike: I’ve just seen something amazing, and I want to come back and see it again.