For nearly a decade, the film output of Pixar was primarily conceived from the minds of animators already working at the studio like John Lasseter (Toy Story), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), and Pete Doctor (Monster’s Inc). They were very much an in-house studio that worked together as a family and knew the ins-and-outs of each other. This tradition would soon be broken though when Brad Bird came to the studio with a superhero story pitch that would eventually become The Incredibles. The ensuing production, which was collaboration between Pixar and Bird’s working colleagues from The Iron Giant, yielded a film that not only continued Pixar’s perfect winning streak, but elevated the bar for superhero cinema in general.
Despite the brave efforts of superheroes, normal humans have begun to have enough of them because of the damage that they unwillingly cause in their crusade against crime. In response, the government to help the heroes ease into civilian lives and jobs created the Supers Relocation Program. Bob Parr, previously known as Mr. Incredible, is now married to Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl), has three children, and works at a major insurance company, but he cannot adjust to the ordinary life. He frequently goes out at night with his friend Lucius (a.k.a. Frozone) on a weekly basis to satisfy his need to save people, and when he gets an offer to do something greater with his powers, he cannot resist. But he soon discovers that this is all a ploy to lure him and other supers into a trap, spearheaded by a figure tied to his past.
One of the key things that makes The Incredibles such a success is that in addition to definitely having that “Pixar feel,” Bird imprints a distinct stamp on the film that stands distinctly as his own. The retro vibe that recurs throughout Bird’s work is fully present here, and the influences that he draws on all blend together into a cohesive whole. The highly stylized animation draws from the Silver Age of comic books for inspiration, especially in terms of the character designs. Like the “official” superhero adaptations, the storyline of the film draws from multiple comic concepts to fully flesh out the plot. Almost every major property is given its notice, notably Watchmen with its existential hero angst, but the most important ones are the Fantastic Four and X-Men. The themes of family and teamwork that thrive within those famous teams are literalized here with an actual superhero family, and the mileage Bird gets out of the family “combining” their powers in battle would make most comic fans weep with joy. He puts the team in teamwork that most filmmakers working on the official superhero team adaptations often forget about.
James Bond circa the 1960s factors in significantly once Mr. Incredible makes his way to the villain’s island liar, taking heavy inspiration from the set designs of You Only Live Twice. As if that weren’t enough, Michael Giacchino’s score takes many cues from John Barry’s work in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service while remembering to blend them into his own touches so as not to seem like a lift. It’s not a coincidence that Barry himself was once the composer of choice before he left the project. Combining both superheroes and the old-school Bond vibe is one of Bird’s many inspired creative decisions here, something that Matthew Vaughn would employ later on with X-Men: First Class. But a film cannot merely be a pastiche of influences and styles if it wants to succeed and stand as its own two feet, and The Incredibles establishes both a fully developed cast of unique characters and an emotional core that raises the stakes in all the right places.
Credit to Pixar Animation Studios.
Continuing Pixar’s trend of avoiding big name stars is the unconventional casting choices of Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter as the married couple at the center of the film. And while Nelson, with his lovably affable demeanor, may be playing the main protagonist, it’s Hunter who runs away with the movie. Her Elastigirl is exactly the type of movie super mom (figuratively I mean) we love to watch: caring to her family and armed with sharp-tongued wit. As the only sane person in the family who has to deal with her husband’s questionable heroic desires, daughter Violet’s teenage angst, and son Dash’s mischievous doings, she is that glue desperately trying to keep them all together by the end. Of course, not to let the main heroes overshadow the spotlight; the supporting players are just as memorable and colorful. Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone) has a distinctive voice made for animation, Wallace “Inconceivable” Shawn (as Bob’s boss) is always a delight, and Elizabeth Peña has a small role as the villain’s alluring assistant, Mirage.
The villain Syndrome, played by Jason Lee, is not a conventional superhero adversary, as his plot isn’t to take over the world or start another world war. He’s a wannabe superhero sidekick that doesn’t understand why Mr. Incredible won’t let him help, and that warps his mind to the point where his attention grabbing becomes dangerous. Boiled down, Syndrome is an entitled man-child calling out for the recognition and respect as a hero that he wants, and believes he deserves. Although he is not a direct physical threat to the heroes, his characterization and how he adds to the “damage” superheroes have caused make him a very fun and compelling villain to watch.
The approach to Syndrome as a villain is similar to how Bird approaches the overall tone of the film: serious and dramatic while still remembering to have a sense of fun. The humor is as strong as ever for both Bird and Pixar, writing situations and sharp wit that will appeal to both older and younger audiences without pandering to juvenile tastes. The jokes come naturally from the characters and how they are defined, like when Helen sighs at her “mom figure” in the mirror and when Bob cannot fit through an escape pod door because of his added pounds. Edna Mode, the suit designer for superheroes and voiced by Bird himself, often gets the biggest laughs with her eccentric personality. Her putdown of the typical superhero cape is priceless, as well as being clever in the satirizing of superhero tropes that the film sprinkles throughout in other places too.
Much like the majority of Pixar’s output, The Incredibles will certainly entertain the young ones but I think that older viewers will be able to “get” it more. As a slice of pure entertainment the film is exciting in its comedy and dynamic action scenes. Bird takes full advantage of the freedom that comes with working in animation, giving him free reign to go wild with the movements of his camera and the characters during the action. A chase through the forest between Dash and Syndrome’s henchmen exhibits an exhilarating feeling of top speed, and the final battle is a culmination of having every hero work together to creatively defeat Syndrome’s giant robot. However, the director doesn’t forget to create a sense of danger and emotional investment in these dust-ups. When missiles are homing in on the plane carrying Helen, Dash, and Violet, we feel sorry for Mr. Incredible because he believes his family is lost. And before the final battle is about to commence, he tells them to stay behind because he’s “not strong enough” to lose them again, perhaps the finest moment in the entire film.
That moment, as well as everything else that precedes and follows it, summarizes how Brad Bird and Pixar conspired to create a film that works on multiple levels and juggles many tones without feeling cobbled together. Everything fits right in with slick precision, and nary has a beat felt false or out of place. Even with their superpowers, these characters feel just as human and relatable as the rest of us with their responsibilities, anxieties, and relationships. We are along with them for the journey when must they suit up and take on the bad guys. So when Dash chuckles to himself after discovering that he can run on water, I can’t help but chuckle with him. The Incredibles is just that infectious.