Cinematic Century

2004 – The Incredibles

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Well folks, after mentioning the narrative whiplash effect that I’ve been experiencing lately switching between Catch Me If You Can and Oldboy, it turns out that I got ahead of myself. Because things are taking an even sharper turn this week, with a very different tale of familial love, the Incredibles! I was a little unsure at first if I should go through with choosing this film as my favorite of 2004, partly because I’ve actually written about it before, briefly, and partly because there are several other truly great films from 2004 that conceivably could have taken the top spot from it. I mean, we could have even stayed in a superhero vein and talked about Spider-Man 2, one of the greatest and most effective superhero films ever made, and a strong example of why more superhero movies should occasionally be shot like horror movies. Or, we could have gotten surreal and psychological with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a fascinating film that features a career best performance from Jim Carrey, and some of the most inventive film-making I’ve ever seen. We also have the wonderful Shaun of the Dead, a film that somehow successfully manages to tell a story that’s equal parts hilarious, scary, and heart-breaking, all while being infinitely quotable. I actually talked last week about my conundrum featuring the Kill Bill movies, which really do feel like parts of a larger whole, and thus kind of can’t be talked about, even though Vol. 2 is my personal favorite of the two halves. Or, hey, we could have gotten juvenile and joyful and discussed Anchorman or Dodgeball, two movies I love wholeheartedly, primarily because they instantly transport me back to 2004, watching them and thinking they were the pinnacle of comedy. I actually came pretty close to talking about Michael Mann’s Collateral, which I revisted shortly after seeing Stuber, and continue to be blown away by what a terrific and unnerving film that remains. But, I love the Incredibles. I have since I first saw it, and it’s remained at the top of my list of favorite Pixar films, and it’s still one of my all-time favorite superhero films ever made. It’s a genuine delight, and one that I legitimately find something new to love about every time I see it. Which, is basically the criteria of the kinds of films I like to share here.

The Incredibles is the brainchild of Brad Bird, an odd and enigmatic figure in the world of animation, someone who holds quite a bit of stature while holding a reputation of being extremely exacting and hard to work with. Which, is how he found himself constantly on the outs in his own career, constantly moving from project to project, struggling to get anything made. And, taking that stress over his own future and rapidly approaching middle-age, along with a lifetime love of superheroes, spies, and the general aesthetics of 1960’s pop-culture, Bird first started tinkering with the idea of the Incredibles. But, it wasn’t until his first feature film, the Iron Giant, became a box office bomb that Bird ended up pairing up with an old acquaintance of his, famous sexual predator John Lasseter. Lasseter at the time was running Pixar, and convinced Bird to bring his superhero project to the relatively new studio, despite Bird’s dislike of computer generated animation, and die hard support for traditional animation. But, Bird got over his prejudices, and came to Pixar with his idea, and the intention of completely running the show. At that point Pixar films were typically directed by several people, and featured scripts written by whole crews of people. But, Bird announced that he would be the sole writer and director of the film, completely taking control of the project to make it exactly what he wanted it to be. Bird’s team then began crafting the film, further pushing the boundaries of computer generated animation that Pixar continued to build and then break, coming up with all manner of new techniques and technologies, some based on Bird’s own fixation with traditional animation. And, after struggling with Bird’s demanding persona, they finally released the film in 2004, earning Pixar their first ever PG rating. And, much like every Pixar film before it, the film was extremely successful. Critics and audiences alike loved the film, earning it quite a bit of money and accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. And it has remained a perennial favorite in the canon of Pixar films, albeit a somewhat challenging film, especially politically. But, I love it, without reservations.

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The Incredibles is the story of the Parr family, a seemingly average suburban nuclear family, who are hiding a pretty big secret. Bob and Helen, the parents of the family, used to be superheroes, fighting crime as Mr. Incredible and Elasti-girl, two incredibly popular heroes who were forced into retirement after public sentiment towards superheroes soured fifteen years previous. Largely due to Mr. Incredible being involved with an extremely destructive incident involving a fan of his named Buddy, which resulted in him getting sued for damages. They now live a quiet life with their children Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack, all of whom also have superpowers, just trying to keep their heads low. Which, Bob cannot stand. He hates having to hide his amazing abilities, and misses the adoration of the public, which results in him moonlighting as a hero with his best friend Lucius, also known as Frozone. And, during one of these illegal heroic acts, Bob gets the attention of a woman known as Mirage, who has been following Lucius. She reaches out to Bob, on the day that he gets fired for assaulting his boss, letting him know that she represents an organization looking to bring superheroes back. She wants his help dealing with a problem which she thinks will eventually allow Bob to become Mr. Incredible once more. And, of course, Bob accepts.

He lies to Helen, telling her that he A) wasn’t fired, and B) is going on a business trip. And, after that’s taken care of, he flies off to a remote island where he suits back up as Mr. Incredible, and is asked to locate and destroy a prototype robot known as the Omnidroid which got loose on the island. And, after an intense fight, Bob is able to destroy the Omnidroid, earning the respect of the man who owns the island, and Mirage. He’s paid a very sizable amount for doing this job, and is put of retainer for any future missions, meaning Bob can return and now worry about work, putting all of his efforts into getting back into shape. And, Helen doesn’t mind, because as far as she knows he’s finally happy and successful, and has finally regained his zeal for life. But, things start to fall apart when Bob needs a new costume, and goes to get one from a retired designer named Edna Mode. She makes Bob a costume that he can wear on his next mission to the island, but that also sets Helen down a path when she notices Bob’s old suit having been repaired. She meets with Edna, assuming Bob is having an affair, and ends up learning the much more frightening truth that he’s being a superhero once more. And, while she’s learning that, Bob is finding that this whole situation is even more intense than he thought it was.

Because it turns out that the man behind the island is actually Buddy, the boy he rejected as a sidekick back in the day, and who has become a millionaire thanks to his inventions. And, a lunatic. Buddy has created a superheroic identity for himself, Syndrome, and has been secretly building the Omnidroids by having them kill various superheroes before they became powerful enough for him to unleash on society, leading to him saving the day and being welcomed as a superhero. He attempts to kill Mr. Incredible, before enacting his evil plan, but Bob lives and begins hiding on the island. And, at the same time, Helen learns that Bob is in danger, and heads out to save him, utilizing a new suit that Edna made for her. And, in the process, she ends up inadvertently bringing Dash and Violet with her, who finally decide to start using their superpowers. The three Parr’s are attacked trying to get on the island, and are forced to fight their way to Bob, reuniting just in time to follow Syndrome off the island, and to his master plan. Syndrome and the Omnidroid attack Municiburg, the town that the Parr’s live in, and he quickly finds himself over-powered by the robot. But, the Incredibles and Frozone are able to work together and stop the threat, reintroducing themselves to the world. Unfortunately, while they were focusing on the robot Syndrome returned to their house to kidnap Jack-Jack, furthering his villainy. However, it turns that Jack-Jack contains a whole variety of powers, and is able to fight off Syndrome, resulting in his death. The Parr’s then find themselves in a state where they’re more comfortable becoming superheroes once again, but as a family this time.

 

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The Incredibles is just one of those movies that I could watch a million times. When it first came out, the age of the superhero dominating the box office had just begun, with really only the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies establishing what it meant to be a modern superhero movie after the genre had gone largely dormant once the Batman movies stopped. And yet, even with the knowledge of what has happened to the superhero genre since this film came out, it’s still a really great satire of something that barely existed at the time. And, that’s probably because Brad Bird is such an obsessive storyteller. He was able to take so many influences and a life-long experience with these tropes and elements, and craft a story that lovingly poked fun at it all, while also serving as a very solid entry into the genre itself. The film is oozing in a very specific aesthetic, and one that I happen to love quite a bit. Silver Age comics and sixties James Bond movies crash together with a very mature and honest look at mid-life crises and the strains that aging can put on a marriage to create a film that really shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. But, it works, and it works beautifully. It’s funny, heartfelt, action-packed, and features a blend of tried and true animation techniques put into at the time cutting edge technology to create a movie that at once feels incredibly prescient and timeless, a feat that seems impossible to pull off. And yet, this movie does it with ease.

I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen the Incredibles. It’s a high number, I’m sure. But, one of the things that I’ve always loved the most about this film, is that I really do end up finding something new to love about it every time I see it. Part of that is due to the fact that the film does an excellent job at realizing two very different generations of people. When I was younger I was able to connect to Dash and Violet, especially their worries at being perceived as strange to their peers, and the reticence to be who they really are and let their true selves loose. And, as I get older, I start to connect even more with Bob and Helen, as they struggle with being adults, and the constant push and pull of remaining true to yourself while letting go of who you used to be. And, I’m sure as I get older I’ll continue to grow with the film, and all of the talk of mid-life crises will become even more powerful and familiar. And, it’s not even just life-time milestones that can change the film, because upon this viewing I was incredibly struck by just how on the nose Brad Bird was with his portrayal of Buddy, and the whole idea of toxic fandom. It’s becoming increasingly clear that intense fandoms have probably always been pretty terrible, but I’m legitimately shocked at how a film from 2004 was on the ball enough to give us a villain who is a jilted fan, someone who insisted that they belonged where they didn’t, and decided to destroy the thing they love so that no one else can have it. That’s the same logic that countless idiots who sign pop culture petitions on the internet have, and this film predates all of that stuff being so well-known. Which, is why I love it. It’s a film that grows and changes with me, opening up new facets to appreciate, which is really what I think good art is supposed to do.

 

The Incredibles was written and directed by Brad Bird and released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 2004.

 

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