The Incredibles: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something for Everyone

Thanksgiving weekend is a tricky one for the movie industry.  There are lots of people packing the malls for the official start of the holiday shopping season, so studios want to have plenty of family-oriented films playing to cash in on those Black Friday bucks.  But it’s also the last chance for the year’s Oscar contenders to make a big, impressive critical splash.  Which audience should a film shoot for?
Of course studios are always trying to make films that have both popular and critical appeal, but what’s interesting is that more and more animation is the medium for doing it.  Three of last Thanksgiving weekend’s top five box office earners were animated films, and the most commercially and critically successful of the three by far is Pixar’s The Incredibles.

With The Incredibles, Pixar has perfected the “something for everyone” approach that helped the studio win last year’s Oscar for the blockbuster, Finding Nemo.   While that movie was about fish, and other Pixar hits have been about monsters (Monsters Inc., 2002), insects (A Bugs Life, 1998), and toys (Toy Story, 1995). The Incredibles is Pixar’s first film about people.  Well, sort of… The Incredibles is about a family of superheroes.  Like many American families, the Incredibles are dysfunctional.  What makes the Incredibles unique is that their superpowers are both the cause and the cure for the dysfunctionality.

The film opens with Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) performing some of the incredible feats that earned him his reputation.  He stops a car heist, saves a suicide, prevents a train wreck, safely detonates a bomb, and rescues a treed cat, all while driving to his wedding.  His bride, Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), is the only one who notices he’s a few moments late.  Shortly after they marry, though, a series of lawsuits puts them out of the superhero business.   They enter the superhero relocation program, and move to the suburbs, where their superpowers atrophy in the paunchy bodies of an insurance adjustor and an overstressed housewife.  Their children, Violet  (voiced by Sarah Vowell), and Dash (voiced by Spencer Fox), have never really gotten a chance to use their superpowers.    Since they’re forbidden from using their powers publicly, they do what most kids would do under the circumstances: use them on each other.  Just when the frustration reaches a peak, Mr. Incredible receives a message that changes everything.  The family winds up on an adventure that lets the parents reconnect with past greatness, while the kids discover their potential for the first time.   

The Incredibles is grown up animation on several levels.  For starters, it is a family story that doesn’t merely appease adults with arcane pop culture references while pandering to kids with bodily function humor.  Part of the credit for this should go to writer and director Brad Bird.  Bird is no stranger to dysfunctional families.  He was a creative consultant for The Simpsons during their early years, and his feature-length animation directing credits include The Iron Giant (1999) for Warner Bros.  His characters and storyline are complex, confronting viewers with challenges that aren’t often seen in American animation, such as midlife crisis, teenage angst, and threats to children.  There is no shortage of humor, though, and those who look for pop culture references will find them.  Bird has borrowed from the Fantastic Four, Marvel comics’ first super family team-up. Violet’s invisibility and force fields are very reminiscent of Susan Storm, the original invisible girl, just as Elastigirl’s infinitely stretchable limbs originally belonged to Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic.  Bird steeps this film in superhero tradition, but never at the cost of the story.  Invisibility is integral to Violet’s character as a self-conscious teenager, just as flexibility is crucial to the character of Elastigirl in her new role as mother.

Much credit for The Incredibles’ success should also go to Pixar, the studio that came into being when Steve Jobs of Apple Computer bought the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm for $10 million in 1987.  In partnership with Walt Disney, which handles their distribution, Pixar’s films have gotten better and better.  Their proprietary software has established Pixar as the leader in 3D animation, which has become so dominant that Disney recently decided the disappointing Home on the Range (2004) would be its last 2D animated feature film.  The hand-drawn animation era is more or less over.  Could the success of The Incredibles mean that the live action era is also in jeopardy?  For sheer eye candy value, the action sequences in The Incredibles rival, and in most cases surpass, those of a live action film, and they are considerably less expensive and damaging to the environment.  Does the future of film lie in computer chips? 

If so, it probably won’t happen any time soon.  The number one box office success last weekend was Disney’s Nicolas Cage vehicle, National Treasure.  Still, American audiences are gradually realizing what Japanese audiences have known for years, that animation is not merely a children’s medium.  In Japan, the films of Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli routinely take in more than  $100 million at the Japanese box office.  Miyazaki movies, including last year’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away, tend to be more complex and mature than most American animation.  Pixar seems to have realized that, and now the undisputed leader in 3D animation, is leading American audiences toward more complex, grown-up stories.  The Incredibles has already grossed more than $200 million at American theaters.  It’s very likely to be an Oscar contender, and winner, as well.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, December 2004. Joseph Christopher Schaub