• Nick Karner

The Incredibles (2004)

One of the most iconic episodes of Rick and Morty is season two’s “Get Schwifty.” The giant heads. Ice-T's intergalactic backstory. Potato farming. Good stuff. Principal Vagina (the name’s real, possibly Scandinavian) becomes the de facto leader of “Headism” and devises a darkly comic solution to ridding the now-enlightened world of so-called “undesirables.” Along with a thief and a goth, a third sacrificial victim wears a sign which reads simply “Movie Talker.” Anyone who appreciates going to the movies and enjoying their films in silence will understand why this man is history’s greatest monster. I’ve had plenty of awful, annoying experiences in movie theaters, but I’ll never forget one particularly odd experience. I attended a screening of The Road Warrior and the presenter announced the line-up for the next few months. Besides occasionally clapping when we heard about an exciting movie coming up (Holy shit! They’re gonna show The Wraith?!), he also mentioned a full evening of vintage grindhouse trailers. That’s when some tool piped in with: “What are trailers?” Excuse me? What are trailers?! Are you out of your fucking mind? The presenter was momentarily stunned, likely considering whether to embarrass this philistine, but then he collected himself and explained that trailers are movie previews which got their name because they originally followed, or “trailed,” a feature film. One of the most popular YouTube series around is Honest Trailers. It’s a fun, bite-sized concept. Perfect for a generation that tends to get bored if a video runs 30 seconds or more. A particularly amusing moment occurs in their Fantastic Four (2005) episode, in which Honest Trailer Voice Guy (Jon Bailey) drops the hammer down. “And don't tell me there's no way to make a good Fantastic Four movie! It's called The Incredibles, and it's perfect.” While I can’t say The Incredibles (2004) is perfect, it’s damn near close. 

There’s a delectable irony to the fact that writer/director Brad Bird and Pixar’s first collaboration caused 20th Century Fox to hastily re-write their upcoming superhero non-starter. It’s not like they didn’t have literally decades to figure out a solid story for the famous foursome thanks to the mountain of comic books at their disposal. What made the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee creation so special was the family unit they formed through their partnership. Most superheroes tend to be solitary figures, so seeing a group of heroes combine their powers to fight evil was exciting and new. While Brad Bird didn’t specifically model his family of “supers,” the Parrs, after the blue-and-white clad Marvel team, their traits definitely hew closely to the powers they possess. Bob, aka Mr. Incredible (Emmy winner Craig T. Nelson, Coach, Poltergeist), has super strength, like The Thing. Helen aka Elastigirl (Oscar winner Holly Hunter, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou? “He’s bonified!”), is modeled after Mr. Fantastic. Violet (Sarah Vowell, This American Life) has the same powers as The Invisible Woman. Baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile, Maeve Andrews) turns out to be a polymorph, with multiple super powers, including a fire ability. This leaves Dash (Spencer Fox, Kim Possible), whose super speed closely resembles Quicksilver or, more obviously, Marvel’s mortal enemy, DC’s The Flash. The villain of the film, Syndrome (Jason Lee, Mallrats, Dogma) is an amalgamation of many megalomaniacal bad guys, one of which is The Fantastic Four’s original protagonist, Dr. Doom. Samuel L. Jackson’s heroic Frozone has much more in common with super villains like Mr. Freeze and Captain Cold. It’s a real mish-mash that feels both fresh and familiar.

One of my biggest gripes, and one which Marvel finally rectified with the introduction of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the inclusion of an origin story. Counting the Oley Sassone/Roger Corman’s film (produced by talented asshole Bernd Eichinger), there have been three origin stories for the four Fantastic Four films made. Do you think that’s enough? The MCU simply trusted that we would know and accept who Spider-Man was and didn’t waste any time during his solo films to show him getting bit by the spider and blah, blah, blah... The Incredibles starts off brilliantly by dropping us right into a world full of superheroes. Their identities are a secret, unlike The Fantastic Four, oddly enough, but everyone knows they’ll be there to help. Long before both DC and the MCU presented a more consequential and realistic worldview of the collateral damage the antics of superheroes can cause, Bird’s Oscar-nominated script tackled this issue head-on. Hell, I guess when Superman has the magical ability to somehow repair The Great Wall with his eyes like in The Quest for Peace, nobody really worries about the millions of dollars it’ll take to fix up a building or twenty. Bird provides a morbid twist, quite a dark idea for what is purportedly a children’s film, when Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man from the sweet, sweet release of death. The man’s eventual lawsuit against the burly hero opens up the floodgates for more legal and financial troubles for Mr. Incredible and the rest of the superhero community. The Superhero Relocation Program is initiated and it’s all over. The “playful banter” between Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible is replaced by chaotic family dinners and a crushing existential crisis. 

While the comic book-flavor of The Incredibles is evident, the production design actually has more in common with the films of James Bond. The villain literally resides in a volcano. There’s an Edith Head-inspired character (with traces of Linda Hunt and Anna Wintour included for good measure) Edna Mode, who provides the costumes and, in essence, the gadgets, like Bond’s Q.. Random henchmen. Flying machines. The works. Another major element which places the story firmly in Bond territory is its ambiguous period setting. 1962 is usually the date most people come up with due to the cars and fashion style (along with a newspaper shot which Bird regrets including), but the film features incongruous bits which indicate technology that wouldn’t exist for quite some time. This isn’t in regard to Syndrome’s highly advanced weaponry or the other ridiculous contraptions used throughout the film. But the inclusion of videotape technology indicates a much different era. The film isn’t supposed to take place in any specific time, so the film simultaneously achieves both a futuristic and retro feel. Action scenes play out with verve and intensity, while always keeping a foot planted in the movie’s reality, which is a world in which superheroes exist but they’re not invulnerable.  

The trajectory of Brad Bird’s career hasn’t been one of up’s and down’s so much as it remained consistent. It’s as if he were playing a featured character in a play that has a few stand-out scenes but is never given the chance to star in his own vehicle. Starting out as an animator, his credits include Mickey’s Christmas Carol (a favorite of mine from childhood) and the stunning and very non-Disney The Plague Dogs (1982). His work as an executive consultant includes some of the best animated series of the 90’s: The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and The Critic. He even directed the ridiculously popular “Do the Bartman” video, which was later ridiculed by, of all people, Ralph. “That is so 1991.” His work as a writer already revealed his sensibilities as a fantasist, with two teleplays for Amazing Stories and *batteries not included (1988). 1999’s The Iron Giant should’ve been Brad Bird’s big coming-out party. Now an absolute classic and beloved by pretty much everyone, Warner Brothers severely shit the bed with a garbage promotional campaign and a hesitant approach thanks to the forgotten failure Quest for Camelot (1998). One has to assume that WB figured anything without Batman in it was a lost cause. The failure of the critically-acclaimed Giant was heartbreaking, but he came roaring back less than five years later. 

If you base your presumptions about Brad Bird’s personality and work ethic on his films alone, an understandable conclusion to draw would be that he’s a visionary who must be full of joy and wonderment. While those facets are certainly there, he’s also a hard taskmaster and an uncompromising artist, for better or worse. On Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino describes his meeting with Bird as being somewhat tense. He was warned that working with the auteur would be arduous and likely frustrating, but he was assured that Bird would be working just as hard to make certain the film would be successful. The Incredibles was Pixar’s first foray into an animated film populated entirely by human characters. There’s a reason the first Toy Story (1995), while a groundbreaking achievement and a modern classic, is often gently ridiculed for featuring toys that look human and humans that look plastic toys. The technology available in the early aughts still had limitations, but through Herculean efforts and a “think outside the box” attitude, the film would mark a significant turning point both technically and aesthetically for the studio which was co-founded by Bird’s old CalArts buddy, John Lasseter. 

Following the huge box office success (and double Oscar win for Best Animated Feature and Best Sound Editing), Pixar would continue its hot streak with Cars (2006), a well-liked film which unfortunately led to the less well-received Cars 2 (2011). Brad Bird returned a few years later to deliver what is arguably one of the most original films ever produced by the animation giant. Ratatouille (2007, featuring comic genius Patton Oswalt), is quite simply an insane idea. A rat in Paris harbors a secret desire to cook gourmet food. It’s an absolutely out-of-this-world concept that somehow works. It seemed that Bird could do no wrong, turning his skilled eye toward live-action and hit paydirt with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011). Ghost Protocol was very impressive and reinvigorated the franchise, although J.J. Abrams’ earlier Mission Impossible III (2006) had been a step-up from John Woo’s divisive Mission Impossible II (2000). Sadly, it feels as though Bird got too big for his britches with Tomorrowland (2015). It’s difficult to gauge whether or not the director had let success go to his head or if the story itself was never destined to be particularly interesting. Either way, it all came crashing down. Fans had been clamoring for a sequel to The Incredibles for years. After all, now that the super family was assembled, why not let them go on some more adventures? All of the world-building was finished. In a bold but satisfying move, the Parr’s latest adventure begins right where the previous film left off. But how did we get to this point?

Once you’re famous, you stay famous. I firmly believe that while a celebrity’s status in the public consciousness can waver and even fade, as long as one person remembers, you won’t be forgotten. If Toy Story were made today, I’m doubtful Tim Allen would be Buzz Lightyear. Tom Hanks is still an A-lister, but Tim Allen’s fame is very much rooted in the 90’s. Craig T. Nelson is a trickier beast to peg down. An actor whose tough-guy looks tended to get him cast as hard asses (Stir Crazy), he’d break through with Poltergeist and have a successful, if undistinguished run in the 80’s as an occasional leading man, although it seems he understood that playing a supporting role fit him best (Troop Beverly Hills, Silkwood, Action Jackson). Coach was a hugely successful sitcom which endeared him to millions and The District provided him with steady employment into the early 2000s. His casting as Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible feels very much “of the time,” but thanks to his excellent work, he re-invented himself as a comedic actor and appeared in lighter fare like Blades of Glory and The Proposal. The relationship between Bob and Helen is nuanced and full of layers. While Helen would get more attention in the sequel, the first Incredibles works very well as a redemptive tale for Bob.

Holly Hunter’s talent is undeniable. Her odd vocal cadence and alternately elegant and fiery screen presence gives Helen a bite and an attitude that other actresses may not have been able to achieve through vocal performance alone. Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is quite a film, although it’s unfortunate that the role falls under the Oscars’ tendency to reward an actor for a disability rather than a performance. I believe her Oscar win was a make-up for her extraordinary work in Broadcast News (1987). Her later work in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen are a constant reminder of her versatility. In The Incredibles, she’s quietly heartbreaking as she comes to believe her husband is cheating on her.

The MCU has been heavily criticized for its lack of memorable villains. This is a reasonable critique since a superhero film should only be as good as its villain, in most cases, at least. MCU movies tend to succeed despite the lack of a great antagonist. One very annoying recurring motif in Bond movies of late is the pointless personal connections the heroes and villains must have. Whatever happened to two perfect strangers with no connection and nothing in common being at odds with one another? Skyfall and Spectre insisted on Bond having deep connections to his enemy. It’s less problematic in superhero films. The 1989 Batman’s decision to make Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents added a level of tragedy and revenge to what would have been merely a battle of wills between two opposing forces. Jason Lee’s Buddy Pine begins the film as a Mr. Incredible fan boy with dreams of becoming just like his hero. He’s a well-written creation since he has the brains and the willingness to achieve something great, and while Mr. Incredible makes a sensible decision and refuses to allow Pine to join him, that rejection inadvertently sends Pine on a much darker path. Fast-forward 15 years, Pine has become a millionaire arms dealer who could probably make the world a better place if he’d been urged to follow a more positive course of action. Lee has always had a talent for being a wiseass and while his collaborations with Kevin Smith may be his finest work so far, films like Almost Famous and even the silly Dreamcatcher remind us that Lee does his best work when he’s constantly pointing out everyone else’s flaws. Syndrome’s evil plan is both complicated and surprisingly simple. It’s not your standard “world domination” deal. The plan itself is more vindictive and angrier. It’s meant to hurt Mr. Incredible’s pride by giving everyone in the world super-powered gadgets, thereby rendering extraordinary people like him obsolete. 

The cast is rounded out by Jackson, whose yelling match with his unseen wife was a big selling point when the trailers for The Incredibles were released. Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox never become annoying or unbearably obnoxious and Bird is smart to introduce genuine danger for them after they’ve arrived on Syndrome’s island. It seems legitimately possible that they could be killed by the various obstacles which surround them. A plot detail which in turn strengthens Syndrome’s character. He’s willing to murder children.

The Incredibles was a major technical and artistic leap forward for the already-successful studio. In fact, The Incredibles could even be somewhat responsible for the studio’s minor artistic dips over the years. Up until Bird’s film, Pixar films were funny and heart-rending, but they still felt very much like cartoons, albeit highly sophisticated cartoons. They were filled with wacky, colorfully rendered creatures. Once Pixar had established a successful house-style which could comfortably portray human characters without dipping into the disturbing realm of the Uncanny Valley, they were able to continue exploring deep emotional themes without the necessity of using animals or monsters to get their message across. Now, audience expectations continued to fly sky high. Clearly, Pixar is at the forefront of the animation field. They’re the gold standard which other studios try, sometimes desperately, to catch up to. Some animation studios, like Laika, strive to create visually impressive works of art, but what sets Pixar apart is their ability to merge art with commerce. Nearly all of their films have made money and none of them are outright bad. Some are simply better than others. Brad Bird’s mature approach and relentless drive for perfection led to a movie filled with wit, humor, and outstanding action.