Why Be Normal?
That teaser trailer — you know the one I’m talking about — with the fat old ex-superhero struggling to get into his spandex costume? It left such a bad taste in my mouth whenever I contemplated the film that must go with it. I imagined a gang of former masked crusaders called out of happy retirement, reluctantly huffing and puffing their way back into action, replete with very unfunny cracks about getting fat and old, and probably with an even more unfunny getting-into-shape-à-la-Rocky sequence thrown in for good measure.
The Incredibles is so not that film. It is so so-not-that-film that it’s running neck-and-neck with Toy Story 2 as the best Pixar film ever, nay, as one of the best animated movies ever made; it’s running neck-and-neck with Spider-Man 2 as the best superhero movie ever made. If you love these kinds of movies like I do, then you cannot miss this film… but you probably don’t need me to tell you that, because you’ve already planned a night at the multiplex with all your geek pals followed by a roundtable dissection at the diner (you’re gonna have a lot to talk about). If you’re not sure if you like these kinds of movies, do yourself a favor and check this one out, because labels like “superhero,” “animated,” and “geeky” aside, this is simply a great film, overflowing with humor and heart and soul and with lots of interesting things to say about love and family and following your dreams and the priorities of our society.
Sheesh, I’m used to trailers being misleading, of course, but they’re usually misleading in the other direction.
Plenty folks will dismiss The Incredibles because it is, on the surface, about things that the unenlightened don’t appreciate as serious — to wit: people in brightly colored longjohns who fight crime. Those of us who know that there’s a lot more going on behind the secret-identity-protecting masks even in shoddy superhero stories will feel this resonate on a deeper level: it understands the roots of what makes superheroes so appealing in the first place. In this retro-future world, a sort of Jetsons 1960s, the public has turned against supernaturally endowed crimefighters (allusions to Alan Moore’s Watchmen abound; ditto X-Men), who are now forced to live in hiding, suppressing their superpowers. Bob Parr (the voice of Craig T. Nelson), formerly the unusually strong Mr. Incredible, now lives in vanilla suburbia with his wife, Helen (the voice of Holly Hunter: Little Black Book, Thirteen), once Elastigirl, and their kids, Dash (the voice of Spencer Fox) and Violet (the voice of Sarah Vowell). Bob is being crushed into conformity as a “cooperative cog” at an insurance company, but what really rankles him is that young Dash, with super speed, cannot express this natural gift in a normal way for a kid, like on the school track team.
That’s the crux of The Incredibles: the fight against a culture that celebrates mediocrity and conformity and looks with suspicion upon any deviation from the norm. Superhero stories appeal to geek types — who tend to have grown up smart and talented in ways that the rest of the world couldn’t always understand or make use of (at least before the Internet came along) — precisely because, typically, they represent the fantasy of being applauded for being weird. The Incredibles takes the scenario another step, like Watchmen and X-Men do — how would people with unusual abilities and/or tendencies toward vigilantism really be treated by the world? — but on a far more personal level. We watch the spirit getting snuffed out of Bob in a way that anyone who’s worked in a cube will recognize — if there’s a more soul-destroying bit of doublespeak than “cooperative cog,” I’ve yet to hear it — and then we rejoice as he starts living life out of the box again, recommencing his superhero hobby on the sly. Bob/Mr. Incredible has a lot in common with Thomas Anderson/Neo, discovering a niche for himself in a world that wants little to do with him.
Don’t be fooled by the “From the creators of Finding Nemo” thing — though there’s nothing inappropriate for kids’ tender eyes or ears, this is no kiddie story. The man behind the curtain here is writer/director Brad Bird, whose Iron Giant found the serious business in pulp stories, too; like Toy Story 2, this is a grownup exploration of supposedly childish things. But that isn’t to say there isn’t pure fun to be had, too. Bird and his animators are brilliantly inventive, with words and imagery, from that “cooperative cog” joke to a bit-part supervillain with the wonderfully evocative name of Bomb Voyage; from the deliberate summoning of such geek touchstones as Jurassic Park and Star Wars (they restage the speeder-bike chase from Jedi) to the nods toward another milestone in CGI storytelling, the game Myst and its sequel, Riven. Bird’s most outrageous and delightful invention, however, is Edna Mode (whom Bird himself voices, to hilarious effect), the gnomelike fashion designer-slash-mad scientist who creates superhero costumes. Her explanation of why capes are a bad idea is instantly one of the classic moments in all of film history.
Bird, clearly, is a man who has given great thought to all the ramifications of super-dom, which is why he’s my new geek hero. Who needs normality when being weird is this much fun?
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2004