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Non-Review Review: The Incredibles

I think Pixar’s The Incredibles must stand as one of their best productions – alongside Finding Nemo, perhaps. It’s certainly one of their more conventional entries in the Pixar stable, in that it’s offered in the blockbuster format of the decade (superhero adventure), but – like the very best of their work – it’s so much more. A whole host of Pixar’s films – Toy Story and Finding Nemo chief among them – deal with the notion of paternal abandonment (though perhaps more fond of addressing the story of parents abandoned by kids, rather than kids abandoned by adults), but The Incredibles is perhaps the one which best deals with the challenges that managing a ‘functioning’ family.

That's one incredible family...

The fear expressed rather wonderfully through the film is the fear of somehow sacrificing something unique and special in order to “settle down”. The notion that we lose something “incredible” when we become “normal”. Indeed, the movie uses the rather common superhero storytelling device of requiring superheroes to register and retire (indeed, that’s not they only debt that the story owes to Alan Moore’s Watchmen). Here they find themselves in suburbia, forced to blend in. The father becomes an insurance salesman. The son, a speedster, is forced not to run too fast lest he draw attention to the family.

This becomes something of a mid-life crisis for a couple in love. The movie skilfully juxtaposes their whirlwind romance (in a charming opening sequence as Mister Incredible struggles to get to the church on time), with the mundane reality that life becomes. It’s a crushing normality. A perfectly sculpted body (indeed, perfectly sculpted bodies) fade with age, giving way to fat and stretchmarks. There’s no thrill in life, no excitement. The suburban lifestyle threatens to suffocate them – even the kids, who have never even tasted a free and easy life.

As the plot unfoulds, the mundane day-to-day chores encourage Mister Incredible to branch out and find ways of satisfying his lust for adventure. It starts low-key, with the husband and father sneaking out with his best friend to foil robberies in the dead of night, but quickly escalates. Before he knows it, he’s jet-setting around the world with younger women for weekends, lying to his wife that it’s “work stuff”. Pixar’s magic has always been in relating the fantastic to everyday and human concerns. It’s frequently argued that Toy Story is actually the story of fathers and sons rather than toys and kids, and The Incredibles is – despite it’s stylish facade – a story about the disintegration of a family unit, and the conflict between an individual’s wants and desires and those of his family (there’s a great moment – and one that ties in with the bizarre close-to-life moments that the Pixar group seem to effortlessly find in their fantastic scenarios – when hero Fro-Zone witnesses the chaos outside and tries to intervene for “the greater good”, only for his wife to declare, “Greater good? I am your wife! I am the greatest good you are ever going to meet!”).

Mister Incredible is dashing...

Still, this is a Pixar film, so it’s entertaining even without the insightful undertones. The Incredibles belongs on the shortlist of the very best “superhero” films, and is perhaps the closest to a translation of Alan Moore’s genre masterpiece Watchmen to the silver screen. There’s a wonderful retro sixties chic to it all, not only in the superhero influence (the family is clearly the Fantastic Four, down to stretchiness and invisibility/force field manipulation), but also in a throwback to the James Bond movies of the era. The villain’s island base is more fitting a Bond villain than a supervillain, and his underground launch facility is more You Only Live Twice than Superman. Hell, the soundtrack is complete Bond, with whailing trumpets and full orchestra for extra “oomph”.

The film is also just superbly executed. Witness, for instance the climactic action sequences – calling back to classic set pieces (in particular a shoutout to the Endor chase in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi), but being equally inventive and entertaining (for instance a scene with Miss Incredible and several locked doors). Everything is pulled off with the typical skill and puh-zaz that one expects from Pixar, with the action setpieces matching any conventional blockbuster.

Even with everything else going on (and there’s a lot), Pixar find the time to not only transcend the genre, but also explore its potential. There’s something telling that the villain of the piece is an ascended fanboy – perhaps the most fearsome adversary of mainstream comic book and the most destructive influence on the genre over the past few decades. He even wears a black-themed superhero costume, all the rage for superheroes in the nineties. Indeed, there’s a wonderful moment where Mister Incredible threatens to kill a henchwoman in order to get the villian to stand down, only for the bad guy to deride him, “That sounds a little dark for you”, as if to suggest that there’s something too outdated and out of touch about him.

It’s somewhat reassuring that Pixar aren’t afraid of the inherent Disney-fication of the movie’s core moral. It would be easy to play through the motions with the story’s central moral – “there’s nothing worse than pretending to be normal when you’re exceptional” – without thinking through the implications. Not everyone can be incredible – and that’s a tough message to even dare to imply in today’s cineplex, with it’s political correctness and can-do attitude. Still, the guys at Pixar play the story out to its logical conclusion. The suggestion that such gifts could be given to the public at large, to allow everyone the chance to be exceptional, isn’t greeted with the false optimism one might expect (all power to the people! or such nonsense) – it’s instead offered a more honest and consistent perspective. “When everyone’s super,” one character concedes, “no one will be.”

The voice cast is, as one would expect from Pixar, exceptional. Leads Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter continue to be two of the more underrated actors in Hollywood (and yes, she’s still underrated despite an Oscar). Samuel L. Jackson drips the effortless cool of a seventies-style fashion-centric playboy superhero (and Fro-Zone is a kick-ass codename). And Jason Lee makes a great foil, because I’m always a fan of seeing Jason Lee given work – if only because he’s awesome.

The Incredibles is a great film – I’d rate it as among Pixar’s very best. It’s smart and sophisticated, but also entertaining and rewarding. It’s a great example of what Pixar do best – “family” films that don’t lock out the adults in the audience. Pixar are the real superheroes here.

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