THE INCREDIBLES: Reliving the Glory Days is Better Than Acting Like They Never Happened

The Incredibles (2004) – The 6th Pixar Animated Feature – Directed by Brad Bird – Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Peña, Brad Bird, and Wallace Shawn.

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THE INCREDIBLES is a near-perfect film.

The only problem I have with Brad Bird’s animated masterpiece is that the film falls into that old comic book trap of having the bad guy be a physical oddity. Buddy Pine/Syndrome (Jason Lee) is the weirdest looking character in the film and the largest social misfit; this is a simple and frankly childish typing of the “abnormal” character as the bad guy. We know Buddy is evil because he’s got crooked teeth and a misshaped head and he’s a geeky nerd, so of course he’s going to grow up and be an evil scientific genius-slash-super villain.

Buddy is annoying, sure, and he has no business inserting himself into the super-powered life of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). Mr. Incredible has every right to send him home and rebuff Buddy’s efforts to be his sidekick, and it’s totally on Buddy that he grows up to be a megalomaniac, and that he can’t realize that he’s a freaking rich man with his own island a super-smoking assistant named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) and enough cash to pay for an army of henchman.

That’s not enough for Buddy, though, so he pulls a Hank Pym and builds a giant robot that looks like the Death Star sprouted Doctor Octopus legs. Buddy’s plan is to kill all the retired heroes (a federally-mandated retirement), sick the robot on Metroville, and then swoop in and save the day.

Buddy and Mr. Incredible are both dissatisfied with their lots in life, and both look past the people around them to feed their own egos. Mr. Incredible liked being a hero. The film opens in the glory days of super heroes, with Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible’s) dressed in a tux and on the way to an undisclosed event. He’s in a great mood and as criminal activity reports come in on the police scanner, he checks his watch and decides there’s time to play hero before his date. He does, stops one bad guy, but then Buddy inserts himself as “Incrediboy,” Mr. Incredible’s sidekick. Buddy’s interference causes Mr. Incredible’s attempt to stop Bomb Voyage to be less than successful, but he does make it to the church on time.

That’s right, the church. Mr. Incredible is marrying Elastigirl/Helen, with a sparsely attended service of supers in attendance. It’s a bit odd, but perfectly comic book, that Bob and Helen are dressed in civilian attire, but much of the crowd is dressed in their costumes.

Shortly thereafter, everything goes to junk. During the Bomb Voyage episode, Mr. Incredible saved the life of a man that was jumping to his death. As a result, the man in alive but injured and he sues Mr. Incredible for “ruining his death.” This starts a flurry of lawsuits against the supers. The public opinion swings against them and in response, the government shuts the heroes down. They institute a “Supers Relocation Program” and force the heroes to play normal.

Fifteen years or so later and Bob and Helen Parr are living in suburbia, raising three kids: Violent (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox), and Jack. Really, its Helen who’s raising the kids. Bob works in the city at an insurance agency and hates everything about it, which is effecting his role as a parent. Which is basically to say, he’s a fat, depressive shell of who he used to be. Helen’s job as a mother would be incredibly difficult raising a teenager, a pre-teen, and a baby under any circumstances, but her two oldest kids have super powers that they’re not allowed to use, and Dash is completely full of attitude.

Bob is of no help to Helen. During the day he’s forced to play company man, screwing people out of their insurance claims. To Bob’s credit, he hates doing it, and helps them on the sly because it gives him some of the old thrill of being heroic. When he gets home, though, he’s a miserable human being. Helen and he have reached a point in their relationship and he’s reached a point in his life where he’s almost completely checked out of being a husband and a dad. Helen has to do everything, begging Bob to take his role as father seriously.

Bob would rather lock himself away in his private study, sitting among his old costumes, newspaper reports, and trophies.

When Helen catches him after a night out of playing hero (“Is that rubble on your shirt?) with Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), Bob snaps, “Reliving the glory days is better than acting like they never happened!”

Bob has set up a false binary; it’s not about reliving them versus pretending like they never happened, at all, it’s about living in the past versus living in the present, and Bob isn’t living in the present. Bob is so depressed and so entrenched in his own pitiful stupor that he’s completely failing as a family man. The only time he shows any life at home is when Dash talks about using his superpowers – an act that Helen is trying to discourage because when they get caught using their powers, they have to be relocated yet again, and the inference is that they’ve been relocated several times, already.

Bob ends up getting called into his the office of his supervisor (Wallace Shawn) to get read the riot act about how his clients always seem to know the ways to get the insurance company to pay up. Frustration at his job and his supervisor’s insistence that Bob not leave the office to go help someone being mugged causes him to snap. He knocks his boss through multiple walls and gets fired.

Depressed at having to tell Helen, Bob gets a message from Mirage and is brought to an island to capture a robot. It’s Buddy’s island and Buddy’s robot, but Bob doesn’t know this, yet. His defeat of the robot sends his spirits soaring and he’s making enough money working for Mirage that he doesn’t have to tell Helen he got fired. With his spirits boosted, Bob starts working out again, and while he never gets back to his glory days’ weight, he loses enough weight that he could model for a very successful “before” and “after” advertisement.

Eventually, Buddy makes himself and his plan known to Bob, and captures him. Back in Metroville, Helen notices that Bob’s old costume has a new repair job, so she goes to Edna Mode (Brad Bird), the fashionista/costume designer. Edna has a surprise for her – a new costume not only for her, but the entire Parr family. Helen realizes that Bob has been lying to her and she sets off to find him.

Well, she makes a pit stop at home first, and her insatiably curious son sees the costumes and before you know it, Helen is on a plane to the private island with Violet and Dash hidden in the back. Buddy, who now goes by the name Syndrome, sends missiles after them and destroys the plane. It’s a well-executed, high tension scene that sees Helen panicking a bit and ordering Violent to extend her force field bubble around the whole jet. Violent can’t do it; she’s never’s extended her bubble that far and especially not under these circumstances, so the missiles hit the jets and the family falls to the ocean below. Helen saves them and they swim to shore, hiding out in a cave. Helen leaves the kids behind and goes on a rescue mission.

The rest of the movie pours on the action. We get fantastically executed sequences on the island, inside Syndrome’s compound, and in Metroville as the Incredible family becomes a family of superheroes.

THE INCREDIBLES works from start to finish on nearly every level. The look is bright and inviting, the characters are well-rounded and human, and the music (from Michael Giacchino) is brassy and upbeat.

All of the main characters have multiple aspects to their personality. Helen can be playful, cross, sly, focused, and frazzled. Dash is scattered and a troublemaker, but he’s not lacking in intelligence. When his mom gets on his case about using his powers, he shoots back, “You always say, ‘Do your best,’ but you don’t really mean it. Why can’t I do the best I can do?” Violet is shy at school but a force at home. As they progress through the film, we see them functioning as a real family unit; they can get angry with one another but when it counts, they’re there for one another.

Mirage is a fascinating character, too, as she betrays her loyalty to Syndrome to help the Parrs out. Now, we don’t know if she was involved in all of the previous superhero murders that Syndrome has brought about, but here, at least, we see the decency of Mr. Incredible (which is there, once you get past all the self-despair and then let him burn out his ego boost) and the power of family causing her to turn against Syndrome.

And then there’s this:

THE INCREDIBLES really isn’t totally a superhero movie, at all.

It’s also a James Bond movie.

Now, practically the only thing keeping Bond from being a superhero is a costume, and Bird wonderfully combines and exploits the two genres to take the best of both. Giacchino’s music is clearly Bond-inspired, and while the first-half set-up is superhero based, the rescue and island battle are reminiscent of plenty of Bond films. Where the Bond films usually use the big island action piece as the final act, INCREDIBLES uses it in the middle of the film, then sends everyone back to Metroville for the big superhero finish. I love the retro vibe of INCREDIBLES, though, that cleverly folds the superhero family in with a James Bond villain, making this feel like a very different, very fresh movie.

Actions and costumes bring the Parr family together, and after the big robot has been defeated and Syndrome killed, we see that they’ve adjusted to normal life. Dash gets to go out for sports, though he’s not allowed to win. I’m not sure how this is any better for Dash than not competing, but it seems to make him happy. It’s a shame some non-super powered kid doesn’t get a trophy just to satisfy Dash’s ego, but I suppose it’s a small price for humanity to pay in exchange for Dash playing a role in saving it.

It’s easy to see why Brad Bird jumped at the chance to direct Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol because THE INCREDIBLES is the same kind of movie. I respect Bird’s decision to go live action, but it’s a bit of a shame, too. This is the guy who’s written and directed three huge animated winners: The Iron Giant, THE INCREDIBLES, and Ratatouille. There’s lots of folks who can put together a really good action film (which is what Ghost Protocol is) but there’s not a lot of people who can match his track record in animation. Ultimately, I believe we get the best stories when artists are doing what they want, and if Bird wants to do live action movies, we’ll probably get better movies. Hopefully, that desire will lead him back to animation at some point in his career.

If not, well, he’s left us three winners. THE INCREDIBLES is first-rate film making, from a film maker and a company at the height of their powers.