One of the stranger aspects of animation is how production studios tend to be viewed in auteurist terms. Mention Disney, Studio Ghibli or Pixar and people can get an instant image in their heads despite the disparities of style and content between movies produced by various directors and various animation teams all getting their paycheck at the same place. Brad Bird, however, is one of the few animators who enjoys any singular auterist cred, carrying pet themes across projects and displaying a love for a chic past with styles based off old advertisements.
Following the release of his magnificent retro sci-fi picture The Iron Giant, Bird hooked up with old pal and Pixar head John Lasseter and pitched a superhero movie for the studio. Yet despite the swap from traditional animation (with some digital elements) to 3-D CGI, The Incredibles looks like a logical stylistic continuation of Bird's retro style and love of isolated heroes. When I first saw it as a 15-year-old, The Incredibles instantly became my favorite Pixar movie, only to go years without watching it. Using the new Blu-Ray release as an excuse to rediscover the film, I approached it with nostalgia, but also reminders of some of the criticisms I'd read since I last watched it a few years ago.
Brad Bird loves stories about unique, gifted individuals persecuted for being different. Whether it's the kind robot with enough arsenal to take out the planet if angered or a rat with impeccable culinary prowess, Bird's protagonists must always suffer the constraints of a society that refuses to acknowledge them as anything but freaks. The same is true of The Incredibles: Bird slyly posits a society in which the common people take legal action against superheroes over the collateral damage they cause. He kicks off the idea with an absurdity, a suicidal man suing the main character, Mr. Incredible, for preventing his death and injuring him, only for the passengers of a train that almost derailed because of his mistake to also sue for damages. Cops used to chase Batman and Spider-Man to make them stop, but all that really needed to be done was for a lawyer to get involved.
Some, though, have interpreted Bird's views as Randian, of the special individual held back by the collective. To be sure, Bird clearly has a bone to pick with standout members of society being ostracized. "Everybody's special," says exasperated super-mom Helen to her lightning fast son Dash when he begs to show off his skills on the running track. "Which is another way of saying no one is," he grumbles in response. He's right, though: one doesn't need to be conservative to agree that too much effort is wasted making everyone feel special these days and that groups of people celebrate mediocrity because they see themselves in it. Why else would anyone allow an idiot like Sarah Palin to hold any office while high school dropouts have the temerity to call Barack Obama, who received a doctorate from Harvard, an idiot?
Besides, Bird does not celebrate the individual so much as show how the individual can find his place among society. His standout characters never succeed without help, be it physical or emotional. More than any of his other movies, The Incredibles demonstrates the necessity of teamwork and family, downplaying Randian individualism for a more holistic integration of the average and the exceptional without ceding all control to either side.
In the opening scene, structured as a TV interview, Mr. Incredible and other heroes talk about their lives and future paths. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) thinks of settling down while Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) defiantly insists upon staying in the game where she can continue to work outside of gender limitations. Yet soon the two marry and the roles reverse, trapping Bob in an office job and Helen at home cleaning and caring for the kids. Helen adjusts to the life and the superhero ban enacted in part because of Bob, who looks for any chance he can get to flex the muscles under his growing belly. The early-'60s aesthetic around them suggests lingering '50s conformity caging them in this banal life and creating internal strife within the family -- between spouses and with their children -- so outward appearances can be maintained.
A great deal of dark irony runs through the early sections of the film, from the suicidal man suing Mr. Incredible for making him live to the superhero's out-of-hand rejection of an eager fan, Buddy, despite the fact that the boy displays an impressive intelligence by inventing working jet boots before he hits middle school. The grimmest (but funniest) joke, puts Bob in an insurance office, where the man who wants to help people is tasking with finding ways to denying money to even the most airtight claims as an avaricious imp (Wallace Shawn) threatens to fire him for helping little old ladies get payments.
After establishing this stifling scenario, Bird suddenly pulls back and dramatically widens the scope, sending Mr. Incredible a mysterious job offer playing to his desire to get back in his suit. He arrives at an island complex that would make Ernst Stavro Blofeld green with envy, complete with volcano lair and advanced weapon facilities that bombastically mix epic-size superhero tropes with Connery-era Bond movies, complete with a wonderfully brassy score by Michael Giacchino that combines the work of John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. Compared to the limited sets of previous Pixar movies -- animators would make digital sets and then structure their shots and characters within those environments -- The Incredibles relies upon far more locations. Instead of scenes occurring entirely within one area, shots move across jungle and through compounds, necessitating potential weeks of animation for a few seconds of connecting action.
Eventually, Bob learns that the island is run by his old fan Buddy (Jason Lee), now calling himself Syndrome. Destroyed by Mr. Incredible's rejection, Syndrome vowed to get his revenge, and he hatches a Watchmen-esque plan to make himself a hero in the public eye while rubbing out all those born special to ensure his supremacy. Syndrome, I think, stands as a response to those who would fault Bird for elevating the privileged few over the sneering masses: the villain is far more a Randian ideal, someone who actually did work to get what he did instead of being inherently different. There's a tragedy to Buddy, the kid ignored by those who would not acknowledge his abilities, only to return and stamp them all out and assert his own dominance.
And yet, you have to hate him. The animators must have had a hell of a time avoiding the Uncanny Valley with this film, but the character models manage to ape human behavior and body language while containing enough exaggerations and suggestive properties that one does not feel uncomfortable with them. Syndrome, funnily enough based on Bird's likeness, oozes scheming, cowardly evil, showing off powers that give him an advantage over heroes but leave him defenseless when someone disarms him. Helen is elastic and pliant, a visual metaphor for her flexibility as a mother and housewife. Dash's slicked-back hair and Violet's shyness (hiding behind her hair even when she's not using her powers of invisibility) also make for expressive characterization.
When Peter Travers listed the film as one of his favorites of the last decade, he characteristically included his usual round of quote-whoring blurbs but rightly noted the sheer range of issues covered in the movie, such as "midlife crisis, marital dysfunction, child neglect, impotence fears, fashion faux pas and existential angst." Mr. Incredible most visibly struggles with his dissatisfaction, but all these characters to some degree feel alienated, to the point that they can't even find comfort in each other.
Not that the film isn't great entertainment. Its action scenes are so grandiose that the makers of Fantastic Four added more special effects to make their movie comparable (it didn't help), while its humor displays the classic Pixar reliance on situation over reference. Aesthetically, the film may be pastiche, but its dialogue is all its own: one of the film's most memorable moments is the rant on capes by Edna (Bird), the fashion designer to the gods, which cuts through any romantic view of superhero costumes with a hilarious list of mishaps that cost supers their lives.
In the end, though, what stands out is Bird's mature view of such adult issues of emotionally distant parenthood and marital discord, which he handles with such aplomb Steven Spielberg could even learn a few things about putting such themes in mainstream populist entertainment. Along with Don Hertzfeldt, Bird is my favorite contemporary American animator, and while I can understand the criticisms against this movie, I love it now more than I ever did. I don't even realize how cramped and centralized so many Pixar films are until I watch this, and its satire represented a new level of sophistication in the writing. Seven years on, it still deserves serious consideration as Pixar's best movie, or at least the studio's most entertaining outing.