This summer was a major time of transition for Pixar. Everybody’s favorite dream factory was leaving its comfort zone and tackling a genre it had never attempted before with a pair of directors who were not returning veterans. Rivals and true believers alike waited with baited breath to see if Pixar’s latest gamble would succeed. It did. Yet despite the hype and fanfare, this should not have been surprising. After all, Pixar thrilled and delighted audiences with a similar departure only eight years ago in a little movie called The Incredibles.
Once upon a time, this superhero classic was not always considered a sure bet. Released in October 2004, the mask-and-cape craze was only beginning to take Hollywood by storm. There was no shared Marvel movie universe and no rising Dark Knight. The idea of mainstream audiences embracing a team of squabbling superheroes seemed as far out as a thunder god battling aliens in New York. But Pixar, the ambitious studio that could, hired then-outsider Brad Bird to realize his groovy vision. What they got was more than a savvy box office hit ahead of the curve, but a witty and touching satire of the greatest danger of all: suburban domesticity.
The adventure begins when Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) marries Helen (Elastagirl) in the movie’s prologue. The two spend their idyllic days fighting crime and exchanging flirtatious banter. At the altar, Bob assures his bride this life will go on forever. Alas, when a suicidal jumper sues Mr. Incredible for causing physical injury while saving his life, the legal floodgates open. The government, which is spending millions on punitive damages for the “Supers,” finally has enough and forces them to retire with the Superhero Relocation Program. Fifteen years after hanging up the spandex, Bob and Helen are still happily married and living with their three children, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack, in the Metroville suburbs. Bob works 9-to-5 at a local insurance company and Helen teaches her super-children to hide their gifts. However, a sense of ominous complacency and boredom has befallen the Power Couple. After losing his job because he freaked out at his boss’s heartlessness, Bob decides to stop reminiscing about the “glory days” and instead relives them by working for a mysterious woman named Mirage. But when her employer turns out to be Syndrome, a stalker of Supers from Mr. Incredible’s past, Bob’s nostalgia threatens to destroy his whole family.
Despite a somewhat predictable storyline, The Incredibles is a truly remarkable family dramedy that just happens to be about superheroes. The driving force of the movie is not a villain who threatens the main protagonists or even the world. Instead, writer-director Bird keeps the story focused squarely on a family who is undergoing the same universal problems that almost everybody can understand. For the younger audience, middle son Dash (Spencer Fox) is an abrasive and relatable character who is apprehensive as to why he must hold back and be respectful of his teachers and peers—which in his case literally means not running around the school a hundred times per minute. His older sister, Violet (Sarah Vowell), is a shy teenager who has the special ability to truly make herself invisible to boys in her class. In both cases, superpowers are just extensions of how all adolescents feel at a certain point growing up.
Still, the real strength of the movie comes from the relationship between Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter). While never losing sight of the family-friendly adventure he’s crafting, Bird makes a story about marriage and relationships that older viewers can thoroughly enjoy. After the fifteen-year interlude, Bob has become overweight and oblivious to his family’s daily troubles. When Helen is making sure her children don’t blow up the neighborhood with their bickering, Bob is sneaking out with his old buddy, Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), for low-key night patrols around the block. Only once Bob finally squeezes his gut back into the Mr. Incredible costume to work for Mirage does he find the energy to start lifting weights—or in his case, trains—and the passion to stay late with his wife after the kids leave for school. Sadly, his turnaround is based on a lie. He trades in the suffocating cage he calls a car for a convertible and tells his wife he is moving up the insurance ladder while he is really preparing himself to fight giant robots on a tropical island. His wife is initially not worried that Bob is running out to do battle with megalomaniacal villains, but she is terrified by the thought of him having an affair with the woman he’s always on the phone with. Even if the story does not have decades of intricate and nuanced comic continuity, The Incredibles is one of the most mature and layered films ever released about guys in colorful tights who spend their free time smacking each other around.
And when they do fight, it is spectacular. The action scenes are rendered magnificently by a company known for its vibrant colors and artistry. Whether the family fights against a metallic and tentacled beast on the island’s jungle or they struggle against an even bigger metal monstrosity in a downtown metropolis, the fluidity and ease with which they use their powers is stunning. Clearly channeling the look of 1960s Marvel comics, Bird practically owes a ‘Special Thanks’ credit to Jack Kirby. Also a major influence on Bird’s vision is the 007 series of the same era. Michael Giacchino’s score pulsates with the slickness of a John Barry theme. When Syndrome, a superb Jason Lee whose celebrity-obsessed villain makes Perez Hilton look lovable, reveals his evil lair is in a volcano, I expected Sean Connery to make an animated appearance.
Indeed, what makes the animation of The Incredibles especially noteworthy is it was the studio’s first attempt to use humans as its main characters. Despite being their sixth film, all Pixar movies up to this point had used toys, ants or imaginary monsters as protagonists. Animators spent hours filming themselves walking to better understand human motion and created new technology to master anatomy, hair and skin texture. All the effort was worth it, because the finished film remains one of the studio’s best looking and most stylish pictures to date.
Even so, the reason The Incredibles is still memorable almost a decade later is its laser-like focus on the issues that matter to most audience members: love, family and relationships. Bird understands the concept of superheroes not as merely a fanciful daydream, but as an allegory for all the things that affect our everyday lives. It is certainly an idea we have seen revisited again from different angles in the eight years since this movie dropped. But perhaps, the most thoughtful and adult interpretation we have yet seen of the superhero genre is the animated one distributed by Disney. The fact that it’s a family flick only adds another layer to this gnarly film’s charm.