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The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Pixar, the golden boy animators of the moment, return this season with The Incredibles, another entry in their series of dubious crowd-pleasers. It follows the tired formula as their past films. To follow up their tales of domesticated fish, domesticated monsters, domesticated insects, and domesticated toys, they now present domesticated superheroes. The plot this time out is as conventional as in any of the past Pixar films, borrowing liberally from the Spy Kids franchise, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” comics, and James Cameron’s far superior True Lies. The imagery, usually the highlight of these things, calls to mind this year’s wondrous Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but minus a soul. Sky Captain featured retro styling, much like The Incredibles, but in that film, the revelation that the supervillain behind the plot was already deceased made its datedness a downright poignant reminder of a lost era. Here, the clean, retro-futurist look mostly calls to mind the latest technological doodads from Apple Computer, and as a result, the visuals always seem to be selling to us. It has to be said that CGI spectacle is less the order of the day here than it has been in past Pixar films (Thankfully. After a while comes the realization that real water is more impressive to watch than any that is fabricated.). Additionally, the voice acting is more restrained than the non-stop yelling that has marred several of the studio’s past efforts, but something’s still rotten here, rendering The Incredibles as the least of the animation house’s efforts, by far.
At first, while watching The Incredibles, I was frustrated by its seemingly shortsighted lack of superheroes outside of its American borders. Only as the film developed, did the omission reveal itself as an intentional one. Director Brad Bird, whose Cold War-era Iron Giant was carried a very political message of anti-violence is clearly aiming this film at an Americentric, post-9/11 world. Strong, irresponsible imagery evokes the horrors of those attacks repeatedly. There are sequences showing a mother shielding her children from pillars of fire from above and exploding plane debris. There’s an extended shot of a plane flying into the southern tip of Manhattan island. There’s the constant reminder that the events in the film are about to end fifteen years of peace. That sort of association is dangerous when mishandled, and The Incredibles makes huge miscalculations in showing how these events affect its central characters.
The super-powered Parr family responds to threats on its family unit with bloodthirsty, vigilante retaliation. A supposedly exhilarating scene features a young boy and girl harnessing their superpowers to kill humans (not robots, as is the norm in the genre) in a series of Bruckheimereque explosions. No film, live action or animated, that I can recall, features children murdering so cavalierly. This sequence culminates in a team kill from Mom and Dad, followed by a mutual declaration of love. The effect is appalling, and the message is made clear: the family that slays together stays together. There are no scenes in which characters learn to use their powers responsibly (except for those that extol conformity), and no moments in which loss of life is felt. This summer’s Spider-Man 2 may have been preachy, but at least it had a conscience! If Bird’s intent is to demonstrate the sanctity of the family unit in a world filled with danger, by empowering his characters in this way, he’s corrupting the very values that the family unit stands for. If this is the modern family’s fantasy, then there’s something very wrong with the modern family. At first glance, you might wonder why The Incredibles was an animated film at all, but that’s probably because its carnage and insane politics wouldn’t be comic in live action. How the actions of the Parr family are supposed to translate into commentary on the post-9/11 world that The Incredibles invokes is beyond me. Surely Bird, who preached pacifism in his last film, can’t be advocating such outright violence and vengeance (especially when a Bush-like bad guy is looked at critically for trying to spin a city’s tragedy into personal gain). Its attempts to be politically relevant are hopelessly muddled at best and offensive at worst.
It’s rather deplorable to think that audiences are bringing their children en masse to absorb these skewed messages, but just because it’s inappropriate for kids I wouldn’t call The Incredibles a particularly mature animated film. The sketchy character arcs are duds (Mr. Incredible’s one scene of attempted pathos is the lamest non-starter of all). The endless sequences showing infiltration into the supervillain’s island base are flat, with no compelling mystery waiting to be solved. Clearly the explosive action is the attraction here. The thematic material is so undeveloped that it becomes conflicted and incoherent. Bird’s sloppy obliviousness to the imagery that he employs is worse than outright propaganda, because it has no purpose other than to exploit real life tragedy to sell inane fantasy to us. Watching this confused film in an audience filled with people who were clearly relishing every terror the film threw at them, I started to be filled with self-doubt, but each further explosion only further cemented my impression that the film was playing with a fire that soon flared out of control. Its scenes of HMO headaches and unchecked litigation clearly relate it to the real world. Since there’s not much indication that the slightly fascist family is being satirized, and since it’s too much a crowd-pleaser to be critical of the violent payoff that it delivers, it’s tough not to take its apparent message seriously.