November 07, 2004

Pixar Reaches Middle Age

Last night, in a mostly successful attempt to shake off my post-election blues, I went to see the new animated superhero movie from Pixar, The Incredibles. Odd as I feel saying this, I sometimes had the feeling that this year's election debate had crept into the movie: in one key scene, one of the superheroes warns her daughter that in these troubled times "we no longer have room for doubt," and greedy trial lawyers played a substantial role in the movie's plot set-up. Even so, I suspect that these observations tell you more about me and my state of mind then they do about the movie.

I almost feel a little un-American saying this--since Pixar has a well-earned reputation both for producing wholesome family entertainment and for coming up with dazzlingly creative and technologically impressive films--but I've had a mixed reaction to Pixar movies in the past. I was never a big fan of Toy Story, for example: the plot was dull, the writing was treacly and sappy, the people in the movie seemed creepy and lifeless, and the movie depended too much on familiar guest voices in shaping its characters' personality. (Toy Story was technically impressive, and it certainly wasn't a bad movie, but I found it over-rated and bland.) A Bug's Life, meanwhile, was also visually impressive, but it was just a slightly-better-than-average cartoon in terms of its story. Pixar's next two movies took a big step forward: Monsters Inc., I'd argue, is an under-rated comic gem, especially when compared to the good but over-rated Shrek (which came out the same year), and Finding Nemo did a brilliant job of combining creativity with a mass-market sensibility. It wasn't nearly as quirky or as brilliant as The Triplets of Belleville, but it was still loads of fun.

How good is Pixar's latest movie? The Incredibles, I'd argue, reflects the maturation of the film-makers at Pixar. It's visually spectacular, with a witty and playful script and a decent enough plot; at the same time, it lacks both the self-consciousness of Pixar's initial offerings and the wit of its two immediate predecessors. Pixar's first two movies were a little tentative, with the hesitation of a toddler who's just learning to walk; Monsters Inc. and Nemo were a little better at breaking out of the standard Hollywood mold, demonstrating the thrill of youth at its most exhilarating. The Incredibles, meanwhile, demonstrates the competence and solidness of a middle-aged company in the middle of its career--the movie wasn't quite as impressive as its immediate predecessors, but it's quietly satisfying and has worked out most of the kinks in the system.

The plot of the movie centers around Bob Parr (AKA Mr. Incredible), a one-time superhero forced to retire to a life of quiet obscurity when greedy citizens start suing superheroes for the havoc they accidently unleashed. (Someone has to foot the bill when walls get knocked down and innocent citizens strain their necks escaping supervillains, after all.) Now Mr. Incredible works at an insurance company while his wife Helen raises the kids. (Helen, the former Elastigirl, is as flexible as her superhero nickname suggests; her son Dash can run really quickly, while Violet can produce forcefields and turn invisible at will.) Bob Parr relives his glory days by listening to a police scanner, while Dash and Violet are forced to hide their powers from their classmates and Helen tries to keep the house in order. Eventually, Bob gets drawn back into the superhero business, and the whole family joins in to rescue him from an evil inventor named Syndrome.

One of the movie's biggest strengths is its appearance: The Incredibles looks really cool. The animation is realistic enough to look spectacular, but it's just artificial enough to have the feel of a cartoon. (The animators capture the perfect balance in portraying the villain's secret jungle hideaway, for instance.) Moreover, I've never liked the way that Pixar's animated people looked until this movie. In the past, their movements were jerky and they had an almost creepy look; that was fine in Finding Nemo (where people only appeared briefly and were supposed to have an alien feel), but it grated quite a bit in Toy Story. The people of The Incredibles, on the other hand, move swiftly, smoothly, and confidently, with a liveliness that was missing before. Moreover, they've been drawn with a good eye for both the realistic and the fantastic--a visual twist that fits well with the movie's mid-life themes. (Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are plausible both as middle-aged parents and as crime-fighting superheroes, which is appropriate for people who worry about their weight, their marriage, and the boring trajectory their lives have taken.)

Unfortunately, though, the story and characters in The Incredibles seemed kind of familiar. Finding Nemo featured a lot of unexpected personalities, like a fish with short-term memory loss and a singing stingray school teacher; none of the superheroes in The Incredibles had terribly memorable powers or personality traits. The movie reminded me of the Simpsons Halloween special in which Bart and Lisa are transformed by radiation into superheroes named Stretch Dude and Clobber Girl, and a lot of the jokes seemed exactly the same. (Is it a coincidence that Brad Bird, the director of the movie, used to write for The Simpsons?) Moreover, the idea of children with special talents hiding from their peers and pretending to be normal could have come straight out of the X-Men movies. I overheard a group of college kids complaining that the movie was too derivative as I left the theater last night, and though I think they were exaggerating things, I certainly understood what they meant.

My one other criticism of The Incredibles had to do with the action scenes: they were just a little too busy (with individual witty touches being overpowered by the pizzazz of the special effects), and they seemed like the sort of scenes you could find in any other superhero cartoon. The kids in the theater with me seemed to love them, though, and I think that should be the main criterion for judging the movie. Moreover, it's hard to object too much to the frenetic busy-ness of the action scenes when that very trait is connected to one of the movie's biggest strengths--its attention to detail.

Those details add up to a movie that's consistently entertaining and fun. It may not be quite as unexpected or quirky as Finding Nemo, but when you judge it on its own merits, it's still a fun way to spend two hours.

Update: As it turns out, I'm not the only one who thinks that The Incredibles has a bit of a pro-Bush twist. A couple weeks ago, a New York Times "culture desk" piece suggested that the movie "carries a considerably more middle-American sensibility than the usual fare from Hollywood, where liberal shibboleths often become the stuff of mainstream movies." David Edelstein, meanwhile, suggests that the movie's message "feels a tad out of date: Don't suppress your children's uniqueness to make them fit in, it says: Let them be exceptional! Well, that might have been progressive in the conformist '50s (when The Iron Giant is set), but nowadays parents are inclined not just to let their children be 'unique' but to exploit the hell out of their gifts."

Update 2: David Edelstein has more on the politics of The Incredibles at ReelTime, the blog-like column he's recently begun writing for Slate. Edelstein, in turn, refers to this review of the movie on National Review Online. I think the NRO reviewer is stretching things when she refers to how the movie presents viewers with "a knock against the notion of a right to suicide, of all things," but I think her review shows, once again, that the movie resonates with certain conservative audience members.

Posted by Ed at November 7, 2004 08:31 PM

I was wondering whether I might want to go see this in the theater, but (a New York Times Review) made me suspicious, with the line "it suggests a thorough, feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand." Over at Slashdot there's also a thread about how this is an Objectivist film. Did it seem so to you? That would definitely decrease my interest.

The Slashdot threads where people try to outdo each other in obscure comic book knowledge are also sort of amusing. Someone insists that the movie is ripping off Alan Moore's Watchmen, but I think the idea of a government forcing superheroes into hiding or into normal lives is older. Alan Moore himself had used it earlier in some Captain Britain issues (unless my sense of chronology is misleading me), and I have a feeling that some earlier X-Men books had similar plot elements. (The theme of public fear of superheroes and the collateral damage they cause goes back at least to the early issues of Spiderman, and possibly farther.) But some subtle references to Watchmen or other classics would amuse me, if they are there. (The characters themselves seem to be largely based on The Fantastic Four, as far as I can tell from reviews.)

Posted by: Matt at November 7, 2004 09:25 PM

I also really loved the movie, and I've thought for some time that if TR were around he would feel called to bust Pixar's virtual monopoly on creative animation. But as long as we're delving into its philosophical messages, I had a hard time sorting out some things. (PLOT SPOILER AHEAD ... FAIR WARNING!)

It's strange that the villain is a "non-super" who tries to be a Mr. Incredible by using his wits and his inventions. The message seems to be that this is misguided, as "super-ness" is inbred. (At one point, I know I remember the mother saying to one of her children, regarding their super powers, "It's in your blood.") Is the idea here that the Incredibles' exceptional abilities are essential, and that attempts to harness those abilities without the requisite "blood" are villainous? Was I the only one who found the racial politics of the movie (if there are such) somewhat ambiguous?

Perhaps the answer is ... uh, it's just a cartoon. But, alas, the graduate student in me never sleeps. Oh how I wish he did.

Posted by: Caleb at November 7, 2004 09:48 PM

For what it's worth (that is, not much), the New York Times article I cited says that Bird "professes frustration with both major political parties." That could mean practically anything: maybe he's an Objectivist, and maybe he's just a center-right independent. And I wouldn't let the movie's politics scare you away from seeing it--if The Incredibles has a political bias in any direction, it's pretty mild. (For an amusingly unintelligent Objectivist discussion of the movie--and yes, I know I'm being redundant--go here:

I also noticed the line about super powers being "in your blood," and had originally planned to mention it in my post. Thanks for reminding me! I don't remember the context all that well--it's possible that Elastigirl was talking about bravery as much as about "super-ness"--but there was definitely some ambiguity there.

For a review that takes the movie's Objectivism seriously, check out this article from Newsday:,0,5148807.story?coll=ny-moviereview-headlines

"Ever wonder what a collaboration between Tex Avery and Ayn Rand might have uncorked? Wonder no more. 'The Incredibles,' the latest Pixar production from Disney and "Iron Giant" director Brad Bird, is a fun-filled foray into animated action, fantasy and adventure. And objectivism. And tort reform...

"Far more intriguing, however, are the movie's points of view. Balking at attending his son's 'graduation' (from fourth to fifth grade), the mothballed Bob lets it all hang out: 'They're constantly finding ways to celebrate mediocrity, while someone who's truly exceptional....' When he later balances a globe-shaped robot on his shoulders, should we be thinking 'Atlas Shrugged'? That the evil Syndrome (Jason Lee) is a "normal" person presuming to join the ranks of the "super" suggests not only class warfare, but also something approaching a Divine Right of Superheroes - especially since Syndrome has become a kind of high-tech arms dealer. "Whole countries want respect," the disappointed hero sneers, "and they'll pay through the nose to get it."

"Villains aren't simply villains. They're terrorists. 'They'll kill you if they can,' Elastigirl warns her children. You can't miss the post-9/11 desperation in her voice. Or the elitism embodied by the 'supers.'

"'The Incredibles,' the sixth film from Pixar, is state-of-the- art animation married to reactionary propaganda. It'll have you laughing, and it will have you thinking, and - like Elastigirl - it will have you going in two directions at once. "

I wouldn't read too much into the tort reform angle: this is a children's movie, after all, and in my limited experience, kids think that lawsuits are funny. But the movie's politics still seem less straightforwardly liberal than you might expect.

Posted by: Ed at November 7, 2004 11:13 PM

Oh wow. It hadn't occurred to me how repulsive Objectivists would find the usual notion of superheroes having the gall to actually help people. How altruistic! How immoral!

I don't think you were being so redundant, though: Objectivists aren't aways amusingly unintelligent, sometimes they're just infuriatingly unintelligent.

Posted by: Matt at November 7, 2004 11:29 PM
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