Thursday, December 3, 2020

Reserved Seating Ranks the Pixars: THE INCREDIBLES

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who aren’t fast, strong or flexible...force fields? Yes.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our Pixar series returns with the 2004 Brad Bird-directed The Incredibles, featuring the voice talents of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, and Elizabeth Pena. The Incredibles tells the story of the Parr family, who used to earn their living as working superheroes before Supers became forbidden and forced into early retirement to lead normal lives. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Nelson) is called into action again (unbeknownst to his wife, Helen/Elastigirl) to face a new, mysterious nemesis who has ties to Mr. Incredible’s past.

The Incredibles is beloved by many among the Pixar canon but I’ve never shared that sentiment. I feel at arm’s length whenever I watch the movie for several reasons. First, though, I would like to call out some positives, including the terrific score by Michael Giacchino that has some fun riffs on James Bond themes and the action choreography, which Pixar had not done to this scale before The Incredibles. My complaints about the movie are more subjective. I don’t think the characters are interesting on the whole. He’s the dad and he’s strong. She’s the mom and she bends. He’s the brother and he’s fast. She’s the sister and she has protective force fields etc. Okay, maybe the sister is the exception. She’s shy and hesitant, which are character traits. The other members of the family seem defined by their roles and abilities. The animation is kind of flat, as it gives everything a boxy, dull, muted aesthetic. Lastly, one of the themes rubs me the wrong way. If Mr. Incredible didn’t act like a dick to child Buddy/IncrediBoy (Jason Lee) then Buddy probably wouldn’t have become Syndrome, the supervillian. I’m fine with that as a choice, but at no point is Mr. Incredible introspective about how his actions had a consequence. It’s basically he’s awesome and he shouldn’t have to make time for people who aren’t awesome. Being that Mr. Incredible is boring as shit other than the fact he was born strong, it makes it hard for me to sympathize with our protagonist. People are going to be mad at me, aren’t they? Sorry, this isn’t my Pixar series.

What do you think of The Incredibles?
Rob: So, I love The Incredibles. I was actually trying to decide if I like it more than Toy Story 2, but given what you just said, we’ll save that for another time. It’s so exciting when we disagree!

Adam: I’m relieved that’s how you feel. I have no desire to dump on a movie you love.

Rob: I’ll say this: We’ve been the best of buds for a few years now, and think I can see why The Incredibles isn’t your jam: It may have the least pure “heart” of any Pixar film we’ve covered so far. It spends more time weaving familiar genre aesthetics with character archetypes than it does on developing individual arcs, which strokes my story structure-loving brain more than it does yours.

Adam: You know me well. I care much more about characters and themes than I do story and structure. This is especially true with Pixar because they lean so hard on sentiment.

Rob: It’s also the busiest and most bombastic Pixar film yet, and there’s a lot of evidence to support an upsettingly Ayn Rand/Objectivist reading (Though I disagree with that perspective). So while I’m about to heap a ton of praise on The Incredibles, I’m also evoking that thesis that Patrick has about the James Bond and Friday the 13th films: Everyone has different favorite entries because everyone wants different things from the franchise. This may be one of my favorite Pixar films, but I can totally understand why it isn’t one of yours.

But, all that being said: I think The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made. It’s the Fantastic Four movie we’ll never really get. I love the Atomic Age aesthetic and how it evokes the concurrent Golden Age of superhero comics. I love that the Incredibles’ individual powers echo nuclear family dynamics: As Brad Bird has said in multiple interviews, Mr. Incredible is the dad and husband, counted on for his strength. Elastigirl is a hyper-capable mom and wife stretched too thin. Violet is a teenage girl — by definition predisposed to feelings of invisibility — and Dash is a prepubescent boy with limitless energy. I love that it’s a mid-life crisis film, a superhero parable that highlights the incredibly human transition between the glory days of our youth and the more domestic malaise that often torpedoes our feelings of self-worth. It’s a film about how we make marriages work and how we gain enough wisdom to become role models for our children.

I also believe that Holly Hunter delivers one of the single best voice performances in any modern mainstream American film. Her Elastigirl embodies the strength, warmth, potential, and intelligence it takes to drive the superheroes=families metaphor home. She’s our wives, our mothers. Combined with the excellent character model, Hunter conveys the kind of midcentury American virtue that is often cynically dismissed in modern texts. Doubt is easy. Belief is impossible, and Elastigirl believes. She just rules so incredibly hard. She regulates her emotions without compromising them. She knows when to empower her kids and when to teach them valuable lessons about humility. She’s an equal to her husband in every way. She’s the heart of the family, willing to make concessions when possible and to push those she loves beyond their comfort zone when the necessity arises.
But then there’s Mr. Incredible’s arc, which many critics have held up as proof that The Incredibles is espousing some kind of right-wing exceptionalism that treats Supers as gods who can and should disregard the presumptions of humanity whenever possible. Mr. Incredible finds his work in insurance repetitive and uninspired, right? He seems to win the day by embracing his superheroic powers and pounding those who would challenge him into the dust. It stands to reason, then, that The Incredibles is arguing that some people are just fundamentally better than the rest of us and that they should have special rights and privileges. I get that reading, I really do. I believe, however, that The Incredibles is arguing that our strengths are malleable, that our growth as human beings depends on our ability to adapt them into new contexts. To share them. Mr. Incredible’s speech about personal doubt and feeling undervalued only highlights the fact that his central failing is refusing to share his power, to see how much its reapplication would benefit his family. When The Incredibles are acting together, they’re far stronger than its patriarch would ever be on his own. Sharing that power also enlightens him. It lets him activate the part of himself that he was convinced marriage and family would squash down. We’re not meant to take the superhero stuff literally, as far as I’m concerned. The Incredibles are an every-family. They’re all of us. We’re all superheroes. Syndrome represents that jealous thirst for exceptionalism that Mr. Incredible moves beyond.

Anyway. What did you think of Jason Lee? Sam Jackson? Is there anything else about The Incredibles that you did enjoy?
Adam: Jason Lee and Samuel L. Jackson are my two favorite voice performances/characters in the film. The Jason Lee performance in particular is interesting because it basically takes his ranting persona (I say that not as a negative) from movies like Mallrats or Chasing Amy and puts it in a new context, sort of like Jason Sudeikis in Colossal. Frozone is just a cool character (Mr. Freeze pun intended). His superpower is the most cinematic and fun. I perk up when he gets his big moments during the climax of the movie. I’m totally fine being in the minority on this movie and series overall. I understand in my brain the points you wonderfully laid out even if I don’t feel them in my heart. I’m more in the camp that feels bad for Dash’s teacher and wishes the kid wasn’t mean to him. It’s all good, though. Brad Bird’s follow-up worked much better for me. I’m glad you like this one as much as you do.

Rob: I’m glad we got to discuss it! Our All Pacino series returns next week with Salomé, co-starring Jessica Chastain. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.

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