This is the sixth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.
When we last left Pixar, they’d scored a major coup with Finding Nemo, a film which pretty much proved their absolute dominance over the family-film world. Most animation studios would have been happy with that and would have rested on their laurels, but Pixar is a studio with bigger ambitions and starting in 2004 they seemed to go on a warpath, trying to get new and different demographics under their wing. The first of these demographics that they went after was the one that would prove to be a block of important tastemakers over the course of the decade: the geeks. Of course I was unquestionably among the ranks of that demographic back in ’04, and I did come a lot closer to thinking about considering seeing The Incredibles than I did to seeing Finding Nemo or any of the other Pixar movies before it.
I also came closer to seeing The Incredibles as it continued to have a lot of cultural impact over the years, and oh did it have impact. Hell, the band at my high school graduation even played a piece from the film’s score as their selection, eliciting a bad joke from our commencement speaker (then U.S. Senator, now Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton) about how the young people in the band were “the real incredibles!” Since then it’s been one of the most prominent Pixar movies on top five/ten lists, especially ones dealing with superhero movies. It’s arguably the most critically acclaimed of Pixars non-Toy Story movies up until their recent post-Cars winning streak, and of all the movies they had made it might have been the one I was most looking forward to while doing this series.
The subject of geek pandering by a Disney release also brings up another question that’s been gnawing at me. For all the years I was completely hostile towards animated childrens’ movies, I was lapping up all sorts of comic book superhero films as well as other fare like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series which are themselves sort of childish. I mean, there were no adults taking Superman and Batman seriously when they debuted in the late 30s, comic books back then were considered to be things that wasted children’s time. Also, if you go to see the average superhero film like Spider-Man you’re liable to see just as many children in the crowd as adults. So what made me see these movies differently? Well, firstly super hero movies are fairly well entrenched in the realm of the action scene, and for years I pretty readily equated violence with “adult.” But that explanation doesn’t quite jive either, after all there were plenty of scenes in movies like The Lion King and Aladdin that could be described as “action,” and super hero-esque action had been firmly entrenched in the Saturday morning cartoon shows that were clearly labeled as children’s entertainment.
I suppose the real reason that I treated comic book superheros with more respect than I treated Pixar’s movies is that I was introduced to them only after they had been re-envisioned in the late 80s by writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. These writers used comic books and the previously cartoony characters that inhabited them in order to achieve unquestionably adult (or at least late-teenage) story-telling ends. That’s not to say that I knew the ins and outs of “The Killing Joke” or “The Dark Knight Returns” when I was fell in love with the batman character when I was nine or ten and watching “Batman: The Animated Series,” but there was enough of a tradition of adults respecting comic book stories in the air at the time that I could mistake my enjoyment of the stories as a sign of my own maturity rather than as a stepping stone towards the truly adult fare that I’d experience later in my life.
So why can’t American animated films get the same aura of respectability that comic books earned in the 80s? Well, some would argue that they already have and that Pixar has been the Vertigo Comics type entity that made it happen. After all, there’s probably been as much written analyzing the works of Pixar as there have been about the likes of “Watchmen,” and adults are seeing these movies and probably in larger numbers than they ever read the likes of “The Sandman.” Of course they’ve done this in a much more covert way. Comic Books like “Spawn” had not in any way been made for or marketed to small children, and as such they conformed to my traditional vision of a separation between adult and childrens’ entertainment. I also don’t know that this aura of respectability has managed to transform the larger medium all that much. After all, the Dreamworkses and Fox Animations of the world have not really followed Pixar’s example and there hasn’t really been too much of an effort to push the medium beyond what Pixar has achieved, but there’s still something to be said for the theory and it makes me wonder if I would have had the vision to go along with the Millers and the Moores of the world if I had been on the scene when they were breaking down barriers, or if I would have needed to settle for catching up with them a decade later.
Starting The Incredibles I was immediately struck by the film’s look, which can only be described as a dramatic improvement over what came before. I don’t know what technological breakthrough happened between 2003’s Finding Nemo and this 2004 film, but the results speak for themselves. Firstly, the film’s environments look a lot bigger and more detailed than the first five films; Syndrome’s Island looks fantastic and the city that the titular characters live in is a vast improvement over the primitive cityscapes seen in Toy Story 2. The animators have also mustered the courage to make a film revolving entirely around humans for first time, and while the character models are deliberately stylized in order to stray from the uncanny valley, that still fits fine within the aesthetic of comic book illustrations.
However much the Pixar’s technology had improved over the years, there are elements to the film’s superior look that ultimately come down to superior visual ambition and skill. First of all, this is the first Pixar movie since A Bug’s Life to be “shot” on a 2.35:1 canvas, and that gives it a more epic feel from the very get go. The film also seems a lot more adventurous with the “camera” than some of the previous films had. The movies just intrinsically felt like it was cinematically closer to what a good live action film was supposed to look like. That might be partly because the film operates on a conventional human scale rather than depicting small toys, bugs, and fish (the similarly scaled Monsters, Inc. was not coincidentally the closest that the studio had come to a similar level of visual fidelity before this). However, I’m willing to bet that the real reason for the film’s evolved visual technique was probably the presence of Brad Bird in the director’s chair. Bird would replace John Lasseter to some extent as the critical posterboy for the company, and I can see why, his presence seems to have elevated the proceedings greatly.
The influences involved in this film are pretty obvious: the basic concept of a family of superheroes is clearly taken from “The Fantastic Four” with the twist of making this a nuclear family of superheroes rather than a cadre of related adults. The individual powers of the family members also borrow from “The Fantastic Four” with the mother clearly taking her abilities from Mr. Fantastic and the daughter taking hers from Sue Storm (AKA The Invisible Girl). You could even argue that the father’s super strength is a clone of Ben Grimm’s strength powers (minus the whole being made of rock thing) and the baby even reveals Human Torch like abilities toward the end. That just leaves the younger brother as the only family member unlike the Fantastic Four, with his power-set clearly being inspired by the DC’s hero The Flash. I’m not entirely sure how Disney managed to avoid a lawsuit from Marvel and I am a little disappointed that Pixar couldn’t find some more creative powers to give to these characters, but given that the straightforward adaptations of Fantastic Four were terrible I’m not going to complain too much about this.
The film wisely doesn’t waste time going into any kind of detail about the origins of these heroes, and seems to imply that they are basically mutants (in the X-Men sense of the term) born into superhuman powers. The movie mostly avoids the basic superhero film structure that would become really tired over the course of a decade. Instead they use a device which was arguably borrowed from the “Watchmen” graphic novel in which the bulk of the story takes place after masked vigilantism has been outlawed and the main characters have been in hiding for a decade or so. The excuse for this, that superheroes had fallen victim to frivolous lawsuits, seemed a bit clunky to me. Isn’t that exactly the kind of thing that secret identities were meant to prevent? How do you go about subpoenaing someone with a secret identity? Personally I think they would have been better off making Mr. Incredible’s retirement more of a personal choice based on his desire to raise a family, an explanation that would have made better sense of the tensions between him and his wife, but this is a minor quibble.
Frankly the idea of a nuclear family of superheroes is not one that appeals to me to any great extent. The family itself often skewed a bit to close to suburban sitcom clichés for my taste. The family consists of an emasculated father, a worrying mother, a moody older sister, and a rambunctious younger brother. The rambunctious young brother in particular got a little annoying at times, not to the same degree that Flic from A Bug’s Life or Dory from Finding Nemo, but irritating just the same. I praised Finding Nemo for its use of a real kid to voice the title character, but the work of the eleven year old voice actor Spencer Fox makes me think that the practice wasn’t such a universally brilliant idea after all. The film’s villain, Syndrome, was a pretty good nemesis for this family. I didn’t completely buy his motivations and I thought his visual design was kind of lame, but I still like the way he operated. I liked Syndrome’s basic scheme of testing out robots on heroes in order to make the perfect global threat. I also thought that Syndrome’s Island, which felt like the ultimate James Bond villain hideout filled with death traps and storm trooper like mercenaries, was especially cool.
While the idea of making a movie about a nuclear family of superheroes might not wildly appeal to me personally, this is certainly the way to make such a movie if you’re going to do it. The execution in The Incredibles is simply stellar, especially in its action set pieces. There are probably 10-15 very good set pieces in this, many of them eclipsing the airport scene from Toy Story 2 and the chase at the end of Monsters, Inc. But these set pieces aren’t just good when compared to other Pixar films, they might even rival the sequences from some of the better live action superhero films, particularly in the way the characters fantastical powers are depicted. The fact that this is animated probably helps on the action front, allowing an almost unlimited scope that likely would have been even more impressive back in 2004, before we were getting superhero movies with astronomical budgets at the same pace we are today. It also probably helped that Pixar was working with a PG rather than G rating; there is death in this movie and a much more palpable sense of danger than we saw in Pixar’s previous films. I would have liked it if the film’s finale hadn’t been a slapstick sequence about finding the right button to press on a remote, but otherwise this delivered extremely well as a comic book action film.
The film is also nicely devoid of the plot holes that plagued some of Pixar’s earlier films, a trend started with Finding Nemo and which will hopefully remain throughout the rest of the studio’s run. The closest I can come to finding a really glaring hole was that Mr. Incredible seemed to not suffer any real consequences for revealing his powers to his co-workers when he tossed his boss through a wall, but that’s really nothing worth dwelling on. I guess I could also harp upon the lameness of the eye covering masks that the family wears which wouldn’t really hide anyone’s identity. That could be dismissed as a mere genre convention, but given the way that the film skewers the cape as an impractical costume accessory that doesn’t seem like a great excuse. But that’s hardly a deal breaker either, especially when it’s surrounded by so much cool stuff.
When all is said and done, The Incredibles is pretty awesome. Of course when I say that I’m comparing it to other summer action movies, specifically other superhero movies. It is not a particularly deep movie and I don’t think it ever elevates itself to the level of great art, but it is a lot of fun and on an execution level it blows away everything that Pixar had done before. The only movie in Pixar’s earlier oeuvre that even comes close is Toy Story 2, which is probably a deeper movie than The Incredibles, but as an overall package The Incredibles is clearly the studio’s best work to date. At this point it’s clear that the Pixar people have achieved a certain mastery of their craft, at least when under the leadership of someone like Brad Bird, and if they set their sights on something a little more ambitious than a superhero movie I can see how at this point they really might be able to make a genuine classic.
The Short Program: Boundin’
After about seven shorts I was finally beginning to get a little sick of the silent short routine, and low and behold the Pixar guys switch up the formula right on cue. In keeping with the wider theme of Pixar directors coming out from John Lasseter’s shadow and making a name for themselves, this short is almost entirely the vision of a Pixar animator named Bud Luckey, who wrote, directed, narrated, and composed/performed the music for Boundin’. Luckey was born in Montana in 1936 and had been doing animation since the early sixties, he’s in many way the antithesis of Pixar’s normal image of “young idealistic San Francisco computer nerds,” and his vocal performance brings a lot to the short.
Set in the prairie, this acts as a tall tail in the vein of Paul Bunyon and Pecos Bill. The short is built almost entirely around the folk song at its center, which is in the tradition of children’s story records from the 50s (the kind of thing Andy Kaufman would have sung along to in the 70s). The story itself is pretty simple: a sheep dances on a rock, gets sheered, and then comes to live with the act of being a shaved sheep after getting advice from a hopping Jack-a-lope. That all sounds pretty strange but once you get into this mindset of watching a prairie-set fairytale narrated by what is presumably a singing cowboy, it makes a strange sort of sense.
The short is also visually one of the studio’s most adventurous shorts. They are no longer obscuring or hiding their environments in order to save computer space, this looks like a fully rendered (if perhaps contained) prairie set. In addition they add in a lot of scene changing weather and season effects, and throw in some camera angles that are far more adventurous than had been seen on earlier shorts. I was especially fond on a shot towards the end where the camera follows the sheep in a 360 degree trajectory as the season (and his coat) changes. That kind of visual ambition had been absent from even the best shorts that had come before, possibly for technical or budgetary reasons, but this one seems just as ambitious as the work they do on their features. It’s certainly their best short since Geri’s Game, and I might even say it’s their best one yet. If nothing else, it puts the lame For the Birds short from Monster’s Inc. to shame.