The Incredibles (Bird, 2004) — 10 Years Later

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When The Incredibles opened in 2004, the Pixar canon included only one sequel, 1999’s Toy Story 2. That number remained unchanged until 2010, when, under Disney ownership, the age of Pixar sequels commenced with Toy Story 3, followed by Cars 2 and Monsters University, with Finding Dory in development.

Meanwhile, after directing Ratatouille, Brad Bird went on to the popular Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, followed by an upcoming live-action SF mystery, Tomorrowland. His next project may well be a long-planned adaptation of the James Dalessandro novel 1906, about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The upshot is that a sequel to one Pixar film that really seems to invite or even demand one, The Incredibles, remains as distant as ever, though Bird has expressed his openness to doing one—after 1906. That probably puts an Incredibles sequel about a decade away at the earliest. Is this property still worth waiting ten years for?

What I Said Then

The Incredibles is exhilarating entertainment with unexpected depths. It’s a bold, bright, funny and furious superhero cartoon that dares to take sly jabs at the culture of entitlement, from the shallow doctrine of self-esteem that affirms everybody, encouraging mediocrity and penalizing excellence, to the litigation culture that demands recompense for everyone if anything ever happens, to the detriment of the genuinely needy.

Like Spy Kids, The Incredibles is a romantic celebration of marriage and family as an act of heroism, while it also acknowledges the sacrifices that parents make by giving up the pursuit of their own self-fulfillment for the sake of the domestic good. It knows what Spy Kids knew but Unbreakable didn’t, that being a husband and father calls for a kind of heroism beyond that of superheroes or superspies.

The Incredibles recognizes the sacrifice made by a father who spends his day away from his family sitting in rush-hour traffic and marking time in a cubicle. It also acknowledges that a mother who gives up a career and works as a homemaker while her husband leads a life outside the home that may seem or may be comparatively exciting also sacrifices for her family. In its comic-book way, the film pays tribute to how far a mother will stretch and how flexible she will be to hold her family together, and to how deeply a father wants to protect his family and how inadequate he feels to the task, even if he is Mr. Incredible.

What I Say Now

The towering creative achievements of Pixar’s transitional period—Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up—have pushed the envelope on what Hollywood animation can do and achieve. Next to the counter-intuitive premises of those films, The Incredibles, with its family of superheroes, seems like a comparative no-brainer (along with nearly everything Hollywood animation has done since, like, Fantasia).

Yet if the measure of The Incredibles’ success is not its premise, but how Bird develops it and where he goes with it, my appreciation for the film’s achievement has only deepened with passing years and repeated exposure.

Above all, I’m awed by the sophistication and depth of observation Bird brings to the joys and foibles of middle-class marriage and family life. All the mundaneness of the second act—the chaotic family dinner; Helen’s uncomfortable visit with the principal and Dash’s blend of smugness and resentment; Violet’s teenaged angst and sibling bickering with Dash; Bob’s midlife crisis and secretive behavior; Helen’s conflict between domestic fulfillment, frustration and anxiety about her husband’s trustworthiness; the moments of marital friskiness—all this captures the rhythms of family life with more honesty and clarity than any other family film I can think of.

It may seem odd, but the way the characters argue is among the film’s most striking achievements. Family members in other Hollywood animated films—even good ones like Brave, How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—argue like family-film characters hitting overly familiar beats. The characters in The Incredibles argue like flesh-and-blood human beings who love each other, but come with different baggage and different blind spots.

I’m not sure I appreciated in 2004 the extent to which the “studio as auteur” theory of Pixar obscured my appreciation of The Incredibles as an expression of Bird’s creative interests. Compare Hogarth and Annie’s relationship in The Iron Giant to the familial dynamics in The Incredibles. Buddy/Syndrome’s fanboy devotion to Mr. Incredible and passion for super-gadgets mirrors Remy’s hero-worship of Gusteau and passion for cooking, as well as Dean’s commitment to his art and even Hogarth’s love of pop culture (cheesy horror movies, comic books).

And, of all Pixar’s filmmakers, only the future director of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol could have choreographed The Incredibles’ brilliant action set pieces.

The Verdict

There’s nothing like time and repeated reviewings to reveal the hidden strengths or weaknesses of any form of entertainment. Of all the films I reviewed in 2004, The Incredibles is surely the one I’ve rewatched the most—and the one I would most readily rewatch again. If it takes ten years or even longer for an Incredibles sequel, I’ll be here.

Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for The National Catholic Register and creator of DecentFilms.com.

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