#TBT: The Incredibles, Retro Review
For those of us who are rarely super, the image of Mr. Incredible — Director Brad Bird’s (Tomorrowland, Iron Giant) obvious stand-in for DC’s “Superman” or Marvel’s “Captain America” — sitting in an undersized shoebox of an office defending unjust insurance policies immediately made this particular superhero film different.
And a classic…
Super Middle Age
For one thing, we don’t know where Mr. Incredible gets his strength. He’s poor. He’s fat. In fact, when (after the spectacular flashback introduction) we find him in his awful office, rebelling against a tiny, terrible, tightwad boss with a Napoleonic complex.
Parr is actually subpar – in every way.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, speaking of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, described that awful character as having had “such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax.”
Parr, whose own mistakes made “hero work” illegal for all “supers” is beyond relatable in his gloom and far from awful as we witness his downward spiral. Instead of hating him, we pity Mr. Incredible, much as we might pity ourselves in the midst of existential (or midlife) crisis.
On the flipside is his wife Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl or Mrs. Incredible, played by Holly Hunter), who is anything but ordinary. Like her husband, forced underground by the failures of past superheroes (most especially, Bob), she is the moral center of the movie; the most reliable of Bird’s characters and it’s not just because she’s a mom.
Simply put: We ALL want to be Elastigirl, merely the coolest person ever animated.
Full Trope Reversal
It’s this reversal of tired, traditional tropes that makes The Incredibles the standard by which all superhero movies have been judged since 2004 (and that includes its sequel, Incredibles 2).
Instead of aliens from another world or billionaire playboys, each of the characters could be someone we know. Helen, Bob; the Parr children (Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack, played by Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, and Eli Fucile, respectively) could be kids on our block. Edna Mode (Bird) is everyone’s eccentric relative, and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is our best friend, whom we meet for “bowling” on Wednesdays.
Somehow Bird and his animators weaved a world of wonder from these basically benign people, who, when pitted against forces that threaten life and limb (and marriage), are able to form an amazingly incredible family unit – led and cared for by mom, protected by (and learning from the mistakes of) dad, but all stronger together than they ever could be alone.
Admittedly, it’s Jason Lee’s (Chasing Amy, Almost Famous) supervillain Syndrome that keeps the film on track, embodying as he does the old adage, “Be nice to people on your way up. You’ll meet them on your way down.” But, again, even as Mr. Incredible creates his greatest nemesis, there’s nothing ordinary about the journey from Buddy to a maniacal babysitter.
Flash and Dash
Sure, there are some mixed messages in The Incredibles, particularly around the notion of encouraged (forced?) mediocrity and distrust of the elite, but it doesn’t diminish the fun of the film, which plays to children and adults and suspended adolescents in the middle. Yes, there is plenty of flash and Dash (pun, of course, intended), but it’s the vulnerability and reality of the animated “supers” that remains palpable and memorable.
As The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane wrote in 2004:
What makes ‘The Incredibles’ work, however, is not the velocity of the plotting, or the latest improvements in animation—these are so regularly cried up, with every Pixar release, that we greet them with yawns of contented acceptance—but the more prosaic fact that the folks at the movie’s heart are exaggerated way beyond our capacities but not quite beyond our imaginings. The title is unjust; these are the very slightly credibles.
Mr. Lane is correct, if not understated. More than slightly credible, The Incredibles is a classic because it’s very believable.
This article originally appeared on DSNYnewscast.com.