The Incredibles: Looking back at Pixar’s best film
Ivan Radford | On 17, Jul 2018
Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee
Watch The Incredibles online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
“No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy… I feel like the maid! I just cleaned up this mess!” That’s Mr. Incredible (a wearily sympathetic Craig T. Nelson) in a to-camera interview at the beginning of The Incredibles – and that single joke sums up exactly what makes it Pixar’s best film. The fake talking head swiftly sets the tone for a smart deconstruction of the superhero genre, while the housekeeping gag tees up the script’s uniquely domestic focus. It’s not just that The Incredibles manages to juggle both, but that it manages to do each one impeccably: a sweet family story wrapped up in a witty blockbuster spoof that moves and thrills in equal measure.
The balance between private lives and professional heroics is one that never loses its magic – a magic that was dizzyingly unique and remarkably prescient back in 2004, when the current comic book movie boom was only just getting fuelled up. It’s there in the tension between duties to loved one and strangers – “Where’s my super suit? We are talking about the greater good!” cries Mr. Incredible’s friend, Frozone (a laugh-out-loud funny Samuel L. Jackson), during an emergency. “I am your wife,” comes the reply from the disapproving Honey (Kimberly Adair Clark). “I am the greatest good you are ever gonna get!” – and even in the opening sequence, which sees Mr. Incredible delayed getting to his own wedding by a showdown with a thief, and fellow super Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, on sprightly form). The reveal that she’s the one he’s marrying feels surprising yet effortlessly natural; they’re a perfect match, both emotionally and physically. (“Leave the saving of the world to men?” she quips in her own vox pop. “I don’t think so.”)
But this isn’t an ordinary tale of a super-couple saving the day: director Brad Bird’s first inspired touch comes in the prologue to their marriage, when a bill is passed making superheroes illegal, due to a lack of regulation, the dangers of collateral damage and their moral imperative to save people’s lives also hampering the plans of those who want to shuffle of this mortal coil voluntarily. And so Helen and Bob Parr must live without their masks, making do with the humdrum of everyday human life. It’s a wonderful lens through which to explore their strengths and weaknesses; just as Mr. Incredible needs to learn that he can be a hero to his kids without rescuing the world, their children – Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) – must navigate the tricky path between being themselves and not marking themselves out as gifted in the wrong way.
Bird’s script skewers that dilemma through the heart with his villain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), who uses gadgets to be powerful and whose gloriously cynical philosophy is that saying everyone’s “special” means that nobody really is. (Even our central family’s name is “Parr”.) And so Syndrome plans city-wide destruction to prove his point and make a few bucks by selling off his super tech. He ropes Mr. Incredible unwittingly into the whole scheme, after he takes the offer of some extra-curricular super-work when he’s fired from his day job as a frustrated insurance salesman. The result is an astonishingly agile web of threads, from Mrs. Incredible (wrongly) suspecting her husband of having an affair to Mr. Incredible and Frozone pretending to go bowling just so they can indulge in anecdotes from their glory days. There’s a melancholy and a nostalgia that’s tapped into beautifully by Michael Giacchino’s zippy, stylish score, which brings a dollop of John Barry to the primary-coloured, retro-cool proceeding.
From Elastigirl rediscovering her self-worth to the kids mastering their abilities, it all culminates in the family reuniting to thwart the villain, fusing an affectionate genre pastiche with a genuine sense of peril. The latter, in particular, is a rare thing in a family movie, and it rears its head in a fire-lit cave on a tropical island, as Mrs. Incredible tells her kids there’s a very real chance they, or their father, could die. It’s a bold move, and one that’s even bolder because of what follows: a stunning action sequence that ranks alongside Hollywood’s best live-action set pieces, as superpowers, explosions and oceans combine to prove, perhaps for the first time in a Pixar movie, that animation in itself isn’t a genre, and that adults and kids alike can find things breathtakingly thrilling.
Throughout, Bird’s witty knack for visual slapstick (he’s a veteran of The Simpsons) helps this vibrant actioner stand out from the costumed crowd, and the fact that it still does is testament to its timeless brilliance – a Hollywood blockbuster that manages to serve up heartfelt family drama alongside jaw-dropping visual designs and a hefty laughter count. Knowing jokes about capes and villain monologues, not to mention the hysterical Edna Mode – a costume designer voiced by Bird himself, who looks like Edith Head crossed with Anna Wintour – are the icing on the cake. “Are we there yet?” asks one of the kids, as the Parr camper van flies through the air to defeat a gigantic killer robot. From a thematic consistency that trumps Up and intimate emotions that rival Brave to an imagination that outdoes Toy Story and an epic scale that rivals most Marvel movies, The Incredibles never fails to live up to its title, even after several rewatches.
The Incredibles is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.
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