Friday, 18 November 2011

Favourite Films on Friday: #07, The Incredibles

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Here were are again: 'Alex loves Pixar films'. It's well-trodden ground at this point, yes, I'm predictable, I know, I'm sorry. But the beauty of the studio's best – Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters Inc – is that they're very different films, and The Incredibles is possibly the best example of that.

Being obvious: it was the first Pixar film to thrust human characters into the spotlight, rather than featuring animals/toys/monsters/beautifully-animated-inanimate-objects. Which is probably as much to do with technology as anything else – look at Andy and Sid in the first Toy Story, and compare them with the Parrs here. But that's not important, because the legacy The Incredibles is best examined alongside isn't that of Pixar; it's superhero films, And this is, by a very long way (by at least 43 spots, I guess) my favourite superhero film. There's just so much it gets right about 'supers', as the film calls them, on screen.

First of all, those powers. It cherry-picks the very best – using, more or less, the Fantastic Four template of stretchy one, invisible one, strong punchy one, but switching out fiery one for speedy one. If you ignore flying, it's pretty much the Platonic template for iconic super-powers. And then it shows them in such brilliant ways: with an opening action scene that shows Mr Incredible and Elasti-Girl in the field, establishing what kind of feats they're capable of quickly and easily. But then we cut forward 15 years, and see Mr and Mrs Incredible – Bob and Helen – in a more domestic setting, where powers are implemented casually: a crushed door handle, splitting up a fight between the kids, a car lifted over the head (possibly the strongest single image of superherodom in existence, stretching all the way back to the cover of Action Comics #1) in frustration.

The kids: Dash (speedster) and Violet (invisi-force-fielder). Their powers are teased in this setting, and only unleashed in the final third of the film. It's a family film in all senses. The super-powered setting just exaggerate a more mundane reality. Bob's secret crime-fighting trips are a mid-life crisis played out on a bigger scale; something that's never more obvious than in Helen's quiet fears that he's having an affair.
But it's designed to play to the whole family too. So it's bright and it goes pow! in all the right places. Action is pretty much constant, woven seamlessly in amongst jokes playing to both ends of the familial spectrum.

Most importantly, it's got that indefinable Disney quality, of pure sweetness. No film makes me smile more, so consistently brings a big goofy smile to my face. The ridiculous design of the throwaway characters – Bob's boss Mr. Huph; Edna Mode, fashion designer to the super-able. The beauty of the volcano lair setting. Just the way the superheroes move: take the setpiece where Mrs Incredible gets her extended limbs stuck in a series of automatic doors as she tries to take out a load of henchmen; it's a silly, funny extrapolation of her Elasti-powers, but it's genuinely thrilling too, and when she takes the bad guys down, it's easily as cool as the greatest feat of strength Mr Incredible is able to summon. Most of all, though, it's the relationships between the family members. It's touching is what it is.

This is a film, though, that understands that to have that Disney sweetness, to have it ring true without turning to cloying saccharine, you need danger, threat; grown up things. And so that mid-life crisis writ large is a threat to the marriage, to the stabilising centre of the family. It's a truism that cartoonier characters are easier to relate to, more universal, and that would explain how easily it attaches you to these characters.

And this is where we come back to the Pixar legacy. That moment that catches in your throat, a bittersweet trademark. Here, for me, it's the scene where Mr Incredible thinks he's lost his family, that the supervillain has killed them. It's not even a fake-out; the viewer knows they're fine, but still... It gets me choked up every time.

(For me, as I suspect for many people, family and Disney/Pixar films are inseparable. That Christmas of drunkenly tearing up on the sofa to Finding Nemo; cinema trips... my sister even reads the odd thing I write if it's about animation.)

And then it builds on top of that, finds every permutation of cinematic cake it can think and simultaenously both has and eats it. The James Bond set design and smooth cool of Mr Incredible's secret life, against the comedy of his out-of-shape chubbiness as he gets stuck in a pod launcher. He can be the butt of a joke without detracting from his iconic hero moments. Big action setpieces with the kind of spectacle that wouldn't be possible in live action without being plastered in ugly CG, but with the intimacy and investment I celebrated in Die Hard. It's as prismatic as any modern superhero comic.

This means it gets a bit muddled if you look too deeply at what it's saying. Is it wrong for Bob to shirk responsibility for cheap thrills and temptations (he's punished, his family are put in danger) or is he realising his true potential (it brings the family together, as a team)? Which brings us sort of neatly to the elephant in the room. What Christian “Solario” Otholm refers to as “an appalling moral to put in a children's film”. The idea that no-one should try to go beyond the limits they were born with. The villains (Bomb Voyage, Syndrome, Underminer) are all powered by technology. There's a moment where Mrs Incredible tells Violet that heroism is “in her blood”, and looked at through this filter it's wince-inducing. I spent much of my planning time for this article trying to work out a counter-argument. And I can't. It's a completely fair reading of the film.

Such are the dangers of being such an all-inclusive film in terms of material. But that message doesn't push through (or seem intentional, as if that ever mattered). The film is far too excitably scattershot for that; its only centre is family. The other stuff – like Frozone's role in the plot, for example – all kind of gets forgotten in the rush. “If the time comes, you'll know what to do. It's in your blood.” That reads very differently with a focus, optimistically blinkered as it might be, on the bonding of family than the binding of caste.
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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.