Animation Studios’ feature, The
Incredibles, returned me to the Saturday mornings of
childhood when I sat enraptured in front of a TV set, careening
on fast-paced cartoons and the glucose high from a breakfast of
Chocolate Frosted Sugar-Bomb cereal. In short, the recently released
DVD from Disney breaks down the barriers of adulthood. And it does
so without “talking down” to its audience so that both
the adult and the child in you get to enter its adventure.
The adults are asking whether
Brad Bird, director and scriptwriter, is an Objectivist. Is the
movie’s aggressive defense of excellence derived from Ayn Rand
and her novels? What message about society does The Incredibles
Discussion of The Incredibles
has been buzzing across the blogosphere for months now on sites
such as SOLO (Sense of Life Objectivists), HQ, and the Ayn Rand
Meta-Blog. Even the MSM (mainstream media) has picked up on the
Objectivist-Incredibles connection. In the New York Times,
reviewer A.O. Scott declares, “The intensity with which ‘The
Incredibles’ advances its central idea suggests a thorough,
feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and
the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” In Newsday, John
Anderson asks, “When he [the main character, Bob Parr] balances
a globe-shaped robot on his shoulders, should we be thinking Atlas
Shrugged?” (a reference to the famous cover art
by Frank O’Conner which graced the original edition of Atlas
The answer to such questions
requires us to linger temporarily in adulthood before concluding
with the response that The Incredibles most deserves:
Why has an animated cartoon
caused vigorous political debate?
The answer lies in the plot
of The Incredibles. Bob Parr (aka Mr. Incredible) and
his wife, Helen (aka Elastigirl), were once among a pantheon of
superheroes who battled crime with their superpowers. Now there
is no pantheon. Superheroes have been mothballed by a tort system
that allows their victims to sue for wrongful rescue. Those with
superabilities are viewed with suspicion by a society that maintains
that “everyone is special.” And, as the Parrs’
elder son, Dash, observes, that means “no one is special.”
Or, rather, no one is allowed
to be special. People like the Parrs who manifest superiority in
some area are viewed as a reproach to those who are mediocre, so
they would be reviled by society if their superiority were known.
Thus the Parrs have become part of the government’s Superhero
Relocation Program, through which they tenaciously attempt to blend
into suburbia. Bob works as a claims adjuster at the soul-numbing
mega-corporate Insuricare where – when he shows compassion
to an injured client by actually assisting her – his puny boss
exclaims in a tone of horror, “The customers are penetrating
the bureaucracy!” At school, Dash is not permitted to participate
in sports lest he excel in a suspicious manner. Violet, the Parr
daughter, is so self-conscious that she literally disappears from
view when under stress and, when visible, hides her face behind
an impenetrable curtain of hair.
The Parr family is in crisis.
Not from drug abuse, financial stress, infidelity, or domestic violence.
They are in crisis because society requires them to deny who and
what they are. Each responds differently to “hiding in plain
sight.” The now-pudgy Bob longs for his glory days. Helen is
terrified for the safety of her children and becomes paranoid about
appearing “normal.” Dash and Violet turn their frustration
into anger, directed especially against their parents. The apparently
normal Baby Jack-Jack is the only one untouched by living a lie.
The lie begins to dissolve
when archvillain Syndrome emerges from the shadows to champion mediocrity
out of sheer envy and resentment, a resentment specially aimed at
Mr. Incredible, whom he had formerly idolized. Syndrome is a classic
example of the “second-hander” Rand describes so well
in her novel The Fountainhead – a person who lives
through the opinions of others rather than his own accomplishments.
Syndrome wishes to look like a superhero, so he invents high-tech
gadgets that imitate extraordinary powers. The real superheroes
he tracks down and kills.
But, unlike so many cartoon
villains, Syndrome does not steal the show. That difficult feat
is performed by Edna Mode. A costume designer to superheroes, Edna
appears to be a rollicking cross between Edith Head and Ayn Rand.
(Remember that Rand began work at RKO studios in the wardrobe department.)
With an accent swinging vaguely between German and Russian, Edna
delivers attitude as she waves a long-stem cigarette holder through
the air. The pint-sized but larger-than-life diva to whom superheroes
turn for costume repair and advice on marriage has already become
a high-camp cultural icon, returning almost 23,000 hits upon Googling
her name. And, perhaps as a sign of his own respect, Brad Bird himself
provides her voice.
The Objectivist Adam Reed has
aptly referred to The Incredibles as “an Objectivist
morality tale, one that I wish had been available back when I was
bringing up a child.” Reed’s observation captures another
dominant theme of The Incredibles; it celebrates family.
The Parr parents sacrifice their identities in exchange for the
safety of their children. In turn, their children race without hesitation
to rescue their parents. The family stand together, albeit sometimes
uncomfortably, against the world. The main friction among family
members comes because they are denying within themselves what serves
as another theme of the movie: the celebration of excellence and
of the sheer joy that comes from being the best you can be. (Of
course, the Parrs’ superabilities represent whatever is extraordinary
Pixar is known for extolling
“family values” without becoming preachy. For example,
the earlier Pixar masterpiece, Finding Nemo, is a subtle
and touching exploration of the love between father and son. The
fact that the bond is between two fish takes nothing away from the
animation’s sweetness; it adds whimsy. The Incredibles
abounds with such sweetness and whimsy. Helen/Elastigirl interrupts
her mission against evil in order to check with the babysitter;
Bob throws his back out while fighting to save the world. And what
else can be said about a French cat burglar named Bomb Voyage?
For those who demand sophisticated
artistic commentary, listen up because this is it. With The
Incredibles, American animators have established their own
voice within the cutting-edge world of adult animation. For years,
Japanese anime has dominated with its state-of-the-art visuals,
punchy political themes, unforgettable characters, and brute originality.
The Incredibles is American anime that holds its own
with the best without blending in. The movie retains traits that
are stereotypical: optimism, a happy ending, radical individualism,
family values. American anime has arrived.
features the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L.
Jackson, Jason Lee, Spencer Fox, and Sarah Vowell. Rated PG for
action violence, it is written and directed by Brad Bird.
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century
(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).