Movie Review: The Incredibles

Pixar 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 send?

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 Shrugged).

The answer to such questions requires us to linger temporarily in adulthood before concluding with the response that The Incredibles most deserves: childish applause.

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 within anyone.)

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.

The Incredibles 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.

April 2, 2005

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