The Incredibles


I was expecting a lot from The Incredibles, something on par or better than director Brad Bird's previous Iron Giant or the work he did to make The Simpsons early years so good. I was disappointed. The result was merely good; Monsters Inc. remains my favorite Pixar film.

I just wasn't as involved with the characters as in the heart string pulling Iron Giant. Perhaps it was because under their super powers, the Incredibles were so very ordinary, almost cardboard cutouts. The big exception was Edna Mode, as fresh and interesting as someone from Monsters Inc.

I did like the villain, who was unusually plausible and very practical in his working method of learning from his mistakes. Though I wonder why he values life so little. His Omnibot seemed strangely reminiscent of Doc Oct from this summer's Spiderman 2 - same arms and manipulator claw, perhaps even the same artificial intelligence program. Maybe he got it from :-).

The graphics were great. They have a comic book look, definitely not a realistic one (notice the lack of skin texture in close ups). There were two or three scenes where I was wowed by the 3D cinematography - the camera movements made things grander than they would otherwise be. As well, the art design was quite spiffy, with a James Bond villain's lair taken to extremes (monorails, tunnels, sliding doors and all). Edna Mode's house was also astonishing - the modern classiness of the architecture caught my attention as soon as it appeared on the screen.

There's lots of action in the second half in an extended chase scene around the lair. Each family member got to show off their distinctive super powers, until finally they were all caught and it was time to move on to the climactic battle. A professionally done chase, including all the ingredients you've seen before. Fun but forgettable, except for the inventive use of Elastigirl's stretchability.

The big battle was done nicely, the villain brought down and his robot destroyed with a bit of smart deviousness on the hero's side. The post finale surprise ripostes were numerous and ended with the villain getting his just desserts, in a really good piece of postshadowing.

So, good but not great. It's a pleasant way to spend two hours, though I wish they'd edited it down a bit - the gag of what life is like as a super hero trying to be ordinary just went on too long. I wouldn't mind seeing it again with friends, but I won't rush out to get the DVD.

In Detail - Preparations

I went to see The Incredibles last weekend at the South Keys theatre. Part of the fun was getting there via the O-Train, which travels a nice scenic fall route, the most spectacular part being on the bridge over the Rideau river. Since this was an early show, most of the audience were small kids and their parents, all of whom put up calmly with the 20 minute delay in getting started. After the advertising and trailers, we got a Pixar short on how to be bouncingly happy even when your fur has been shorn off. Nice to see that they're keeping up the tradition.

The Film's Story

Here be spoilers - this section describes the whole film, so don't read it if novelty is important to you.

Background History

The Incredibles started off with flashbacks (old documentary films) of Mr. Incredible's early career as a super hero, including the time when he met and was actively seduced by Elastigirl. He also rebuffs a persistent young fan who wants to help out, yet again saying that he works alone. That could be the theme of the film - going from an independent maverick to being part of a larger group. Paradoxically, the rebuffed fan is forced to be a loner and pursue his super hero dreams through science. Meanwhile, lawsuits for collateral damage shut down the super hero business, exiling the heros to ordinary life, leading to Mr. Incredible marrying Elastigirl and moving to suburbia to start a family.

Ordinary Life

Next up is a long sequence showing what it's like to be a super hero trying to live life as an ordinary person. The film drags out the gag too long for my taste, but if you're an ordinary person, maybe it helps you identify with the characters better. There's the daily traffic jam, disheartening insurance company office work (where a nicely characteristic Mr. Incredible helps little old ladies with hints for working around the bureaucracy) and domestic life where Elastigirl takes care of the kids and house.

However, Mr. Incredible still longs for the good old days of super heros. He sneaks away at night for "bowling" where he listens to a police scanner with his old friend Mr. Frozone and occasionally helps foil crimes. These small lies and the observation of his secret activities by Mirage (a mysterious lady) foreshadow a greater marital split and other trouble.

Back to Hero Life

The unstable ordinary situation blows up when increased pressure at work to squeeze the customers causes Mr. Incredible to lose his temper and throw his boss through several walls. The government super hero program doesn't really want to move him again. Being at loose ends without a job leaves Mr. Incredible vulnerable to an offer from Mirage. He takes the job secretly, claiming to his wife to be out at an insurance convention while he's doing super deeds for super money. She thinks he's happier and driving a better car because he's been promoted, he thinks he's doing good destroying escaped robots (who's artificial intelligence has become rebelliously self aware) for a worldwide secret organisation, but none of it is what it seems.

Edna Mode - The Best Part

But before the big action scenes of the second half of the movie, we get to my favorite part. It starts with a visit by Mr. Incredible to Edna Mode to repair his costume. When Mr. Incredible drives up to her place, I was surprised at the architecture - quite stylish in a modern 1960s look, and done with enthusiasm as if the animators had been let loose to design what they like. She is similarly a distinctively novel character; everyone else in the film seems ordinary in comparison. She acts with decisiveness and quickness that stands out when compared to the other characters. Her voice is also exceptionally done by Brad Bird himself. Pity that as much attention wasn't put into developing the other characters, though it may have been a design rule to keep them ordinary so that the audience could better identify with them.

There's a nice bit that Edna does, while trying to get Mr. Incredible to choose a new costume, about the hazards of capes. Besides being quite funny in itself, keep it in mind; it is a great use of foreshadowing.

Super Villain

After all that introductory material, we finally get to see the super villain, Syndrome. He's the former fan - grown up, gone into the weapons industry with an eye to using science to develop the mechanical equivalent of super powers, made a fortune, and gone maniacally evil. That's the one part that doesn't fit - why's he killing off super heros and other people, when his old goal was to be a hero? Doesn't he realise that part of being a hero is being nice to people? I would have put in some childhood foreshadowing about his misunderstanding of super heros, perhaps have him callously kill some small animals as collateral damage while imitating a super deed.

On the plus side, I really like that he's a plausible villain. He has a good excuse for having a large fortune and thus being able to build a James Bondian style lair. He uses experimentation and development to make himself better. He does fail, but learns from his failures. This is shown in a wonderful database sequence of the contests between his robots and unwitting super heros, where the hero wins sometimes and later loses to a robot with a revised design. That's why he's the one behind Mr. Incredible's new job - to adjust his omnibot design to be able to beat Mr. Incredible and thus neutralise yet another natural super power, as well as for revenge.

After building the revised robot that can handle super strength, Syndrome disposes of Mr. Incredible, who survives by hiding behind a fallen super hero's corpse. This gives Mr. Incredible an opportunity to sneak into the lair and find out the truth behind Syndrome and his evil deeds - his plan to become the world's only super hero.

Elastigirl Wises Up

Elastigirl tries to track down the missing Mr. Incredible. After noticing the repaired old costume, she visits Edna and goes through a wonderful sequence in Edna's clothing workshop, contrasting high style with dangerous demonstrations. She leaves with new costumes for herself and her children, with doubt at the faithfulness of her husband, and with a location. Unfortunately, using Mr. Incredible's costume's built in locator sends a signal that reveals his location to Syndrome.

Of course Mr. Incredible gets captured immediately by some slick sticky ball shooting automated guns (nice invention). This gives Syndrome a chance to monologue, which he gets called on "You're monologging!". There's also a chance to show goodness when Mr. Incredible grabs Mirage and threatens to kill her unless he's released, but Syndrome calls his bluff and Mr. Incredible has to let her go. Mirage is upset by the disrespect Syndrome has for her life. As you must expect, this will help Mr. Incredible later.

After visiting home and distributing costumes uneasily (on the surface she doesn't want to be a super hero), Elastigirl commandeers a fast jet from her old friends in the spy business and heads over to confront Mr. Incredible. Of course, the kids sneak onboard too.

Sneaking Around the Lair and The Chase

After being shot down, the animators make good use of the super powers - Elastigirl turns into a parachute and then a life raft, with son Dash propelling it at high speed towards the island lair. Again the lair is a perfection of the James Bond lair - it has the monorail, the security guards, the tunnel corridors, the spy sensors, the sliding automatic doors with electronic keys. Elastigirl's powers are stretched in a funny scene where she's pulled thin between two doors, simultaneously avoiding and beating up guards both front and rear while getting the doors unlocked.

They see the doomsday device (a large unstoppable omnibot designed to terrorize a city) being loaded onto a rocket, again standard James Bond fare, with a countdown clock. Elastigirl finally gets to Mr. Incredible at the awkward moment when he's thanking Mirage for releasing him, but Mr. Incredible manages to recover the situation and save his marriage.

There's more running around, until the whole family has been captured. A lot of that consists of chase scenes in the jungle for each family member. Remember the flying Imperial speeder bike chase through the Forests of Endor in Star Wars Return of the Jedi? It's a lot like that with Dash and Violet - action packed! Finally, the doomsday device lands and starts destroying the city. While the guards are watching the city being destroyed on TV, Mirage helps them escape.

Climactic Battle

Being super heros, they escape back to the city to stop the destruction. Syndrome is there in mock combat with the robot (his remote control makes it jettison arms and other parts). The poor creature is smart enough to take control over its own life and shoots the remote control off Syndrome's wrist. Syndrome pathetically falls to the side while the Incredible family and Frozone assail the omnibot. However, it's too tough, and Mr. Incredible realises from his previous omnibot battle that only its own material is strong enough to pierce its shell. Syndrome wasn't the only one to learn things from his little contests!

Post Climax Ending

The remainder consists of an unusually large number of post climax surges. In the final one Syndrome captures the baby, is startled by its super powers, and gets sucked into his airplane's jet engine due to his costume's cape. Now we know it is satisfyingly over!

The credits were also quite stylish; it's worthwhile to stay and watch a few minutes of them.

A Few Speculations

So, what happens next? Syndrome had this nice idea of releasing his designs after his death so that everybody could be super heros, thus making nobody super. I'd expect he'd have left instructions with his lawyers for such a contingency, or just programmed a computer to release them to the Internet.

When everyone has super destructive powers the world will become quite chaotic. I'd expect it to be kind of like certain middle-east countries where everyone has AK-47s and uses them - only War Lords reign, and not for long. Ordinary people aren't all heros, many are quite self centered, so that terrifying outcome could happen all too easily.

The other even worse outcome is if his zero point energy source is as unlimited as he says. One Science Fiction theory is that gamma ray bursts come from civilizations which have discovered how to harness zero point energy and have accidentally or in war vapourised a whole star system in an instant. Syndrome's power source could be way more destructive than mere super powers!

- Alex

Copyright © 2004 by Alexander G. M. Smith.