Friday, November 26, 2004

The Incredibles' Achilles' Heel

It's been amusing to see some of the "controversy" provoked by The Incredibles. Rabble has been roused, thanks to this bit of "family entertainment," and the response has by no means been a unified chorus. Depending on your perspective, The Incredibles stirs the pot by being pro-Bush, Post - 9/11, anti-Affirmative Action, etc etc. A reasonable cross-section of these differing opinions can be read here (scroll down to "More Mail"). At the conclusion of this collection, we have a nameless Pixar employee patting himself on the back for producing "a complex, compelling piece of storytelling."

Well, that sort of self-congratulation naturally grates on a mere mortal like myself, and it prompted me to step back and devote a little more thought to this slight film.

The Incredibles is fabulous entertainment, which needs to be recognized, because the ability to conjure the fictive dream is what finally provokes people to make moral claims on behalf of the film. Charming an audience is serious power, folks. And to quote Peter Parker's late Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

I think what prevents The Incredibles from being a great film, however, are those moments where the viewer is distracted from the story. My friend Scott put his finger on just one such moment, here, when Helen Par/"Elastigirl" tells her children, "Remember the bad guys you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won't exercise restraint because you're children. They will kill you if they get the chance." I remember my own discomfort at this grim pep-talk from the mother - replace "Elastigirl" with the ethnicity of your choice and see where the image takes you. But there it is: it didn't distract my girls (the film's ultimate audience), but it distracted me. And I think it highlights a serious narrative and moral flaw in the film.

The intent of Helen Par's admonition is to up the emotional ante by insisting this is not a Saturday morning cartoon - this is real. And for a good stretch of the movie, that is the delightful conceit of the story: what if superheros with superpowers were real? How would they negotiate life with ordinary folk? Could they even succeed at the enterprise - or is this the mission that finally does them in?

I enjoyed the film's light touch on the subject matter. To my eyes, this was a refreshing change from the heavy-handed comic books devoted to this exact same theme in the 80s. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was probably the most entertaining example of this genre, but a great deal of The Incredibles was lifted right off the pages of Alan Moore's grotty and depressing Watchmen, including Edna Mode's lecture on the perils of cape-wear. But where Moore took a Dickian turn to the left (then left again - and again) to consider the emotional turmoil and understandable psychoses of his god-like characters, Pixar chose to focus on family dynamics.

This is where The Incredibles demonstrates its greatest strength. The Par family provides compelling material, appealing to our own tendency to think our family is surely the most misunderstood in the world, that our kids are, in Garrison Keillor's words, "all above average," and that the world would be a better place if we could exert not just our influence but our complete control over it. When the Pars experience the frustrations of the real world, we laugh, groan, cheer - we're there. And The Incredibles might indeed have amounted to complex story-telling if it had fully fleshed-out this concept.

Unfortunately, The Incredibles abandons the real world shortly after the halfway mark, and performs the cheap moral slight-of-hand we've come to expect from Hollywood. Its answer to the problems it raises is, So long as there are super-villains, the world needs super-heroes. The "normal" problems in the film's first act are immaterial in light of the second act's "super-problems." In effect, Helen Par's speech is the movie's antithesis: The Incredibles is a Saturday morning cartoon - end of story. Making anything more of it is the result of Pixar's half-conceived complications, and the wasted energies of the film's more critical viewers.

What a lost opportunity! Here we are in the real world, with real super-problems that are the result of a great deal of ordinary muddling and malice. We could use a super approach to the ordinary, something we get in the Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo - but not, alas, in The Incredibles. That still amounts to an "incredible" record from a film studio, however, and perhaps the next Pixar offering will amount to something more than a finely-tuned action movie. In the meantime, I believe I'll join Scott's quest for worthwhile adult cinema (Kinsey, perhaps?).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

go fuck your self it twas a good movie