There are very few movies – or, indeed, stories of any sort – which approach perfection. The Incredibles, Pixar's superhero-themed offering, is one of those few.
Make no mistake – most of Pixar's work has been stellar, and even their worst products have managed to be entertaining. This is a track record unmatched by any other studio I can think of. But even within Pixar's oeuvre, The Incredibles stands out.
I remember seeing the original advertisements – teasers – featuring Mr. Incredible getting a call from "the red phone" and trying to get into his now-too-small super-suit. Those were certainly clever and amusing, and contained some hints of what was to come.
But they failed to get across the depth of story that Pixar intended to bring to what – at first glance – appeared to be a simple superhero spoof. Instead, we got a serious story which just happened, from the external viewer's perspective, to contain a number of very funny aspects. But there is little funny in-world in the story; the characters and world itself take themselves perfectly seriously.
In this, it is very similar to Galaxy Quest – the Star Trek parody-cum-salute which succeeded with me where very, very few comedies ever do (and I'll review that one later, too). This is the key to what made The Incredibles work: it built a world for the people to inhabit, and made those people believable within that world (no matter how peculiar that world might be to us).
The Incredibles is certainly a superhero-oriented story in many ways. Yet that is only a part of what it is. One of its strongest aspects is that it is, in truth, a story of a family – of a man trying to find himself when lost in a world that seems to have no place for him, of a woman who also has lost herself in a similar, yet different, manner, and of two children who don't know if the world will ever have a place for them. It's a story of being true to oneself… and true to those who depend on you,and on whom you depend.
In addition, it is also a spoof and salute to the spy movie genre; it is, very much, James Bond meets the Fantastic Four (the Incredibles map well to the Four, with the exception that the Human Torch is replaced by a speedster; the character traits, though, are quite similar). Michael Giacchino deliberately plays on this with his soundscore; it is highly reminiscent more of James Bond themes than it is of superhero-associated music, with some key moment exceptions.
Syndrome himself is unmistakably a nod to the classic Bond adversaries – a madman with immense technological resources, in a secret base with a charming femme fatale as his "face" to the world; all that's missing is him sitting there stroking a white cat. To be fair to the other genre, though, there are certainly a lot of supervillains which share many of these traits, and Syndrome riffs on them too.
But it is the people that carry the story – ranging from the Parr family itself to the repulsively officious Mr. Humph, Syndrome, Mirage, Rick Dicker, Kari the babysitter… and of course the brilliantly self-absorbed Edna Mode. Each of the people, even some of the side characters we encounter, carries the weight of reality with them, somehow, even when – like Edna and Syndrome – they are also symbols and archetypes.
The Incredibles is, perhaps, the single most quotable movie I've ever seen, with almost every character getting at least one and often many bon mots to quote with amusement and sometimes wonder.
Like Speed Racer, though, it is at its heart a family story, about a family that may have some unique problems, but whose strength lies in that family and the support they can give each other. When one of them hides, or tries to hide, some essential action or part of themselves, it leads to disaster; only by trusting each other, by allowing themselves to be themselves at least within the confines of the family, can they be truly strong. Bob Parr states this flat-out near the end of the movie: "I can't lose you again! I'm not strong enough…". Ironically, the situation in which he was saying that was one in which he was, once again, making a mistake – not realizing that his family, superpowered all, would be far stronger fighting together than remaining separate.
It does occasionally occur to me that The Incredibles is not, really, about Mr. Incredible and his family, nor about Syndrome, but really about the fabulous Edna Mode. Her entire world was destroyed when the supers were outlawed. "I used to design for GODS!"
She knows all of the supers through this connection – she knows their powers, their personalities, their preferences and modus operandi. It seems utterly likely that she would keep tabs on her old clients, and nurse a grudge against the world for taking her career from her.
She wants it all back. So it is natural that if she saw an opportunity, she'd take it.
Syndrome then appears. It seems very likely that he went to her for his costume – he would undoubtedly have researched who the "tailor to the supers" was… and would also undoubtedly been enough of a pain to get her to supply him with a suit… with a cape.
Soon she notes that her old clients are disappearing. She, alone, knew the secret identities of all of the heroes; even the government agents probably only knew a few of them each. She is also a super-genius (look at what she has to achieve making the costumes).
So she calmly, cold-bloodedly plans to arrange the return of the era of the Supers. She repairs Bob's costume… but not flawlessly, which she could undoubtedly have done. She ensures there is a tracking device on Bob's suit which sends out a loud, easily detected signal upon cue. She can of course silently track where Bob's been going… and match that with her annoying customer Syndrome. She arranges Elastigirl's visit at the precise time needed to get Bob trapped, and shoves her out the door with instructions to get Bob back, literally slapping her out of a relationship-based breakdown to get her back on track.
The unexpected appearance of Elastigirl (with two super-powered children) adds the needed disruptive element into Syndrome's careful planning. Until now, Syndrome has carefully, methodically arranged the arrival of each super, prepared all countermeasures to deal with them, and so on. For the first time, he is forced to quickly improvise means to neutralize three additional supers for which he has not planned and hasn't had time to study. This allows them to escape shortly after Syndrome launches, and thus follow and defeat him publicly, giving the supers back the public's support.
Edna's goals are achieved, and "all that has transpired here has done so according to my fabulous design, darling."
I rather doubt this, myself, but it's an amusing thought that goes through my mind every time I watch.
If you've never watched The Incredibles, you really should. If you have… maybe you should watch it again.
I think I will.