The idea of superheroes being outlawed is not a new one, and the idea wasn’t original even when it was done in The Incredibles. In the mid-1980s, Alan Moore did it with the seminal comic book Watchmen, which is acclaimed as one of the top 100 novels of all time. So for Brad Bird, the film’s director, and the Pixar team to tackle the subject in an animated film seems like a bad idea.
As always, though, Pixar had something different up their sleeve. In the first pairing of Pixar and Bird, we came away with something incredibly different yet comfortably familiar. Pulling from the premise of Watchmen, the family dynamic of The Fantastic Four, and the emotional resonance of his previous films like The Iron Giant, Bird crafted The Incredibles with unmatched skill.
What is it that makes The Incredibles so different? For me, it’s the idea of family and relationships as the center of a superhero movie. I’ve mentioned Watchmen twice already, but that book and the later film are more about political commentary and mystery. The Incredibles takes the basic premise of outlawed superheroes and looks at how it would affect those heroes’ home lives.
In The Incredibles, we get to know the man behind the mask of Mr. Incredible, and he’s a far more interesting character without the mask. Bob Parr is the real character, not Mr. Incredible. Similarly, Elastigirl is an afterthought to the fabulous Helen Parr. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than when she is off to rescue her husband, but her attitude and focus are on protecting her children more than herself.
Bird manages to show us the humanity of the characters, while simultaneously dropping in amazingly cool pieces of animation and sci fi geek moments. The pod racing towards Syndrome’s lair, the usage of the family’s powers, and the jungle chase scene are all great examples. But never on this journey do we lose sight of a family in danger, both physically and emotionally.
To lose sight of the voice acting in this would be a mistake. Craig T. Nelson portrays the everyman aspect of Bob Parr exceedingly well. Throughout the first part of the film, there’s an undercurrent of despair in his voice. Can you imagine being the strongest man in the world, yet never allowing yourself to cut your strength loose? Imagine that frustration. Nelson captures it in his acting.
Holly Hunter, meanwhile, plays the supremely capable housewife, and does so admirably. There’s a reason the woman is an Academy Award winner. Her portrayal of Elastigirl appropriately shows the contrast between her life after heroics and her husband’s.
Brad Bird is a genius, and not just because of The Incredibles. But close examination of this film shows the way he tackles filmmaking: taking familiar themes and adding a new spin. We saw it with the Cold War tropes in Iron Giant, the cooking metaphors in Ratatouille and it’s very evident here.