Readers Write In #357: On my love for ‘The Incredibles’

Posted on May 2, 2021

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(by Cholan Raje)

I feel like I’m a film buff. I like thinking about films, talking about films, and above all, I frequent this blog– full of men and women at least 20 years older than me, with eloquent English that sounds like the result of them probably reading way more books than I do. Telling my friends I read this blog for fun makes me feel like Francis Ford Coppola– I have no idea who Francis is, but I’ve heard his name come up in discussions, and he sounds like a smart guy who likes movies. Like me, hopefully.

But the embarrassing secret that stops me from calling myself a “film buff” in public is my disdain for art films. I tried to get through The Godfather, but everything after the opening monologue felt like it was stretched to torture me. I finished watching Moonlight, only to feel that the movie was too ambiguous to justify its existence.

I consider the products of Pixar’s glory days (Toy Story to Toy Story 3) to have the status most would assign to art films. Yes, the fact that I grew up with Pixar does make me biased, but even looking at their films now, one can see how they manage to pack in intelligent, open-to-interpretation stories without, unlike art films, wasting time (probably because wasting time would piss off the animators). And I can’t explain this to adults because of course, Pixar films are animated, which means they must be FOR KIDS. The most open-minded adults I know are willing to grant that there’s stuff within them for adults to chew on too, but they still can’t agree that these aren’t mainly for 10-year-olds.

And this stigma is what renders films like The Incredibles unnoticed.

A film’s audience, in my opinion, is determined not by who the film marketed to, but what the film’s messages are. And The Incredibles has two messages, beautifully summarized by the argument scene between its protagonists, Bob and Helen Parr (known by the superhero identities of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, respectively).

the incredibles

After superheroes are outlawed in response to the anti-superhero sentiment of an ungrateful public, Bob and Helen are forced to live as mere civilians, suppressing every desire of theirs’ and their kids to use their powers. Helen, despite faintly missing her superhero days, adjusts. She displays an overall willingness to stop herself and her family from using their powers because she believes that keeping her family unified, and thus hiding from the law, matters above all. 

But Bob can’t get on board with her. “Hiding from the law” requires him to play bystander to people he could’ve saved, and the trauma entailing that recedes his hairline and bestows him with a gut. His voice diminishes from one of confidence to one that comes out in mere mumbles. Bob devotes every slit of free time he gets to saving the few he can. The argument scene begins when he comes home after lying to Helen that he was going out bowling, when he was really saving people from a burning building. Helen discovers the lie, leading to a verbal clash between their ideologies.

At a first glance, Helen appears to be the one in the right. It’s easy to buy the idea that the Parrs should just get over the fact that they can’t use their powers and hide from the law, because going that route is what’s safest for them. When we’re confronted with a trade-off between safety and liberty, most of us tend to maximize safety because we’re short-term thinkers, and compromising liberty for safety doesn’t seem like a big deal in the short term. But it’s only when you think about the movie that you realize Bob has a point too. In the long term, being deprived of the liberty to be yourself may render you too unhappy to appreciate maximized safety. And The Incredibles shows us this. While the Parrs spend the first half of the film together, as per Helen’s wishes, they never appear happy to be together because they lack the liberty to express themselves, i.e., use their powers. Dash always appears mildly depressed because he can’t show off his super speed to his schoolmates. Violet bursts out “We act normal, Mom, I wanna be normal!” Bob constantly zones out from his family (mentally, if not always physically), and Helen herself, despite appearing the most content out of all of them, looks exhausted when her children remind her of the liberty they lack.

So who wins the argument? Bob? Helen? The Incredibles revolves around this seemingly insignificant argument scene to conclude that both of them are right. Bob’s character arc revolves around him realizing that Helen is right when she says he can’t use his desire to save people as an excuse to distance himself from his family– the film makes this arc pretty clear, so I don’t think I need to explain it here.

But Helen’s character arc is far less visible, and it revolves around her realizing that Bob is right when he states that the Parrs can’t deny who they are. After working so long and so hard to pretend her family is “normal,” Helen is forced to tell Violet and Dash to use their powers to survive on Syndrome’s island. She’s forced to use her own powers to find her husband. And it’s only when the Parr family reunites on the island after running on water, turning invisible, breaking through walls and stretching through doors– that Helen sees her family express happiness. She realizes that to live, rather than merely survive, she can’t force her family to be “normal,” and she allows her children and herself to fight crime with Bob by the end of the film.

The film’s reliance on the argument scene is what makes it a film for teenagers and adults. Young children are simply too young to understand what the argument scene’s about. When I watched this film at the age of 7, I thought Helen was yelling at Bob for taking a slice of cake from their kitchen counter– according to YouTube comment sections, most kids who watched the film thought the same. The themes of the argument scene– about sticking with your family and not feeling discouraged to express your talents– are aimed at teenagers and adults. Young children lack the freedom and knowledge of the outside world that could cause them to distance themselves from their family, and they lack the sense of concern that would cause them to hide their talents to please a uniformitarian society. 

People praise The Incredibles for its “cool action scenes,” but these scenes are merely icing on the cake. The cake, i.e., what lifts up the icing and stops the dish from merely being empty, forgettable-by-itself icing, is the themes of the argument scene.

Take the “cool action scene” where Mr. Incredible gets captured by Syndrome. A bunch of objects that look like tapioca balls are shot onto Mr. Incredible until he ends up stuck on the floor, despite his best attempts to escape. The cake lifting up this icing is the fact that Mr. Incredible got captured because Helen wasn’t able to find him, and activated a homing device to decipher his location. In other words, after being off the job for 17 years, Mr. Incredible ended up failing in his duties as a superhero not because his superhero abilities have diminished, but because he’s a lousy family man. Because he’s failed, as Helen has warned him, to keep the family united. By serving as the driver of the action-packed second half and the drama-based first half (which mainly revolves around Bob struggling with civilian life to keep his family united), the argument scene is what defines The Incredibles. Young children are too young to understand the argument scene, and by missing out on it, they make it very clear that the film is not for them.

Despite having a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, this film still feels grossly underrated. When people see Pixar as a “kids studio” and watch Pixar films to “awaken their inner child,” it’s understandable that they feel the need to place this movie behind Up and Finding Nemo when it is the only Pixar film (I haven’t watched Soul, so correct me if I’m wrong) that refuses to awaken anyone’s inner child and instead treats its entire audience like adults.