The following essay is part of an upcoming Riker Scale project. Enjoy!
The distinction of favorite movie is a subjective one. Each person is entitled to their own taste in film, and the variety in film opinions is part of what makes talking about movies so fun.
At the same time, I firmly believe that The Incredibles is both my favorite movie and the greatest movie ever made. It is an objectively fantastic and nuanced movie that transcended the bounds of animation, was a forerunner of the superhero film boom and has embedded itself thoroughly in popular culture. I can’t convince you that The Incredibles is the best movie ever. But I’m dead set on proving it’s, well, incredible.
As is the case for many of my top movies, my enjoyment of The Incredibles at a young age entrenched the so-called kids movie as a top flick as I grew older. The difference is that The Incredibles wasn’t just a movie I liked to watch, but the Holy Grail. I can’t remember the first time I watched the film (my parents didn’t let me watch it at age four when it came out or in the immediate aftermath), but I can still remember back to the first couple times picking out the title in a jewel case from one of the nearby libraries and the unbridled joy I felt navigating the main menu and hitting play. Getting to watch it was a party in its own right – it would rarely stay on the library shelves for long. Everybody talked about it, from Incredibles birthday parties in preschool (before I watched it) to movie quotes from my dad to getting “super suits” for Christmas when I was around five.
The impact of this one movie on me cannot be understated. I have watched it more than any other movie (my estimate is around 20 times) and at least once a year. I watched it for movie nights at church and with cousins, during a rainy day in my football camp in third grade, and for an AP Government project. I even saw it in the theaters as a double feature before Incredibles 2, with everyone in the theater shouting the now-iconic lines. Dash was particularly influential – his exploits were a subconscious force that guided me toward track and I tried, more than once, to run on water at the local swimming pool. I made my own wristbands to emulate the tech-savvy Syndrome and unsuccessfully attempted to turn invisible to hide from my mom. This isn’t everyone’s experience, obviously, but the hype was hardly unfounded.
How could a movie for kids, an animated movie, a superhero flick, how could that be a truly great work of cinema? A particularly meaningful moment from The Incredibles speaks exactly to that point. After surviving a missile attack, Elastigirl alerts Dash and Violet to the danger of the island:
“Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings. 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.”
The Incredibles is not a Saturday morning cartoon (Incredibles 2, on the other hand…). The first Pixar movie to earn a PG rating is alarmingly mature – what other kids movie do you know that has a brutal car crash and suicide attempt in the opening action scene? That has a body count in the dozens? That resolves with the villain getting sucked into a plane engine, then exploding?
It’s not the violence that makes this a compelling movie. It’s the tension that director Brad Bird masterfully builds between the story’s two plot lines, the very real stakes that makes this family of supers feel like the underdogs, the depth of loss that Mr. Incredible feels when he loses his family all for his charade for his glory days, then the ensuing wave of appreciation and love that consumes him in the end. This is not a Saturday morning cartoon plot. This is a plot that offers thrilling entertainment to 6-year-old John while also absorbing 20-year-old John in a web of nuance and emotion.
The Incredibles bypasses the hero origin story, instead establishing its three heroes and the world they protect in the most unorthodox of ways – an old-school interview reel. The Incredibles theme sounds as the logo twirls, then cuts right to the action of Mr. Incredible’s “glory days” as he circles the city protecting citizens from crimes and misfortune. Mayhem is everywhere, but Mr. Incredible (a.k.a. Bobb Parr) clearly loves his line of duty, and when he gets hitched to Elastigirl (a.k.a. Helen Parr) at the end of the sequence, she charmingly quips “we’re supers, what could happen?”
A series of newsreels provides the exposition of the next 15 years as supers are forced into hiding. The scene after the dust clears is Bob Parr’s ultimate dystopia – tedious work at a colorless desk job selling insurance. Most importantly, he can’t help people, and he can’t understand why, resorting instead to late night hero work to satiate his cravings.
Bob’s predicament renders him vulnerable when a covert opportunity for superhero work finds him. Bob can maintain the charade that he’s moving up at his company to satisfy Helen, while finding fulfillment in actually doing something meaningful and flexing his muscles. But eventually his harmless escapades turn out to be the manipulations of his sidekick-turned-archnemesis, Syndrome. Helen, heartbroken that she missed the signs of Bob’s disloyalty, still journeys across the ocean to Nomanisan Island to rescue him. At one point, Bob believes that the incoming plane combusted with Helen and his kids inside, reducing him to a state utter despair.
Ultimately, the four Parrs reconnect, channel their superpowers into a butt-kicking crimefighting team and bust their way off the island to protect their city from Syndrome’s creation, the Omnidroid. The fight gives Bob one last test when he hesitates to let them fight and potentially “lose them again”, but they’re the Incredibles! The quartet defeats the Omnidroid and saves Jack-Jack from Syndrome’s grips. This little kid on a tricycle yells “that was totally awesome!” at the end to punctuate the glorious finish, and to paraphrase Mr. Incredible: me too, kid. Me too.
That synopsis just brushes the surface of my reading of The Incredibles, and it’s one that keeps evolving over time. But let’s get to the overlying reasons why The Incredibles stands out. The story subverts every expectation and hardly resembles the hero’s journey. It’s Bob’s temptation and misplaced heroic instincts that alienate him from the ones he loves, with each scene digging him deeper into that hole until he hits rock bottom. He’s an adult. He’s a superhero. He doesn’t have things figured out. His first half of the movie feels like the 1997 film Titanic. Contrast that against Helen, who shows the ultimate compassion and strength at each step even as she misses obvious clues like silver hairs on Bob’s suit and Mirage’s voice on the phone. The Incredibles keeps its core story focused on the family and feels raw, vulnerable and dire. I didn’t pick up on a lot of this as a kid, and my appreciation has tangibly deepened in recent years.
On a more granular level, Brad Bird proves masterful at storytelling within the bounds of a single scene. A popular ranking method I like is the pyramid, where you organize anything into different tiers: “S” tier, “A” tier, “B” tier, etc. My top movies have a lot of A and B tier scenes, along with maybe one or two iconic and enduring “S” tier scenes that get me every time. There are 31 scenes in The Incredibles, and at least ten are “S” tier. I literally can’t pick a best scene from this movie because there are so many: the “glory days” montage at the beginning (the best start to any movie), the training montage, the Kronos Unveiled scene that intertwines Helen’s revelation with Bob’s hack into Syndrome’s super computer, Edna’s “no capes” scene, the “super-suit bit” with Frozone, pretty much all of the action sequences on Nomanisan Island, and Jack-Jack going literally beast mode. Every aspect of these scenes is compelling and efficient. Nothing goes to waste.
Or look at the characters. Bob and Helen more than hold their weight (and Bob has a good bit when he first gets to Nomanisan Island) as the movie’s leads and trade Sorkinian bouts of rhythmic dialogue, but the memorable supporting cast is just golden. Edna Mode is as bold, dramatic, and iconic as her super suits, Frozone is as cool as ice (he even has a surfboard!), and the kids use their powers in all sorts of jaw-dropping ways. Even more obscure – the kid on the trike and Dash’s teacher Bernie rule their respective scenes. And don’t forget one of the best villains in cinema – this man is so cocky that he struts out to his plane, picks his nose and wags his hand without breaking his stride. Each lends humor and quoteworthy lines to the equation. If The Incredibles was a worse movie, these characters could very well have fallen flat. Bird was just so breathtakingly confident in the idea and his execution, and the result of those risks was that a movie that fired on all cylinders.
The Incredibles also would not have succeeded if not for the 60’s spy visual theme that captured my imagination as a kid and has not let go. Syndrome’s use of technology is a key aspect of the plot, but the setup of Nomanisan Island maximizes it. The teal-tinged displays on Mirage’s plane and the supercomputer feel sleek and futuristic 15 years later, while the lava wall and waterfall railway gloriously realize Syndrome’s hunger for power. Edna Mode’s home isn’t too shabby either – The Incredibles just rationalizes these fantastic inventions as part of the world. The look of The Incredibles is like looking at a pastel-painted sunset for two hours, the work of a color palette that both enhances the story and features tropical island views and evening city skylines. The geometric concept art, which is flashed in the credits and in the main menu, might be the most exciting aspect of it all.
Another point – I don’t think The Incredibles would work nearly as well as a live-action movie. The animation, while dated, was at the forefront of technology in 2004 and holds up extremely well given the action genre demands and the venture into leading human characters for the first time in Pixar history. The animation crew had its share of fun using animation to bring the family’s powers to life, but also captured subtle expressions and gestures that add that extra little bit and create realism within the story.
The same admiration applies for the movie’s sound. Michael Giacchino’s score is the first soundtrack I ever purchased (one of only two) and is the definitive best soundtrack in a Pixar movie. The jazzy score alternates between momentum (“Life’s Incredible”) and tension (“Kronos Unveiled”) and achieves a monumental task – crafting an instantly recognizable theme for a superhero. Eyes, ears, mind, heart – The Incredibles hits me in the feels in every way imaginable.
I’m as close as it gets to being the real-life Buddy Pine, the “number one fan” of The Incredibles: I have a Mr. Incredibles iPhone case, an Incredibles shirt, the soundtrack, the Art of The Incredibles book and, of course, the DVD I used to hoard from the library. If both The Incredibles and Star Wars were dangling off a cliff, I’d probably reach for The Incredibles. These 115 minutes have approached the level of sports team fanaticism. My life is better because of The Incredibles, and its cultural relevance and appreciation across a spectrum of ages makes it even sweeter. In my honest opinion, the only thing limiting The Incredibles from being the next Star Wars is its lack of ambition to be anything more than one fantastic movie – the world-building and fanbase are already there.
Film is at its best when it is immersive, when it takes risks that hit, when you want to crawl into the world, when you feel what the characters feel, when you get lost in the story and want to come back for more. The Incredibles is film at its best.