An Animated Dissection: Remembering ‘The Incredibles’ 10 years later
To most of the public, the name Brad Bird meant relatively little for many years…but for those who were animation followers, his name meant quite a bit. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Brad served as an animation consultant on The Simpsons for almost 9 years, and some feel that his input made many of the episodes during his tenure, the most memorable. He also had a consulting hand in the animated series, The Critic.
The 1990’s would also function as a new era of animation, when other studios began to try and get in on the moneymaking action that 1994’s The Lion King seemed to promise. Warner Brothers was developing several features, and Brad was brought aboard for their second one. In 1999, Warner Brothers released an animated adaptation of The Iron Giant, based on the Ted Hughes story of the same name. Like every project he works on, Brad and his associates charged head-first into the story, giving us relatable characters, and emotional moments. Sadly, when it came to promoting such features, the WB promotional department did a poor job, and the film lived and died in a matter of weeks in August of 1999.
Luckily, Brad had friends from his days at CalArts (aka The California Institute of the Arts) who also valued the same things he did…and one of them, was John Lasseter. Shortly after Giant, John talked with Brad about possibly coming up to PIXAR to not only shake things up a little, but to bring any of his pet projects to life. It was here, that Brad started relating his idea of a family of superheroes. The concept intrigued Lasseter, as superheroes were something that had never been done in animated features (that realm was slowly coming back in live-action at the time).
Pretty soon, Brad and several of his colleagues who worked on The Iron Giant, relocated to the Bay Area, and began to acclimate themselves with the PIXAR studio, and its staff.
I recall first hearing word of this project as Disney and PIXAR made its production known around 2002. At the time, we had little information on it, but at the start of Finding Nemo, we received our first taste when in a teaser image, Mr Incredible attempted to return to duty…albeit not quite as fit as he used to be. That teaser trailer ranked right up there with the one from Monsters Inc, in that we had some great character interaction with just trying to do a simple thing, which is also a great animation exercise.
Speaking of exercises, Brad really put the animation and rigging staff through the ringer. The characters in this film had muscles underneath their skin, let alone had to adhere to Bird’s caveat that they move believably, even though they were exaggerated. Case-in-point, Bob Parr has a body that tapers down to a small pair of legs, yet you have to believe that they can support his upper-body. Many animators said it was like going back to school all over again, and working on your Masters degree.
Probably not since Toy Story, had PIXAR undertaken such a major production. Brad Bird is always striving to break down barriers, and The Incredibles is a film that barreled through a number of major hurdles that the company was still trying to get down: humans, hair, water, cloth, and even interaction between those 4 things at one time was huge. Just take the scene below. This simple scene of Bob Parr (Craig T Nelson) putting his hand through the rip in his supersuit, was incredibly complex at that time!
And speaking of that rip in the supersuit, Bird did something that really earned my admiration, and that of others: he made us believe that even though these were animated characters, they could be harmed. When Bob is first attacked by the Omnidroid, and it tears his suit (leaving a red scratch on Bob’s skin). I remember my eyes popping open: this was something that no studio seemed willing to do: making you believe the peril was ‘serious.’
The reinforcement of just who the bad guys are in this film, is delivered in a great little speech by Helen:
“Remember the bad guys on those shows 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. Do not give them that chance.”
One of my favorite scenes, is when Syndrome sends off a barrage of missiles to intercept the plane that Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) and her children are on. The gut reaction of John Q Public is that this is a Disney movie, and they’ll get out of it. Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) will make her forcefield materialize, and they’ll be saved. But instead, she fails, and Helen envelopes her children, as the plane bursts into flaming debris, and the three pitch down towards the ocean below! At the time, 3 years after the events of 9/11, Hollywood was apprehensive of showing anything that had to do with explosions and airplanes. And yet, Bird and the guys at PIXAR took a very big chance, giving us something intense that we were not used to seeing in animation.
I still remember my Dad’s first words when the lights came up at a screening we attended in November of 2004: “I really like Edna!”
Edna Mode is an amazing example of giving us a fun character, but not letting that character overpower your story. E definitely has a personality that seems 5 times her normal size, but it’s in keeping her role small, that makes her all the more memorable. Bird has done similar small-yet-big characters like this, with Dean in The Iron Giant, or Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Less can often equal more in cases like this.
One place where the filmmakers do not skimp on, is making all characters seem believable. I can’t think of any characters that ever seem to not seem real or important. Even Bob Parr’s government supervisor Rick Dicker (voiced by Bud Luckey) is memorable for the few minutes of screen time he has. And of course, there’ s something very real amid the comical dialogue of the “Where is my supersuit” moment between Frozone and his (unseen) wife, Honey.
In the making-of documentaries and the audio commentary, the filmmakers touch on something remarkable about the film as well: there doesn’t seem to be a single scene that you would not want to have a shot at animating. Most films have only a few scenes that everyone wishes they could work on, but this is just packed with them! One guy, according to the animator’s commentary, was ecstatic that he was animating a scene of two guys talking inside a car (seriously, you never see that in animated films!).
The film was also notable, for having (at the time) the most locations and wardrobe changes of any film the company had done. Just consider PIXAR’s films from Toy Story up through Finding Nemo. While several of those films had humans, they did not go through multiple wardrobe changes. And in some cases, some characters in those films didn’t wear clothes!
Bird also manages to write his characters like they are real people, such as in the rather grown-up depiction of Bob and Helen’s marriage, let alone how half-way through the film, Helen suspects that Bob might be having an affair. Violet’s timidity feels genuine, as does Bob’s dejectedness at being denied the ability to do the things he wants.
There’s a great joke that I think couples or those who have been in a relationship will get, that most won’t. After she finds Bob on the island, Helen just seems very upset with him, yet Bob doesn’t quite understand why. It seems that all Helen wants, is for him to admit what a stupid thing he did (lying to her, worrying her, putting her and their children in a situation where they could be killed), but like some guys, he’s unable to bring himself to admit it.
It is only after the family has been imprisoned, and are watching Syndrome’s Omnidroid wrecking Metroville, does Bob finally admit his faults, and how stupid he’s been. The funny moment comes when Violet frees herself. Dash sees this, but Helen quickly hushes him.
The reason this is funny? Because Helen is getting what she’s wanted: Bob admitting what he did was wrong, and she knows if anything interrupts him, he might never admit his mistake, ever again!
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how the film brought a new composer to the ears of many: Michael Giacchino. The Incredibles marked the first major film score Michael worked on, and seemed to cement who he is: a lover of the more classic stylings of film scores, not afraid to bring in the brass, or even to give us a tinkling of fast-paced marimbas. This is a man who likes not only to get dark and deep, but light-hearted and fun. As well, those who bought the soundtrack were soon inducted into Giacchino’s ‘habit’ of making puns out of each of his film tracks (like “100 Mile Dash”).
On a more personal note, The Incredibles was screened at a theater I used to work at, a month in advance for a college audience. As a head projectionist, I begged to be the guy in charge of this thing, and got my wish! I recall that evening being a lot of running around, checking sound levels and waiting for the print to arrive (it had a special padlocked code, and I was supervised by an editor from PIXAR, as I assembled it).
While my first experience with the film was from the projection booth, I was rapt to the attention of the audience, and could hear their reactions in a perfect roar through the projection booth glass.
After it was over, and I had broken down the print to be sent off to its next super-secret screening, I got the chance to say hi to Brad Bird and producer John Walker. Almost everyone who was attending had brought Brad things to sign (DVD’s of The Simpsons, The Critic, and someone had an Iron Giant poster!). As for me, I had brought with me the just-released Art of The Incredibles book. I recall Brad being surprised that it had come out already. Though hearing that I was the projectionist in charge of the screening, Brad added an extra little thank-you to his signature, as can be seen here:
Btw, for those who haven’t seen it, the book shows a dramatic departure from a lot of the previous concept art PIXAR had done, with a lot of characters and scene research, relying on collage work.
10 years later, The Incredibles is spoken of with much love for those who are animation fans (it’s my 2nd favorite PIXAR film, right behind Toy Story 2). While Finding Nemo was PIXAR’s big moneymaker at the time, The Incredibles won many of us over with what Brad Bird brought to the table. While many see it as ‘a superhero movie,’ it is moreso the strength of the story and its characters, that makes it rise above and beyond. Those two areas are what Bird strives to do well, and his efforts were greatly rewarded come Awards Season following the film’s release.
I will also admit, I was never keen on the idea that the world needed an Incredibles 2. Many have pestered Bird for over a decade that we “need” one, and while one is being developed from an idea of his (though Brad isn’t in the driver’s seat), I’m one of the minority that feels it is unnecessary. There’s so much incredible (no pun intended) stuff to be found in this film, that it just feels there’s no way to give us a sequel that can improve on it.
As well, I love that Brad has kept pushing forward with each of the films he’s done. He turned Ratatouille into an ode for artists. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol brought a human element of danger that made these characters feel expendable. And like many, I am eager to see what Brad will bring to the table next year, when the Disney-inspired Tomorrowland takes us away.
It’s hard to believe that almost 10 years later, Walt Disney Feature Animation is about to release its own take on superheros, with the Marvel-associated, Big Hero 6. Just like The Incredibles, I am very excited to see what 6 has in store for audiences. Disney‘s Feature Animation division has almost become what PIXAR was 10 years ago: a studio that keeps churning out new stories and innovative ideas, though we’ll have to wait and see if audiences will warm up to the superheroes of San Fransokyo, the way they did to the Parr family some time ago.